Coming into the 2019-20 season, anybody could have told you that the Detroit Red Wings’ defense was going to be a problem for them. It was a unit filled with aging veterans, bad contracts and some younger guys who could maybe become something. As the season hangs in pandemic-caused limbo, it’s time to look and see if those concerns were merited.
This season saw the introduction of a few new faces. Due to a constant helping of injuries, the blue line never seemed consistent from game to game. Because of this, general manager Steve Yzerman sought reinforcements from multiple avenues.
In this exercise, we’re only going to give a proper grade to players who played at least 25 games — a little over a third of the 71 games the Red Wings played this season. We’re also going to omit Mike Green as he is now a member of the Edmonton Oilers. Surprisingly, though, there are some big names that failed to meet the 25-game threshold…
Danny Dekeyser saw his season end before it ever really began. He played in eight of the team’s first nine games, with the Red Wings winning three of those eight. It’s a shame that Dekeyser’s season ended so soon because the 30-year-old defender looked like a revitalized version of himself from the get-go. He had four points in those eight games, which still places him ahead of the likes of Justin Abdelkader and Alex Biega (yes, seriously.)
Jonathan Ericsson was demoted to the AHL on a couple occasions this season, signaling that the 36-year-old is on the way out after 13 seasons with the Red Wings. A veteran of 680 games in the NHL, he has been a prime example among fans of the mismanagement that put the team in their current predicament.
He’s been a bottom-pairing guy for years, but he’s maintained a cap hit of $4.25 million. It’ll be a relief to the team to get that contract off the books.
Gustav Lindstrom saw action in 16 games this season, stretching from Feb. 6 to March 10. The 38th pick of the 2017 draft, Lindstrom established himself as a sturdy, stay-at-home defender in the AHL. He brought that same skill set to the NHL and was impressive overall. He had an average time on ice (TOI) of 16:32. He should get a good look next season to join the roster permanently.
Yzerman’s first in-season acquisition, Alex Biega arrived from the Vancouver Canucks to stabilize the Red Wings’ defensive depth chart. With 36 points in 179 points before this season started, he’s never been an offensive catalyst in the NHL. Instead, he’s a defensive specialist who gives his all, earning him the nickname “The Bulldog.”
On March 9, the Red Wings announced a one-year extension for the 32-year-old. The term and financials of the deal won’t inhibit the team in any meaningful way, so it’s essentially harmless. However, with the likes of Lindstrom, Dennis Cholowski, Madison Bowey and other young defenders fighting for playing time, there’s reason to question what Biega’s role with the team is going forward.
All in all, Biega is fine as a team’s seventh defenseman. He doesn’t create plays, but he isn’t a black hole defensively. His effort level is something that young defensemen can learn from, and that may be his ultimate value to the rebuilding Red Wings. Considering it only cost David Pope (who bounced between the ECHL and the AHL this season) to acquire him, Biega can’t be considered an outright failure on this team. Grade: C–
Another veteran on an expiring contract, the hope was that the Red Wings would find a new home for the 36-year-old at the trade deadline. Unfortunately for the organization and Daley, the market wasn’t buzzing for an offensive defenseman who can’t create offense anymore.
At minus-22, this season brought Daley’s career plus/minus rating below even. He was also one of three Red Wings to play at least 40 games and fail to record a single goal. In terms of his effect on his team’s ability to create chances, he had a relative-Corsi% of minus-6%. This means that the team experienced a 6% drop in their share of the offensive chances with Daley on the ice.
Long story short, Daley is a long way away from his heyday with the Dallas Stars. It’s not entirely his fault — these are the natural effects of aging in sports. However, the Red Wings will receive an addition to their lineup by subtracting him from it. Grade: F
Cholowski is quickly becoming a polarizing figure among Red Wings fandom. Still just 22 years old, the former first-round pick flashes high-end playmaking ability, and then succumbs to defensive lapses that leave his team vulnerable. He has the potential to be a power-play quarterback in the NHL, but he seems to be getting in his own way.
In 36 games with the Red Wings, Cholowski managed just eight points, five of which came on the power play. He also saw 30 games of action with the Grand Rapids Griffins in the AHL. In that time, he recorded 13 points — far from the dominating performance that management was likely hoping for. His average TOI increased by a minute over last season’s total, placing him at 19:13 this season. That he struggled to produce near the same rate as last season with more TOI suggests that he may be deferring to others instead of pushing the play himself.
