Ted Kulfan’s Red Wings preview: New-look, stacked Central Division does rebuilding team no favors

Detroit News

Ted Kulfan
| The Detroit News

Detroit — The Red Wings are back in the Central Division.

For one year, anyway, as the NHL gets through this crazy, rollicking, 56-game regular season impacted by the ongoing pandemic.

When the NHL and the players’ association agreed to a format upon returning, they devised four realigned divisions to limit travel.

For the Red Wings, that meant being placed in the Central — where the Red Wings used to be housed — with Chicago, Nashville, Columbus (three teams the Wings knew from the old Central) and Dallas, Carolina (against whom the Wings open season Thursday), Tampa Bay and Florida.

The Wings are familiar with Tampa and Florida from the Atlantic Division, where the Wings were pre-pandemic.

But in this newly contrived 2020-21 version of the division and schedule, the Wings will only play teams in this division — eight times each.

And they’ll see baseball-style, two-game series to limit travel.

No doubt, this will be different, with a bit of animosity thrown into the mix.

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“It’s going to be physical games, you’re playing teams eight games this season (in the new schedule format), you can’t be on your heels, you have to put pressure on them,” forward Anthony Mantha said. “That’s the mentality I have to go with.

“It’s hard to tell at this point. We’re playing so many games in such a tight schedule, maybe the physicality will wear off a little bit.

“But there will be new rivalries created over this season, for sure.”

The two-game series format is definitely something that is intriguing.

The format is popular in college hockey, and can certainly increase emotions.

Defenseman Troy Stecher, who played collegiately at North Dakota, feels the Wings can take advantage of the back-to-back series.

“Every weekend in college, you played a team on Friday and Saturday at your home venue or their home venue,” Stecher said. “We can kind of bring that style into our locker room, where if you lose one game, it’s not the end of the world.

“You just got to find a way to rebound the next game.

“You never want to get swept in a series.”

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Coach Jeff Blashill also referred to his days in college hockey and the American League (the NHL minor-league affiliate) when examining this current schedule.

In the AHL, it was common in recent years to play opponents as many as 10 times per season. In that scenario, scouting teams becomes secondary.

“It becomes a little less about pure pre-scouts and more about adjustments,” said Blashill, the former coach at Western Michigan. “That will be similar to the playoffs, similar to the American League and honestly, really similar to college. It’s been awhile since I coached college but that’s exactly what it is, you go at each other back to back, you’re trying to make adjustments for that second game. It’ll definitely be different, maybe a little bit more of a chess game.”

This Central Division hardly looks like a breather, in any way, for the Wings — or, likewise, the rebuilding Chicago Blackhawks.

The top four teams from each of four divisions qualify for the playoffs; there will be no wild cards.

The race to make the playoffs in the Central will not be easy.

You have the two Stanley Cup finalists from last season — the champion Tampa Bay Lightning, and runner-up Dallas Stars — both in the same division. Both, also, have retained the majority of their rosters.

Columbus and Carolina both won one round in the Return To Play last summer, and appear capable of reaching the playoffs this season.

Nashville and Florida qualified for the Return To Play, lost in the qualifying round, but both have rosters capable of producing winning seasons.

If the Red Wings are to reverse last season’s misery, they’ll have a difficult time doing so.

“Our division is stacked,” Mantha said. “It’ll be a great challenge for us. If we want to prove people wrong, those are the teams we have to beat.”

Getting off to a quick start, avoiding long losing streaks, and maintaining some consistency will be important.

Especially playing in such a competitive division, the Wings will not want to fall into a situation where they’ll need to work their way up the standings.

“It’s tough to dig yourself out of it,” forward Robby Fabbri said of the slow start this season. “Coming out fast, and taking advantage of the rest that we had and the preparation time that we had, to be prepared for game one against Carolina (Thursday), is where it’s going to start.

“It’s going to be huge for us to come out strong and fast.”


Twitter: @tkulfan

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