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Red Wings gear up for opener in new arena

10/03/2017, 8:18pm EDT

Previewing Detroit, rest of NHL as regular season approaches.

Detroit Red Wings play against the Boston Bruins at Little Caesars Arena in the first period of an NHL preseason hockey game on Sept. 23, 2017, in Detroit. ASSOCIATED PRESS

For the first time in almost 40 years, Hockeytown has a new city hall.

The Detroit Red Wings have left Joe Louis Arena for the sparkling new Little Caesars Arena, which opens for regular season play Thursday when Detroit hosts Minnesota. The building has been met with rave reviews on all counts, from how it blends into the city’s architecture to the great sight lines for fans and spacious concourses The Joe lacked.

The new building on Woodward Avenue opens with Detroit coming off a season in which it missed the playoffs for the first time in 25 years, and many NHL experts expect the Wings to struggle again in 2017-18.

A year ago, they were 26th in the 30-team league in goals scored and allowed, and not much changed on the personnel front, with the lone key free agent signing bringing rugged defenseman Trevor Daley to the Motor City. Even that deal was somewhat canceled out by the team’s continued inability to sign restricted free agent forward Andreas Athanasiou (18 goals last year at age 22).

Still, there are reasons to believe for Red Wings fans. Dylan Larkin, just 21, has breakout potential after 40 goals his first two seasons, and has talented young running mates up front in Anthony Mantha (23 years old) and Tyler Bertuzzi (22). There’s a strong veteran presence led by captain Henrik Zetterberg — 68 points last year at age 36 — but the Wings will need the goaltending duo of Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek to be great.

But while it appears much has to go right for the Wings to be contenders, the sport as a whole is in good hands thanks to star power from one coast to another.

Not far from Hockeytown

Columbus will try to make back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in franchise history. The Blue Jackets return much of their core, including MVP finalist Sergei Bobrovsky in net, and are banking on former Chicago winger Artemi Panarin — 30-plus goals each of his first two NHL seasons — to boost their offensive explosiveness.

Go east on the turnpike to find the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. The gang is back with future Hall of Famers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, flanked by young stars like two-time Stanley Cup-winning goaltender Matt Murray, and the Penguins are the oddsmakers’ favorites to make it a three-peat.

Heading west, old Red Wings rival Chicago also is in the mix to contend, but it’s a different Blackhawks team. The steady Brandon Saad returned to the Windy City in the Panarin deal, and the team still has franchise forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Defensive depth could be a question after the trade of 10-year veteran Niklas Hjalmarsson.

If you’re headed a bit north — or at least the nation above ours — the Toronto Maple Leafs boast an impressive assemblage of young talent. Reigning rookie of the year Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander were three of the top four first-year point scorers a season ago, but does former Wings coach Mike Babcock have enough depth on defense to be a contender?

Around the world

Las Vegas has a new favorite, and it has nothing to do with betting lines. The Vegas Golden Knights debut as the NHL’s 31st team, and should be as fun to watch in the stands as on the ice. Outside of Stanley Cup-winning goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, there isn’t much star power, but the novelty of being Sin City’s first full-time pro team could keep the team as popular a ticket as Celine Dion.

Speaking of Vegas, the oddsmakers have Edmonton installed as the team that can best challenge the Penguins out of the West. Coming off an NHL-best 100-point season, league MVP Connor McDavid is just 20 and could keep getting better. His pairing with Leon Draisaitl (77 points) is one of the game’s youngest and best 1-2 punches.

It’s a gut-check year for the team with the league’s best record the past two years, the Washington Capitals. Six-time NHL goal-scoring champ Alex Ovechkin still is yet to advance to a conference final, and the team had to shed salary this offseason, but the Caps gladly would trade regular-season success for that elusive postseason run.

One of the sport’s most bitter rivalries — Boston and Montreal — could be for NHL superiority this year, too. The Bruins’ Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak combined for 155 points last year, while Montreal acquired Jonathan Drouin to give the Habs another dangerous scorer to mix with Alex Galchenyuk and Max Pacioretty.

From there, some of the best teams might reside outside of traditional hockey markets. After an injury-plagued season, 2016 Cup finalist Tampa Bay still boasts NHL Network top-20 players Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, and Steven Stamkos, while Nashville returns most of the crew that won the Western Conference a season ago.

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Tag(s): Pro  Red Wings