Throughout the 2019-20 season, the highlight of the Detroit Red Wings’ defense was 22-year-old Filip Hronek. In 65 games the young defender registered 31 points, placing him fifth in scoring among Red Wings skaters. With 10 of those points coming on the power play, it appears that the team has itself an offensive catalyst on the blue line.
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Now the attention turns to getting the most out of their (current) best defender. While Hronek has excellent offensive instincts, he’s pretty average in the defensive zone. He’s prone to turnovers, and his inexperience in the NHL dictates that he’s still learning how to play the position at this level. Realistically, he needs somebody who is already adept in the defensive end in order to free him up to attack in the offensive end.
As it stands, the Red Wings have a couple candidates on the roster that could fill this role. The possibility also exists that general manager Steve Yzerman adds somebody outside the organization that can fit alongside Hronek. Whoever ends up filling the role will inevitably play big minutes in 2020-21.
Due to varying circumstances such as injury and depth issues, Patrik Nemeth was the Red Wings’ number two guy on defense throughout the 2019-20 season. This means that the 28-year-old defender spent a good amount of time next to Hronek. The results were mixed.
According to Natural Stat Trick, the duo played together for a total of 363:19. In terms of Corsi%, a measurement of the share of offensive opportunities a player or players has, the duo posted a positive rating of 51.32. Despite this, their goals-for percentage (GF%) was just 44%, meaning that the Red Wings only scored 44% of the goals scored while Hronek and Nemeth were on the ice together.
The eye test supports this statistical assessment. While it was clear that Hronek and Nemeth was over-matched as a top pair in the NHL, they did seem to do good things on the ice. This pair did a good job of turning defense into offense. Unfortunately, the lack of scoring punch on the Red Wings’ roster prevented that offense from amounting to much. Overall, though, this duo seemed to work well together despite the circumstances.
Part of the reason Nemeth was forced into the role of second-best defenseman was because Dekeyser suffered a season-ending injury just eight games into the season. Prior to that, he was penciled in as the presumptive partner for the Red Wings’ young, offensive defenseman.
On paper, the pair of Hronek and Dekeyser makes sense for the same reasons that a Nemeth-Hronek pairing does. Dekeyser is more of a “stay at home” defenseman with the ability to play a north-south brand of hockey. However, over 340:07 of ice time together from last season to this season, the results have been less than ideal. The pair has a Corsi% of just 46.85, and an even worse GF% of 37.5. Basically, this pair gets beat down in the defensive zone.
Dekeyser is a serviceable top-six defender who has undergone a bit of a career revitalization over the last couple of seasons. It’s part of why his injury this season was so disappointing. However, if the goal is to get the most out of Hronek, he has proven to be unfit for the task.
A New Candidate Emerges?
There are a few options available to the Red Wings in free agency. The popular candidate to join the team is Michigan-native Torey Krug of the Boston Bruins. However, as an offensively inclined defender, he likely wouldn’t fit alongside Hronek. Of course, the Red Wings are also far from guaranteed to land a marquee name like Krug.
Instead, the team could look inwards to fill the role. Hronek is a right-handed defender, so the ideal partner would be left-handed. However, if the coaches are willing to overlook that “perfect world” scenario, they could line him up next to another righty. Enter Moritz Seider.
The sixth-overall selection of the 2019 draft, Seider spent the season in the AHL with the Grand Rapids Griffins. He established himself as a sturdy defenseman, capable of putting people on their backs, while also holding his own in the offensive end. He’s a true two-way defender that could complement Hronek’s style of play. Of course, the first hurdle in the way of this option is Seider not only making it to the NHL, but performing well once he’s there.
Key to Success
When Yzerman took over as the GM of the Red Wings, he listed Hronek as one of the core pieces the team had in place. Following his performance during the 2019-20 season, it appears that he has proven Yzerman’s assessment of him to be correct. At just 22 years old, he probably has another gear to find in his game as well.
In order to find that extra gear, the Red Wings need to put the right person alongside Hronek. Out of the possibilities highlighted above, Nemeth appears to be the best option. That being said, this isn’t a pair that seems destined to withstand the test of time.
Hronek represents a piece on the blue line that every good team needs — a creator of offense that isn’t a huge liability in his own end. He should be able to be the Red Wings’ number three or even number two defenseman for many years. Giving him the right defensive partner next season will go a long way to helping him realize that potential.