The Detroit Red Wings have been a playoff team for the last 21 seasons, in that time making six Finals appearances and winning four Stanley Cups. One of the most dominant teams in professional sports for the last two decades, the Wings successfully managed to stay on top even through the NHL’s implementation of a salary cap system following a lockout in 2004-05. Yet now, as the 2012-13 season approaches, many pundits are wondering if this is the end of a dynasty’s reign.
“…the Red Wings could be headed for their biggest drop since they joined the NHL’s elite two decades ago.” – John Kreiser, NHL.com
“The current team, at least on paper, is good enough to keep the streak intact, but there is no denying that for the first time in a long time the Red Wings are vulnerable. […]Minnesota got better. Dallas got better. Anaheim could be a threat again. Calgary and Colorado both believe they have improved. There will be plenty of competition for Detroit in the Western Conference.” – Dan Rosen, NHL.com
“The day of reckoning is finally here. Death’s door is at most a season away. […] The Wings are in for a continued slow decline and painful climb back into relevance. ” – Busted Twigg, Mile High Hockey
The reason for all the negativity? It begins and ends with defense.
The Wings have lost three top-four defenseman in the last two years (Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski to retirement, and Brad Stuart for family reasons), and those subtractions have largely gone unaddressed, but that’s not for a lack of trying.
The team carried almost $20 million in cap space into free agency this summer with every intention of spending a significant portion of it on a viable top-pairing defender, but their 13 year $90 million offer wasn’t enough for Ryan Suter, and one by one they watched as the rest of their free agent targets were scooped up by opponents.
With no high-caliber defenders left on the open market, the Red Wings have begun exploring their trade options. The Wings have been in contact with both the Calgary Flames and Phoenix Coyotes, in pursuit of Jay Bouwmeester and Keith Yandle, respectively. However, the purported cost for either player is likely too high to even be a reasonable consideration.
“A report out of Calgary last week had the Red Wings offering Valtteri Filppula, Jonathan Ericsson and a prospect to the Flames for Jay Bouwmeester. […]It would cost the Red Wings considerably to acquire him. But Yandle, who turns 26 next month, is far more worthy of it than Bouwmeester.” – Gregg Krupa, The Detroit News
Detroit appears unwilling to part with Filppula, who posted career bests in goals (23), assists (43), and points (66) last season, and trading away a defenseman is out of the question at this juncture.
That leaves the Wings with what they’ve got, and the little that’s still available on the free agent market. Guys like Carlo Colaiacovo and Pavel Kubina could provide the team with something, but they aren’t landscape altering acquisitions either.
For better or worse, the 2012-13 Red Wings defensive group will largely look the same as it does right now (save perhaps the addition of one veteran body) until at least the trade deadline: Lacking.
Not everyone is doom and gloom about the team’s outlook though. Fox Sports Detroit Color Commentator and Red Wings Alum Mickey Redmond told the Escanaba Daily News that he sees things in a much more positive light:
“It does amaze me that (some Detroiters) think that we’re going to be no good at all without (Lidstrom). It’s kind of funny, kind of interesting, because we still have some pretty good hockey players in Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Helm, Kronwall, and so on. It’ll be a real adjustment and transition year, but I think we’ll be fine.”
While Coach Mike Babcock is “scared to death,” he indicated to NHL.com that he’s in the same boat with Redmond.
“Nick Lidstrom is like a security blanket — he just makes you feel good. When he leaves, like when Stevie (Yzerman) left, it makes you uneasy. But what’s the matter with change? Embrace it. Get the old adrenaline pumping and let’s go. We can’t replace him. We’re not trying to replace him — his quiet confidence and his ability to coach the coach, to run the team with no ego. But Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Kronwall, they’re not slouches. They were watching Stevie, and now they got a chance to watch Nick. It’s important when you get your turn you embrace it.”
But leadership and star power alone won’t make up for Detroit’s gaping defensive holes. The defenders the team does have will need to step up their game, big time. In the words of Assistant GM Jim Nill, “It’s their chance now.”
That places an untold amount of pressure on a defensive group that’s relatively inexperienced, and has a history of inconsistency.
Niklas Kronwall becomes the team’s #1 defenseman for the first time in his career. With that role comes more minutes, more responsibility, and more scrutiny. He’s used to playing against opponents top lines, but now he’ll be forced to do it with a new partner, a partner who won’t be nearly as defensively reliable as Brad Stuart was. That time also won’t be split with another pairing that includes Lidstrom; He and his new linemate will have to handle all the top duties on their own. Kronwall has the biggest shoes to fill, attempting to perform in place of an irreplaceable legend. His leadership role with the team has also increased within the last year. He’ll have to step up and lead by example, performing better than he ever has before.
