Red Wings Defense: Quantity Over Quality?

At this point in the offseason, the Detroit Red Wings have nine defensemen signed to NHL contracts, including two newcomers: Trevor Daley and Luke Witkowski. While Daley will have a prominent role this coming season, Witkowski is a versatile depth player and may play more games at forward than defense.

With so many defensemen on the roster and prospects coming through the system, the Red Wings will have plenty of options when it’s time to pencil-in the lineup. Unfortunately, none of the available players represent top-of-the-line defensemen to play in any situation and it’s possible someone is dealt before the season starts to resolve cap issues.

To identify who should play when, Detroit’s nine defensemen can be classified by their skill set. This isn’t a quantitative measure relative to other players in the league, but how each defensemen plays (or will play, in Daley and Witkowski’s cases) the game within the Red Wings’ system. Here’s how the nine blueliners would be categorized:

First-Pairing Defensemen

Examples: Erik Karlsson, Roman Josi, Brent Burns.

Role: Play in any situation, dictate play up ice, shut down opponents’ top players, and be a valuable offensive contributor.

Brent Burns, NHL, San Jose Sharks
Brent Burns (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Red Wings Depth: None

No defensemen on the roster fits the description of a top-pairing defenseman in terms of their own skill set. At least two blueliners will need to play against opponents’ best players every night – two players who aren’t exactly suited for that role.

Fringe First-Pairing

Examples: John Carlson, John Klingberg, T.J. Brodie.

Role: Not the first choice to play against opponents’ stars, but can step in if need be. Otherwise, contributes offensively, plays in most situations, and sound defensively.

Red Wings Depth: None

Again, no blueliners on the Red Wings roster fall in this category. None appear to be knocking on the door, either.

Second-Pairing Defensemen

Examples: Torey Krug, Josh Manson, Olli Maatta.

Role: Great either offensively or defensively and decent in the other zone; plays some special teams and probably should not play against stars, but wouldn’t look completely out of place.

Red Wings Depth: Trevor Daley, Danny DeKeyser, Mike Green.

Mike Green of the Detroit Red Wings
Mike Green (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

Three defensemen in very different situations qualify as second-pairing blueliners for the Red Wings. Daley’s speed, offensive instincts, and sound defensive play make him a smart choice to play throughout the game. His likely partner to start the season, Danny DeKeyser, had an abysmal 2016-17 campaign (if you haven’t heard), but is a strong candidate to have a rebound year. DeKeyser now has a full season’s worth of knowledge from playing against the league’s best to take into the 2017-18 season.

Given his value and exceptional offensive skill set, it’s possible Mike Green is traded before the season. A trade would kill two birds with one stone: clear his $6 million deal from Detroit’s bloated budget and bring in prospects or draft picks to supplement the rebuilding process. If he sticks around, expect the Red Wings to maximize his power play time and offensive zone starts.

Fringe Second-Pairing

Examples: Radko Gudas, Colin Miller, Ron Hainsey.

Role: Would be a great third-pairing defenseman, but can fill in on the second-pairing if someone goes down. Likely either offensive or defensive, but not both.

Red Wings Depth: Xavier Ouellet, Nick Jensen.

Nick Jensen of the Detroit Red Wings.
Nick Jensen (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Still maturing, Xavier Ouellet and Nick Jensen could step into important roles for the Red Wings this season. Ouellet has looked strong in his own end thus far but hasn’t quite developed offensively. After spending last summer getting stronger, Ouellet’s goal this offseason was to get quicker so he can join the play up ice and make smart plays in less time.

On the other hand, Jensen has effortless strides and can be dangerous joining the rush. He’ll need to work on his defensive zone play to develop into a top-four defenseman.

Third-Pairing Defensemen

Examples: Andrew MacDonald, Jordie Benn, Marc Staal.

Role: A risk to play against highly skilled forwards, probably plays on the penalty kill, or can contribute offensively but should not be starting in the defensive zone very often.

Red Wings Depth: Niklas Kronwall

Niklas Kronwall of the Detroit Red Wings.
Niklas Kronwall (Andy Martin Jr)

At this point in his career, Niklas Kronwall should be playing in favorable spots for the Red Wings, not high-impact minutes. His knee is shot and will likely require more rest this season. Best case scenario: Kronwall manages the pain, contributes 20 points, and plays smart in his own end.

Depth Defensemen

Examples: Michal Rozsival, Greg Pateryn, Kyle Quincey.

Role: Should be playing sheltered minutes when in the lineup. Otherwise, their job is to play smart and not make mistakes that could cost the team.

Red Wings Depth: Jonathan Ericsson, Ryan Sproul.

On a team with average defensive depth, Jonathan Ericsson would likely be the sixth defensemen, if not part of a rotation for playing time. Not much goes on at even strength, but he can contribute to the penalty kill – Ericsson’s 6.46 goals against per 60 minutes of shorthanded ice time during the 2016-17 season ranks middle of the pack for defensemen playing at least 100 minutes of penalty kill time.

Jonathan Ericsson (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Once fully recovered from a partially torn ACL, Ryan Sproul will compete with Ericsson for scarce playing time. Gifted with a cannon shot, Sproul has a willingness to shoot the puck from the blue line, but is not very strong in the defensive zone. Depending on how he returns from injury, the Red Wings’ roster composition, and Detroit’s salary cap troubles, Sproul could be squeezed off the roster and waived in an attempt to be sent down to Grand Rapids.

AHL Defensemen

Examples: Patrick Wiercioch, Brad Hunt, Josh Gorges.

Role: Carried on the NHL roster, but should be playing in the AHL where their skills would fit better.

Red Wings Depth: Luke Witkowski

If Witkowski sees the ice as a defenseman, the Red Wings are in trouble. This would go for any team playing their ninth defenseman who may be better suited as a forward.

Prospects on the Rise

Of the Detroit’s prospects who could see some NHL action, Joe Hicketts and Robbie Russo appear to be the initial call ups. With impressive training camps, the two could push Sproul further down on the depth chart and possibly off the NHL roster.

Though they may not play in any NHL games this season, Vili Saarijarvi and Filip Hronek could be impact players in the not-too-distant future for the Red Wings. Both players had tremendous offensive abilities in juniors, will play a big role on Todd Nelson’s blue line for the Griffins this season, and were ranked within Detroit’s top-ten prospects. Don’t sleep on Dennis Cholowski either – he could have a big year in the WHL that would springboard his development.

Projected Depth Chart

If the season started today and all the defensemen on the Red Wings roster stayed put, this is how the lineup would likely look:



First Pair

Danny DeKeyser

Trevor Daley

Second Pair

Xavier Ouellet

Mike Green

Third Pair

Niklas Kronwall

Nick Jensen


Jonathan Ericsson

Ryan Sproul (IR)

If the Red Wings had a true first-pair defensive unit and pushed the rest of the depth chart down, things would be looking up in Hockeytown. Unfortunately, Detroit has a glut of middle-of-the-road defensemen to deploy against the league’s best each night.

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