Red Wings hope to do more than just make playoffs

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DETROIT (AP) — The last two seasons have been full of drama for the Detroit Red Wings — just not in the way the franchise is accustomed to.

Coach Mike Babcock's team has had to scramble to extend its streak to 23 consecutive postseason appearances, and although that's certainly a remarkable accomplishment, the Red Wings were hardly considered major contenders for the Stanley Cup. They haven't reached the conference finals since 2009, a year after the team won its most recent championship.

Detroit lost a franchise-record 421 games to injury last season, so in a sense it was encouraging that the Red Wings were still able to make playoffs. Younger players like Gustav Nyquist showed promise — but a five-game loss to Boston in the first round of the postseason suggested there was a wide gap between Detroit and the elite teams.

"We have a good team and we proved we can do good things last year. We weren't 100 percent healthy," center Darren Helm said. "This year, we're hoping to stay healthy and we've got guys that can hopefully gel together."

The Red Wings were unable to add any bona fide stars to their roster this offseason, so they'll hope the experience the younger players gained last season will pay dividends. They're also counting on better health, especially for some of their aging standouts. Henrik Zetterberg missed two months recovering from back surgery in 2013-14, and Pavel Datsyuk was bothered by an ailing left knee.

Daniel Alfredsson, who tied for the team lead with 49 points last season, was nursing a sore back all offseason, and the 41-year-old winger's future remains in doubt.

Detroit hopes the team-wide health problems last season at least left the Red Wings with more experienced depth.

"If you just look at the kids that came up last year and what they did," Zetterberg said. "They basically carried us in the playoffs. Now when everyone is healthy here and we have those guys, it is exciting to see what we will do. We'll be a fast team this year with a really good mix of old guys and young kids."

Here are some things to watch in Detroit this season:

BABCOCK'S FUTURE: General manager Ken Holland signed a new deal in the offseason through the 2017-18 season. Now the focus turns to Babcock, who has one year remaining on his contract.

There's no doubting Babcock's status among the game's top coaches, and keeping him could be crucial for what has been one of the league's most stable franchises.

UP AND COMING: Nyquist led the Red Wings with 28 goals despite playing only 57 games last season, and 23-year-old Tomas Tatar was second with 19.

Youngsters Danny DeKeyser, Brendan Smith and Brian Lashoff became a big part of Detroit's rotation of defensemen.

"Our younger guys took huge steps last year," said defenseman Niklas Kronwall, who matched Alfredsson with 49 points. "DK, Smitty, Lash — these guys played in some big games and got a taste of the playoffs."

FRANZEN'S PRODUCTION: Johan Franzen scored 29 goals in 2011-12 — but he has only 30 over the last two seasons combined and has had to deal with concussion problems.

"I want to be a factor up front," Franzen said. "We want to spread it out, but still I'm one of the guys that should be scoring."

IN GOAL: Goalie Jimmy Howard posted a 2.66 goals-against average last season, the second-worst of his career over a full season. His save percentage also dipped from .923 in 2012-13 to .910.

UPGRADES?: Despite the franchise's rich history and commitment to winning, Detroit has had a hard time luring top free agents over the last few offseasons. One player the Red Wings did sign in 2013, Stephen Weiss, is hoping to rebound after having sports hernia surgery last season and playing only 26 games.

"It's great to see the guy's healthy," Zetterberg said. "Just be out here and really have an honest chance to show what he can do. He's a great player. We all know that. He went through a tough year last year, but he looks good out there and he's going to be good for us this year."

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