The 2016-17 Detroit Red Wings season kicks off in Florida on Thursday night as the Red Wings take on the Tampa Bay Lightning. It’s a rematch of the first round matchup in the Stanley Cup Playoffs where the Lightning eliminated the Red Wings in five games.
Last season, Detroit just made the playoffs, barely clinching the third spot in the Atlantic Division, finishing 41-31-11 for 93 points.
Tied with the Boston Bruins, a tiebreaker is the main reason the Red Wings were able to keep the playoff streak alive, now at 25 straight seasons.
There are many storylines fans can focus on as the 2016-17 hockey season commences.
New to the team
The biggest addition to Detroit during the offseason was the signing of center Frans Nielsen from the New York Islanders. The free agent center signed a 6-year contract worth about $5.25 million per season.
Nielsen, 32, is a two-way center who has averaged about 20 goals during the previous three seasons with the Islanders.
Last season, he had 20 goals and 32 assists for a total of 52 points. That would have made him the leading point scorer on the Red Wings last year.
Detroit also added center Steve Ott, signing the veteran free agent to a one-year deal. Ott, 34, only played in 21 games last season due to a hamstring injury.
The Red Wings added another veteran forward during free agency. Thomas Vanek, 32, spent the previous three seasons as a left-winger with the Minnesota Wild. Last season, he scored 18 goals and added 23 assists in 74 games with the Wild.
Vanek had been recovering from broken and displaced ribs, but did not require offseason surgery.
Andreas Athanasiou is also starting the season with Detroit. The 22-year-old center appeared in 37 games last year after starting the season with the AHL Grand Rapids Griffins.
Players no longer with the team
For the first time since 2001, the Detroit Red Wings will start the season without Pavel Datsyuk.
On June 18, the 37-year-old center announced his retirement from the NHL to return home to play in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia.
Datsyuk appeared in 66 games for the Red Wings last season, scoring 13 goals with 33 assists. That was best for second on the team in points and assists and fifth on the team in goals.
Detroit also lost defenseman Kyle Quincey during free agency and center Brad Richards retired after one season with the Red Wings.
Quincey spent five seasons with Detroit after being traded from Colorado in the 2011-2012 season. He scored four goals with seven assists last season. Richards had 10 goals and 18 assists in 68 games.
Goaltending is expected to be a strong suit for the Red Wings again this season. Both Petr Mrazek and Jimmy Howard will play important roles with the team.
Howard started last season as goaltender, but Mrazek took over midway through the season. Near the end of the season, the team went back to Howard as Mrazek struggled down the stretch.
When the playoffs began, the team went with the veteran in Howard, but switched to Mrazek for games 3-5.
Howard had a .906 save percentage with two shutouts last year while Mrazek had a .920 save percentage with nine shutouts.
Biggest question marks
Detroit will need to put more pucks in the net this season if they want to improve. Last year, the Red Wings were ranked 23rd in goals scored with 209. That was good for sixth in the Atlantic Division, ahead of only the Buffalo Sabres and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Injuries are also a problem as the season begins for the Red Wings. Defenseman Niklas Kronwall will start the season on injured reserve because of a knee injury.
Though captain Henrik Zetterberg is expected to start the season, he did miss the World Cup of Hockey due to a knee injury.
With Kronwall’s injury, players like Jonathan Ericsson and Danny DeKeyser will have to step up. It will also give players like Brendan Smith, Xavier Ouellet, Alexey Marchenko and Ryan Sproul a chance to show what they can do.
Players to watch
Topping the list of players to watch this season is forward Dylan Larkin. The now 20-year-old was off to a hot start last season before cooling off down the stretch.
He finished with 23 goals and 22 assists in 80 games, among the best for rookies in the NHL.
Athanasiou is also a player to watch. His combination of speed and skill helped him score 21 goals and 24 assists for the Griffins last season. He was one of the final players to make the roster, just beating out Anthony Mantha for a spot.
The team will also need a big year from players like Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar. Both players scored nearly 30 goals in 2014-15, but fell off last season scoring 17 and 21 goals respectively.
Important games on the schedule
The team will play 28 games against their Atlantic Division opponents this season, and all are important considering how tight the division was last season.
Detroit will also take on the Stanley Cup Champions Pittsburgh Penguins three times, twice at home.
The rivalry against the Chicago Blackhawks continues on Jan. 10 as the Red Wings head to Chicago for the first of two games. The two teams will face off again two months later at Joe Louis Arena on March 10.
Finally, the Centennial Classic will take place on Jan. 1, outdoors at BMO Field in Toronto between the Maple Leafs and Red Wings.
Farewell Season at the Joe
This season is also the final season at Joe Louis Arena before the team moves to Little Caesars Arena next year.
To celebrate, the Red Wings are holding what they're calling the Farewell Season at the Joe. That includes special commemorative patches on the jerseys and a season-long celebration.
That includes celebrations honoring the championships, alumni celebrations, special performances, one-of-a-kind giveaways and more.