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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.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sopel playing young man's game

TRAVERSE CITY -- Brent Sopel feels like an 18-year-old again. And that's not a good thing.

Sopel is participating in the Detroit Red Wings' training camp this week as a free-agent tryout. For the eight-year NHL veteran, that means little more than food and lodging in Traverse City is guaranteed.

And that's a situation that Sopel, 30, hasn't been in since he was a young hockey player.

"I feel like I'm 18 again, going back," said Sopel. "It's not the situation that I wanted, but that's the hand I've been dealt and I just have to make the best of it."

The hand that Sopel was dealt the past two years was a luxurious one. After making a name for himself as a defenseman with a big shot, Sopel earned a contract that paid him $2.4 million per season over the past two years.

That contract made him the 57th highest paid defenseman in the NHL last season. That might not sound impressive, but Sopel was in the top third of the pay scale for NHL top-six defensemen.

In the past six seasons, Sopel has earned more than $7 million in salary.

That, however, didn't earn him a thing contract wise this past off-season. Sopel waited as an unrestricted free agent and waited. No deal came that was to his liking.

So less than one week before the start of the Red Wings' training camp, Sopel accepted an invitation from general manager Ken Holland to try out for Detroit as a free agent.

"Obviously, there's a little more pressure," said Sopel. "When you've got a contract, you're setting yourself up a little bit. It's in the back of your mind, 'Alright, I have to go out there and play well. I have to try to not make any mistakes.' It's weighing on your mind a little bit more than when you have a contract. But like I said, that's the hand that's been dealt to me now. I have to take it and roll."

Sopel has been paired in camp with Nicklas Lidstrom, which makes any defenseman's job easier. It's a good sign that the Red Wings' management wants to give Sopel the best possible opportunity to prove himself.

In two scrimmage games, Sopel had one point (a goal) on just one shot on goal. He was an even plus-minus while his defense partner Lidstrom was a plus-2 with three points.

In Sunday's scrimmage, Sopel had a defensive-zone giveaway to Henrik Zetterberg that was snuffed out when Lidstrom covered.

"Obviously, he has offensive ability," said Detroit coach Mike Babcock of Sopel. "What we need to see from him is a safe, steady guy who makes good decisions with the puck and chips in offensively when he gets an opportunity. We're an offensive team in a lot of ways, but we don't take risks."

Babcock is quite familiar with Sopel. He was coaching juniors in the Western Hockey League when Sopel was a young player in that circuit. Sopel's coach for three of his junior seasons was current Red Wing assistant coach Todd McLellan.

Familiarity helps, but roster numbers don't. Detroit has six NHL defensemen under contract and will carry seven this season. Add to the mix that prospect Derek Meech is out of options and could be lost to another NHL team if the Red Wings don't keep him in the NHL and Sopel's play is going to have to force to team to make a tough decision.

Either Sopel could beat out Meech for a roster spot or the Red Wings could opt to trade one of their six defensemen to make room.

"I'm sure it's tough on him," said Lidstrom. "You don't have a contract, you're here to try out, hopefully make the team. It's got to be a tough situation. Every time we're skating, he has to prove himself try to be creative or play tough or do what he's good at."


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