The pause of the NHL season has caused a lot of concern for many teams, especially those teams on the brink of a playoff berth, the Detroit Red Wings’ interest doesn’t lie in this season. They need to figure out what they are going to do next year for defense. The Red Wings’ defensive corps has been disheveled for the last three seasons. It isn’t showing any real signs of solidifying.
There are glimmers of hope on the horizon. Moritz Seider has had a pretty good season with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins. Some fans were hoping to see him in the NHL the last few games of the season, a hope that is slowly fading as the news of the pandemic worsens. Gustav Lindstrom has played solidly since being called up. The team hopes he will develop some offensive skills while maintaining his rock-solid defensive positioning and puck movement.
Filip Hronek has been a bright spot on the back end, providing mostly solid defense for his first full stint in the NHL. The growth he has shown this season gives some hope that he will be able to be a key piece during the rebuild. Dennis Cholowski has been up and down from the Griffins, but he is showing signs of improvement as well.
The veterans of the defense haven’t provided the cushion necessary to bring these young players up to speed. Players like Trevor Daley, Jonathan Ericsson, and Patrick Nemeth haven’t been healthy enough, or good enough on a nightly basis to make up for the youngsters’ miscues. That has left the team at times with an AHL defensive core, trying to play at the NHL level.
I’m giving Danny DeKeyser a pass this season because of his back injury in October that put him out for the rest of the season. I feel like he was the best defensemen on the team up until that point, and had he been healthy, we may have seen a few games tilt the other direction for the Wings. Another bright spot has been the acquisition of Alex Biega. He has provided a welcome presence on the blue line that the team was sorely lacking. While he is a bit undersized, at 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, Biega’s ability to see the ice helped the Wings out of the rut they were in before his acquisition.
Goaltending and Sub-Par Veterans
That brings us to the goaltenders. As almost every Red Wings fan knows, Jimmy Howard has been terrible this year. As far as numbers go, he is having one of the worst seasons for a goaltender in the history of the league. His record of 2-23-2, with a 4.20 goals-against average (GAA), and an .882 save percentage (SV%) this season in 27 games played has made Red Wings fans cringe every time they hear his name in the lineup. Jonathan Bernier has been quite a bit better posting a record of 14-21-3, with 2.88 GAA and .909 SV% for 38 games.
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The defense in front of the goaltenders isn’t the whole problem when Howard is in the net. Bernier makes most of the saves that he should make, and even robs a few goals with saves that are hard to believe that he made. Howard has not shown that ability this year. He isn’t making the saves expected from an NHL goaltender, let alone the ones expected of the Red Wings third-most winningest netminder in the history of the franchise.
The Red Wings need to solidify the defense at every level. It should also include bringing an NHL caliber goaltender up from the minors or going to get one on the market. The young defensive core of the Red Wings needs leadership and guidance. The coaching staff can only do so much. Young players rely on veterans to show them how the game should be played on the ice, and how to work off the ice.
The lack of leadership on the defensive side of the rink has been evident over the last couple of seasons. The veterans have not been in enough games to help the kids get through. It happened last year before Kronwall’s retirement. While he was present almost like a player/coach, he couldn’t perform on the ice at NHL game speeds to show the young players how the game should be played.
This year, the task was left to Daly and Ericsson and the recently traded Mike Green. These players were not present for enough games, nor able to compete at NHL speed when they were present. The results show in the win/loss column.
The Offseason Should Be Busy
In the offseason, there is much speculation that Daly won’t be re-signed, and rumors are floating around that Ericsson is going to retire. General manager Steve Yzerman would also be hard-pressed to explain why he re-signed Jimmy Howard if that were to happen. The departure of these players is going to free up over $11 million salary-cap space for Yzerman to work with. With that kind of space, we should expect to see some significant acquisitions over the summer.
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Alex Biega was recently signed to a one-year extension, which was a steal at $875,000 based on his play in the few games he suited up for the Wings this year. Yzerman will want to re-sign Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi. They are likely going to be looking for a raise, eating into the cap space a bit. The rest of the players that need to be re-signed haven’t shown any amount of talent or ability that warrants a raise in their next contract. For many of them, they should probably be happy to be playing in the NHL at all. They will probably be signed to short-term contract extensions to keep them near their current salary.
There are a lot of free agents coming on the market this summer. It’s not likely that Detroit will go after superstars like Alex Pietrangelo. There is a chance that Yzerman will take a hard look at his former club, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and make a play for a player such as Kevin Shattenkirk. Or possibly look towards Carolina for a player like Joel Edmundson. Players like these will bring a substantial veteran presence to the defense and help develop the younger players like Sieder to their full potential.
Whatever the Red Wings do in the offseason, the defense must be their focus. Without defense, their offensive talent won’t be able to produce, as has been the case this season. When a team plays more than half the game with the puck in their zone or is unable to keep it in the offensive zone when they get it there, wins are hard to come by. With a solid defensive core, the ice will tilt the Red Wings’ way more often.