If Kronwall is the player most effected by Lidstrom’s departure, Ian White is a close second. White drew the lucky straw and Lidstrom as a partner last season. The pairing helped White set a career high in points (32), and he spent time atop the league in +/- as well. The Wings will need the same kind of performance from him this season, but it’s unclear if he’s capable of providing it. Detroit became the 4th team he’d been a part of in two years when he signed during last offseason, after being traded twice in 2010-11. At 28 years old the Red Wing philosophy would suggest that he’s just entering the best years of his career, and they’re counting on being right. White will have the burden of proving his stats weren’t astronomically inflated by Lidstrom’s presence, and he’ll have to do it while taking on a greater defensive role than he had last year as well.
Helene St. James believes that the person tasked with helping White could be Jonathan Ericsson. Ericsson finally began to come into his own last season, proving a vital component to the team’s penalty killing, and as Mike Babcock told NHL.com, they’ll need more of the same from him this season.
“Last year, when our penalty killing turned the corner, we felt it was because of Big E on the back end. That’s going to be a huge part. We don’t need Big E to be a star offensively; we need him to move the puck and be the huge man he is. I think he has a chance to be a real nice player for us, and we need growth out of him. We really like him, and we think he’s at the time in his career where he’s confident in himself. I think he’s really ready that way. I think he thinks he is ready. And, let’s be honest, we need him to be.”
He’ll attempt to prove to Wings fans, who have been critical of his contract in the past, that he was worth the investment. He’ll need to turn into a top-4 defender this season, no ifs, ands, or buts.
While Ericsson will attempt to prove his top-4 value for the first time, Kyle Quincey will try to prove he belongs there once again. Quincey, who was acquired near the trade deadline as a potential replacement for Stuart, lead the Colorado Avalanche in ice time before he was traded to Detroit by way of Tampa Bay. The Wings gave up a first round pick for their former draft selection (who was lost on waivers to the Los Angeles Kings in 2008), a pick that wound up being 19th overall. As such, the team expected big things out of him, and as Winging It In Motown’s Graham Hathaway recounted earlier this month in a column for the Free Press, things didn’t exactly go as planned.
“Unfortunately, Quincey didn’t exactly flourish in Detroit. Whether that was due to being in a new system or adjusting to a revolving door of defense partners, he struggled to find any consistency. In the playoffs against Nashville, Quincey found himself with less ice time than he saw in the regular season. Whether that was due to matchups or a lack of confidence in him by the coaching staff, his role seemed to be reduced. However, with the loss of Stuart and a rookie joining the lineup, Quincey is going to have to be the guy that we thought he was when he was picked up on waivers by L.A.”
The rookie Hathaway mentions is none other than Brendan Smith, highly-touted Red Wings prospect extraordinaire. He tops lists of the best Red Wings’ prospects around the web, and as Jim Nill told NHL.com, the Red Wings’ feel he’s finally ready for the NHL.
“He was pretty close to being ready last year, but we don’t want kids sitting up in the press box. We think it’s better for them to play in the American League. If they don’t make your top four lines or top six on defense, it’s better off they play in the American League. He played some games and played well, but he’s definitely ready now. He’s got a lot of different tools. He’s a great skater. He’s got good offensive instincts. He plays physical. He’s got an edge to him. He’s got a lot of different intangibles.”
But the stream of praises for the potential next great Red Wings’ defender could become a trickle if he doesn’t perform well this season. They’ll likely ease him into use, starting him as part of the third defensive pairing and working from there. He’s got a lot to learn, and will need to build upon the 14 game foundation he laid last season.
Many project Smith’s starting partner will be 25 year old Jakub Kindl, but MLive’s Ansar Khan believes the team will add a veteran before the season that pushes him to seventh spot and out of the lineup.
“He’ll start the season as the seventh defenseman and I doubt he’ll get consistent playing time.”
That pretty much sums up the pressures for Kindl, who is entering his third full season with the Wings. On the bubble in each of his first two seasons, he has failed to make a consistent impact or deem himself irreplaceable. He’s improved, but not drastically, and still found himself sitting out 27 games last season (though part of that time was due to injury). A first round draft pick in 2005, it’s time Kindl proves he was worthy of that selection, otherwise he could indeed find himself watching from the press box for much of the season.
It won’t be an easy season for any of the Red Wings’ defensemen. Each one faces unique challenges, all focused on improving significantly. Some will succeed immediately; others will flounder and take time, but in the end it is of utmost necessity that each member achieves the highest level of play possible, or this team may in fact be headed in the direction critics suggest. They’re six defenders who must quickly transform their talent and potential into skill, and the fate of the team rests upon their ability to do so.