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One player that comes to mind when watching Cholowski is former Red Wing Brendan Smith. Also a former first-round pick, Smith never found his footing in the lineup. If Cholowski can’t connect the dots soon, it may behoove the Red Wings to move on and recoup what they can for the young defender. Grade: D+
Signed as a free agent last summer, Nemeth is another guy brought in to provide sturdy defense in lieu of the shortcomings of others on the blue line. Before arriving, he had 39 points in 250 NHL games, putting him in line with Biega’s production. Needless to say, Nemeth was more of a penalty-kill guy for the Red Wings.
At just 27 years old, Nemeth is in his prime as a shutdown defenseman. Head coach Jeff Blashill seemed to like the native of Stockholm, Sweden, as Nemeth’s average TOI this season was the highest of his career (22:02). This is partially due to the injury to Dekeyser, but it seems that Nemeth didn’t struggle as much as one might have assumed.
Two seasons ago, while playing with the Colorado Avalanche, Nemeth accumulated 1,350 minutes of ice time, playing primarily in a shutdown role. He had 1,211 Corsi-events against (essentially, scoring chances) that season. This season with the Red Wings in 1,410 minutes, he only allowed 874 Corsi-events against. While his Corsi% was still sub-50%, he has shown growth as a shutdown guy in the NHL. Realistically, he has a place in the lineup as they continue to accumulate young talent on the blue line. Grade: B
With 17 points in 53 games, this season marked the most productive of Bowey’s young career. The 24-year-old was waived on Dec. 9, but he returned from a brief stint in Grand Rapids and remained on the Red Wings’ roster from that point on. Acquired from the Washington Capitals as part of the Nick Jensen trade, the Red Wings knew they were getting a bit of a project in Bowey.
The idea in acquiring Bowey was that he could excel with a greater opportunity. The Red Wings have provided that to the tune of an average of four more minutes on ice per game. With more ice time comes more exposure in more ways than one. Though he has already outproduced his time with the Capitals, he’s also giving the puck away at an alarming rate. With 45 giveaways this season, he’s up to 61 in his time with the Red Wings. Puck security will be paramount in whether or not Bowey can take his game to another level.
Full disclosure: I’m a fan of Bowey. He fits in fine with the team’s blue line during this phase of their rebuild. As stronger pieces begin to assemble, he will either sink or swim. For the time being, he is perhaps the team’s second-best offensive threat from the back end. Grade: B-
The Red Wings de facto number one defenseman this season inspired excitement among fans. At just 22 years old, Hronek showed that he can play with the big boys, but he definitely took his lumps.
Hronek ranked fifth in team scoring before the season suspension, notching 31 points through 65 games. What’s more, he did so starting just 45% of his shifts in the offensive zone. His relative-Corsi% was 1.1%, a subtle increase to his team’s efforts while handling the toughest defensive assignments. With an average TOI of 23:54, he certainly saw plenty of minutes. This resulted in him being outscored 117-64. This is partially due to the quality of opponents Hronek faced, while also a remark on where his true value lies.
One day when the Red Wings are icing a competitive team again, Hronek should find himself anchoring the team’s second pairing and potentially running the team’s top power-play unit. He’s not completely out of his league playing on the top line, but he seems more like a Ryan Ellis-type than a Kris Letang. Regardless, one of the big revelations of this season was that the Red Wings have a legitimate piece on the blue line that they can build around in Hronek. Grade: A-
The Red Wings’ defense features one stud, a couple of solid pieces, and then a bunch of question marks. Adding Dekeyser on a full-time basis this season would have done wonders for a few guys on this list. If Lindstrom grabs a spot out of camp next season, that will have it’s ramifications as well.
Overall, this was a below-average group, with just about everyone punching above their weight class. Though there were varying levels of success, it goes to show just how far the Red Wings have to go before their defense is in contending shape. There will be some addition by subtraction this offseason, but the right guys need to move in to those vacated spots.
The Red Wings’ defense has been an area of concern ever since Nick Lidstrom retired in 2013, but a new era is set to begin. With Dekeyser becoming the longest-tenured member of the team’s defense next season, names like Hronek, Lindstrom and Moritz Seider will become very familiar to fans as they attempt to usher in a new wave of defensive excellence. However, as this year showed, it’s not going to happen overnight.