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Red Wings will look for spark from young core of defensemen

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 28: David Broll #46 of the Toronto Maple Leafs chases Ryan Sproul #48 of the Detroit Red Wings during NHL Preseason action at the Air Canada Centre September 28, 2013 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 28: David Broll #46 of the Toronto Maple Leafs chases Ryan Sproul #48 of the Detroit Red Wings during NHL Preseason action at the Air Canada Centre September 28, 2013 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada (Getty Images)

DETROIT – It's official: Hockey is back.

The Detroit Red Wings began training camp up in Traverse City on Friday morning with their sights set on bouncing back from a very average season. But this year, things are different for the Winged Wheel. They are without veteran superstar Pavel Datsyuk and long-time mainstay defender Niklas Kronwall, who is sidelined with a knee injury. Not to mention the team also has Alexey Marchenko, Thomas Vanek, Tomas Tatar, and Frans Nielsen all competing in the World Cup of Hockey semifinals starting Saturday.

Read: Four Red Wings players to watch in the World Cup of Hockey

Wings can't lean on Kronwall anymore

Of all names that seem to be most troubling from the list of missing at training camp, Kronwall might be at the very top. The Red Wings have leaned on the veteran rearguard ever since Nicklas Lidstrom announced his retirement in 2012. Since then, Kronwall's production has steadily declined, and it is all but certain the team cannot afford to put itself on his back.

As of now, Kronwall's status for the start of the regular season remains to be seen, so it's clear that it is time for the Red Wings to utilize a heavily-stocked group of young defensemen. Names like Ryan Sproul (fresh off of a two-year contract extension), Xavier Ouellet, and Nick Jensen are all in the mix as they are waiver-eligible from here on out.

Ryan Sproul could step up

Among these players, Sproul stands out the most. The 6-foot-4, 207-pound Mississauga native has spent the past three seasons with the Grand Rapids Griffins where he put up 91 points in 215 games. While his numbers aren't exactly staggering, Sproul still has immense upside for a 25-year-old player who has only seen one game in the NHL. This offensive-minded blue-liner provides quick passes, offensive creativity, physicality, a big frame, and not to mention an absolute howitzer of a shot. If Kronwall is to miss the start of the season, the Red Wings should give Sproul a look as a sheltered defenseman with some power-play minutes. If he flourishes, then he can be moved into a more prominent role as an offensive specialist for the Red Wings defense.

DeKeyser, Smith are key

Danny DeKeyser and Brendan Smith are two other players that the Red Wings will need exceptional play from going forward. After DeKeyser signed a six-year extension this offseason, it's clear the Red Wings expect him to be the "heart and soul" of the defense.

Meanwhile, Smith always has been a player who has offensive creativity, and extraordinary underlying numbers, but his offensive production has never surged.

As the Atlantic Division slowly becomes more competitive, and this aging group of veterans is beginning to require limited on-ice roles, the Red Wings are in dire need for their youth to take the wheel and drive them towards success.