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Up-to-the minute updates and insights from the Red Wings locker room at home and on the road. By Chuck Pleiness of The Macomb Daily.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Fight for roster spots is on

TRAVERSE CITY -- Fighting isn't just good for hockey. It's essential.

So long as the fighting is over a roster spot or ice time.

"There are 23 (roster spots) up for grabs just like very year," said Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock. "Competition is a great thing. The guys who aren't competing for a spot are still competing for ice time. That's what we have here, a good internal competition."

Competition also makes an NHL training camp worth watching.

The Detroit Red Wings have 12 forwards, six defensemen and two goalies signed each with NHL experience. That's the exact number of players that will dress for any given regular-season game.

But the team will carry seven defensemen and 13 or 14 forwards on its roster, meaning that there are two or three jobs being fought over this weekend.

The fight at forward is simpler, but still intriguing.

Aaron Downey can fight. And that means that Mike Babcock likes Aaron Downey.

The Red Wings started last season with Brad Norton on the roster. Babcock even got Norton in the lineup for six games despite the fact that Norton's skills as a player were weak and as a fighter were below average. Downey is a better hockey player.

Babcock has been bringing an edge to the Red Wings, wanting to make his team more difficult to play against. That means better defense, tighter checking and more hitting. It's also difficult to play against a team with an enforcer.

Last season, the Red Wings were last in the NHL with 10 regular-season fighting majors. Four of those were Norton's. The season before, the Red Wings were last in the NHL with six fights.

Bringing in a fighter -- and one like Downey, who probably won't cost much more than $500,000 -- wouldn't make the Red Wings a tough team, but it would push them slightly towards mediocre on the toughness scale.

Downey's play in camp has been adequate. On Saturday, he was irritable (challenging Tomas Kopecky after one whistle and Brad Ference after another) and that's what the Red Wings want.

Downey's roster competition comes from his training camp linemate, Russian Igor Grigorenko, who won't fight, but is supposed to be able to put the puck in the net. The problem is Grigorenko hasn't shown offensive flash in training camp. He came in out of shape and he has been outplayed by Evan McGrath, who had a hard time getting playing time in Grand Rapids last season.

If the decision had to be made now, Grigorenko's chances of staying with the team are slight.

The best thing that Grigorenko has going for him at the moment is that the Red Wings will lose him if they send him to Grand Rapids for more than three weeks. An out clause in his contract allows Grigorenko to return to Russia … in fact, he told a Russian newspaper before he left that he would return if he didn't make the Detroit roster. He and his agent are already talking about how Igor will shine … if given good linemates. That's not a good sign.

The Red Wings would prefer to send Grigorenko to the American Hockey League to get more acclimated to North America and hockey on this side of the Atlantic. But the team might opt to keep him with the Red Wings to protect its investment. Let Grigorenko learn in Detroit and see if he develops there.

The Red Wings kept Kopecky, Jiri Hudler and Joey MacDonald last season for fear of losing them through waivers if sent down to the AHL. MacDonald stayed on the roster despite being a third goalie, showing that the Red Wings like to protect their investments.

At defense, Brent Sopel is being given every chance to succeed, being paired with Nicklas Lidstrom in scrimmages. Sopel, who last year earned $2.4 million, is the biggest name trying out for the Red Wings this fall. Add to the mix that Babcock is familiar with Sopel for their days in Western Canada.

Derek Meech is in the same position as Kopecky, Hudler and MacDonald were last fall. If Meech is optioned to Grand Rapids -- where he was an AHL all-star last season -- another NHL team can claim him.

Meech has also started camp well. His pairing with Chris Chelios is a sign that the Red Wings want to give Meech a chance to show what he can do, putting the ultimate veteran with the youngster.

If you're looking for a guess, I'd say that Downey and Sopel will be Red Wings. Right now, Meech looks closer to supplanting Sopel than Grigorenko does with Downey.

But that's the beauty of training camp. The players will keep fighting. Those who have the upper hand now, might not in two weeks.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey Bruce....I was wondering how Brett Westgarth and Nick Tuzzolino have faired during camp so far. Thanks.

September 15, 2007 at 8:49 PM 

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