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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.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Meech and Sopel fighting for Wings' job

DETROIT -- Derek Meech and Brent Sopel got on the charter buses that were parked at the loading dock of Joe Louis Arena, Wednesday. Meech in one. Sopel in the other.

Both were on their way to Traverse City with the Detroit Red Wings for the team's training camp, which takes the ice, Friday. Chris Chelios was there. So were Dominik Hasek and Kris Draper. Pavel Datsyuk mugged for the photographers. Kirk Maltby was punctual as ever, the first veteran to show up.

Meech and Sopel are, however, two players who might have the most riding on this bus ride north. Both are fighting for a roster spot with the Red Wings. Both know that there's limited room on a team that usually carries seven defensemen and has six NHL veterans already on the roster.

"That's what we have here, a good internal competition," said Detroit coach Mike Babcock. "I'm going to stand there and watch nine exhibition games and I'm going to see what all shakes out. I go to rookie camp and people ask me, 'What do you think?' I don't. I keep watching and keep watching. They solve all the problems. … We'll find out whether you're mentally tough enough and talented enough to be a Red Wing. Competition is a great thing."

Meech and Sopel are competing within the framework of a team that already has Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Niklas Kronwall, Andreas Lilja, Chris Chelios and Brett Lebda under contract as defensemen.

Meech, 23, came to the Red Wings as a seventh-round draft choice in 2002. In three professional seasons, he has played 224 games for Grand Rapids and four for the Red Wings. A star in juniors, Meech captained his Red Deer team, partnering on the blue line with Dion Phaneuf. The pair also formed Canada's top defense tandem at the 2004 World Junior Championships.

Meech signed his second three-year contract with Detroit in August ($483,333 average salary).

Meech's position this fall is intriguing because he's the only one of Detroit's top defense prospects -- Jakub Kindl, Jonathan Ericsson and Kyle Quincey are the others -- who is out of options. If the Red Wings don't keep Meech on their roster, they'll have to expose him to other NHL teams, who can claim him on waivers.

"Signing a new contract was huge for me," said Meech. "Coming into camp this year, it's all business. A chance to make the top seven and see what happens that way. As long as I come into camp and play the way I can and do the things I know how to do, things will work out."

Last fall, the Red Wings had three highly regarded prospects who were out of options -- Jiri Hudler, Tomas Kopecky and Joey MacDonald. They kept all three on the NHL roster despite the fact that keeping MacDonald meant burning a roster spot on a third goalie.

Meech is well positioned and comes into camp on a professional high. Last winter, he was named an American Hockey League all-star. Meech was labeled the Griffins' "best, most consistent defenseman" by Grand Rapids general manager Bob McNamara.

Sopel, who was also a late draft pick (sixth round in 1995) is the career opposite to Meech.

Seven years older than Meech, Sopel has played in 434 NHL games with three organizations and in just 182 AHL games. Unlike Meech, however, Sopel is attending this training camp without a contract. He's trying to earn one.

After splitting last season between Vancouver and Los Angeles, Sopel became a free agent when his contract expired this summer -- a contract that paid him $2.4 million in each of the past two seasons.

But good offers didn't come for the unrestricted free agent. Sopel is now in the position of having to fight for a roster spot just three seasons after finishing 14th in scoring among NHL defensemen and being wooed by the Islanders with $4.8 million.

"I think he has the chance to be a real good fit for us," said Babcock. "He can shoot the puck. He can skate with the puck. He's had some of the erratic play. … We think he has the potential to be a top-four defenseman. Now just because we think it doesn't mean it's going to happen."

Babcock has more than a good scouting report on Sopel. Both are from Western Canada and Babcock first met Sopel when the defenseman was a youth hockey player. Babcock's assistant coach, Todd McLellan, was Sopel's junior coach in Swift Current.

Sopel could make the Red Wings as one of seven NHL-tested defensemen. Or he could force Detroit's hand into trading or cutting one of its top six defensemen.

"There's an opportunity here and I'm going to go out there and prove to the organization to make a spot for me," said Sopel. "Once camp starts, I just have to play the way I can and make them make a tough decision."


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