Youth, speed are boosting Red Wings

DETROIT -- Red Wings coach Mike Babcock balked at the suggestion that this Red Wings team is essentially the same as last season.

In fact, as Babcock went out of his way to point out three times, both before and after the team's 2-1 win against the Boston Bruins in Thursday's season opener, the club's opening-night roster is six players different from last year's.

"It's night and day from what it was," Babcock said. "I think it's a much quicker team, a much more youthful team."

Case in point: Gustav Nyquist. The 25-year-old winger looked anything but green the way he pounced on the puck in front of the net Thursday, burying a deft pass from Darren Helm to notch the game-winning power-play goal in the second period against one of the most talented and physically-imposing teams in the league.

Thanks to a stunning second half, Nyquist led the Red Wings with 28 goals in just 57 games last season. At this time a year ago, he was with the Wings' AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids. Nyquist headlines a class of youngsters that includes forwards Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco, Riley Sheahan, Luke Glendening and training camp surprise Andrej Nestrasil, who made his NHL debut Thursday night.

The talented group of forwards infuses the Red Wings' lineup with the type of speed and skill that has long been the team's calling card -- a natural foil to the black-and-blue, bruising style of opponents like the Bruins. The team has good young talent on the blue line as well, with defensemen such as Danny DeKeyser and Brendan Smith on the ice and top prospects Xavier Ouellet and Alexey Marchenko just a call away in the minors.

The contributions received from such young players were critical to the Red Wings' success last season. Without guys like that chipping in, it's hard to imagine the team would've been able to keep that awe-inspiring 23-year playoff streak alive. Not with stars like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg hampered by injuries and the majority of the lineup felled by ailments of some kind at one point or another.

"Everybody seems to go through it," said Bruins coach Claude Julien, whose top-line center, David Krejci, is sidelined. "But when you have some good young players like the Red Wings have, it's certainly capable of bailing you out in tough situations."

Those tough situations tested players' mettle, and according to veteran defenseman Niklas Kronwall the team will be all the better for it.

"Our young guys got tremendous experience in the playoffs last year. And also what we faced the second half of last season, those were some tough games that we really had to win, and we found a way through it. I think that alone, going through something like that as a unit is going to make our team stronger and better," Kronwall said.

While the experience gained last season may indeed be invaluable, those players must show they can sustain such production and continue to make an impact. That will be the key.

"Now you've done it once. You've gotta do it again," Babcock said of the challenge ahead for the team. "In the record book, there's a lot of guys that have done it once and never done it again. Time is gonna tell."

One game is virtually meaningless in terms of sample size, but the kids nonetheless continued to impress in the first game of the season. Said one NHL scout in attendance Thursday night: "I love [their] talent and speed."

Those skills are no longer an unknown commodity, however. Teams are aware of what they are facing now, whereas last season may have been different. That means tougher matchups, less leeway than they might have enjoyed in the past.

"We know what to expect, obviously. Guys here won't come up as unknown, as they were last year," Nyquist said. "That means teams are going to be more aware of us younger guys out there, but that's only going to make us better, I think, in the end. And force us to take our game to the next level."

Plus, with the abundance of burgeoning young talent throughout the roster, opponents can't afford to simply game plan against a star like Zetterberg or a more unseasoned player like Nyquist. The Wings hope to pose a threat with balance throughout their lineup and weapons on each line.

"We have so many good players in our lineup that you can't just focus on one guy," Tatar told ESPN.com.

That the Red Wings were able to transition so many young players last season, awarding them meaningful minutes and valuable roles, is both a testament to the team's organizational depth and to their philosophical consistency. Babcock's message has filtered down directly to AHL coach Jeff Blashill.

Blashill, a rising star in the coaching ranks who has already garnered interest at the next level (a handful of NHL teams asked to speak to him this summer) spent a year under Babcock in 2011-12, an apprenticeship that has already paid dividends.

"Jeff is a great, great coach, and I think that obviously showed with all the players coming up from Grand Rapids stepping in right away," Nyquist told ESPN.com. "He knows what's demanded up here, what you need to be able to do to play with the Red Wings."

Blashill, who led the Griffins to a Calder Cup Championship in 2013, said he and Babcock even try to use the same language in their coaching approach, to expedite the transition when players are shuttling back and forth. Beyond the vernacular, Blashill tries to enforce the type of habits that will be expected at the pro level -- knowing how to get the puck out on the wall, managing the puck well, taking care of the defensive side of the game.

"Those little habits are just as important to me," Blashill told ESPN.com. "We preach that to those guys every day here."

Blashill takes pride in seeing his players succeed at the next level, and he believes their experience in Grand Rapids should serve them well, even if they see their roles increase as they did last season. Why?

"They've all had opportunity to be go-to guys in the minors. They know what pressure is like," Blashill said. "I thought that helped them adjust as the season goes along [last year]."

Though the team's "blueprint" is still being refined and the personnel remains in flux -- Nestrasil's debut, for example, was impacted by Datsyuk's injury -- the Red Wings are in a prime position to evaluate what they have in the pipeline. The preseason is over. It's time to perform. And now we'll see what they have to offer.

"When we see them playing head-to-head against real teams, with real bullets flying, we're gonna find out more about our guys here," Babcock said. "And then we're gonna put them in the best spot to be successful."