LARRY LAGE,AP Hockey Writer
DETROIT (AP) — The Detroit Red Wings started practicing for this lockout-delayed season without numbers or names on their jerseys.
Red Wings general manager Ken Holland heard someone joke that the move was made to make it less obvious there was no No. 5 or Lidstrom out there in a winged-wheel sweater for the first time since the 1990-91 season.
Holland smiled, but didn’t laugh. He isn’t sure what the new era will be like on the ice in Detroit.
The Red Wings will open the season without seven-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom, who helped them make 20 of their last 21 straight appearances in the Stanley Cup playoffs. With Lidstrom’s retirement along with the departures of Brad Stuart and Jiri Hudler, Detroit’s postseason streak might in jeopardy.
“Either we are too old or we have no defense,” Henrik Zetterberg said of the chatter about the team. “The important thing is what we believe in here.”
The Red Wings aren’t cocky about their chances this season going into the opener Saturday night at St. Louis. They, more than anyone, know how valuable Lidstrom was for the team and how good the Western Conference has become.
“The mindset of how we’re going to play will not change that much, but then again, No. 5 is not going to be out there so we don’t really know how it’s going to turn out,” Zetterberg said. “It’s nothing wrong to say that. We just have to be honest about it. We have to take it as a challenge.”
It’s not like Detroit is running on fumes. Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk are two of the world’s best players and the two goaltenders, Jimmy Howard and Jonas Gustavsson, would be welcome on most rosters. Howard said it would be wrong to “write us off so soon.”
The championship window the franchise has had, winning four Stanley Cups since 1997, including one four years ago, seemed to get slammed shut last summer. Lidstrom retired, Stuart made it clear he wouldn’t re-sign, Hudler left as a free agent and the team struck out after making offers to sign Ryan Suter and Zach Parise.
Desperate to stay among the NHL’s best, Detroit offered 42-year-old Lidstrom a chance to play in this 48-game season. Lidstrom turned down the opportunity because he’s happy with his family in Sweden.
Zetterberg is now the captain and coach Mike Babcock is confident the team is in good hands with its new, on-ice leader who learned from Lidstrom and Steve Yzerman. Babcock has said, more than once, that the 32-year-old forward will be very motivated to make sure the team is still good on his watch.
“He’s seen it all,” Babcock said. “He’s like a coach on the ice.”
Zetterberg isn’t making predictions, but he likes Detroit’s chances in the Western Conference and perhaps beyond.
“There’s a few big pieces that have left the team, but most of the core guys are still here and we made some additions to the team,” Zetterberg said.
Detroit tried to make a splash last summer, then settled for a series of moves, none of which created more than a ripple. The Red Wings added gritty forward Jordin Tootoo and brought back veteran forward Mikael Samuelsson to help the team roll four lines.
“I think we’re better up front this year than we were last year,” Holland said.
Detroit also signed Gustavsson to provide goalie depth that should be helpful with NHL teams playing nearly 3 1/2 games each week on average.
In a subtle transaction that may end up being a big one, Detroit signed 26-year-old forward Damien Brunner of Switzerland. Brunner led the Swiss league in scoring last year and played with Zetterberg during the lockout, developing some chemistry that might be on display on the top line with Datsyuk.
“You feel like you get to know each other on the ice,” Brunner said. “You know where the other guy’s going. It was good for us, but obviously here it’s a little different. Defensemen are closer on the smaller ice. I hope I get used to it.”
The Red Wings will have to get used to life without Lidstrom, leaning on 32-year-old Niklas Kronwall — the only player on the blue line older than 29 — to lead the inexperienced back end.
“People on defense are going to get minutes they haven’t had before,” Holland said. “We think they’re up for the challenge, but we won’t really know until we play games.”
Jonathan Ericsson, Ian White, Brendan Smith, Kyle Quincey and Carlo Colaiacovo, who was signed just before the work stoppage started in September, don’t want the defense to be regarded as the team’s weakest link.
“It’s a different look back here, not only with Nick gone, but also with Stuey, two huge pieces for our club,” Kronwall said. “At the same time, it’s a great opportunity for the rest of us to step up.”
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