Red Wings’ Protection List Presents Dilemma on Defense

For 30 of the NHL’s 32 teams, protection lists for the Seattle Expansion Draft are due this weekend. It’s officially crunch time as general managers from around the league work to put their teams in the best position heading into this highly-anticipated event.

While the Detroit Red Wings are positioned to lose nothing of serious consequence to the Seattle Kraken, that doesn’t mean they don’t have their fair share of questions to ponder as they make their protection list. The general consensus is that GM Steve Yzerman will opt for the 7-3-1 set-up, which protects seven forwards, three defensemen and a goaltender. While there is definitely some debate about which forwards will round out the seven Detroit chooses to protect, there is an interesting situation brewing in regards to which defensemen the Red Wings will protect.

Related: Red Wings Expansion Draft Preview: Kraken Bait & Trade Scenarios

The only defenseman you can bank on Detroit protecting is 23-year-old Filip Hronek, who has developed into the team’s top defender over the last two seasons. That leaves two protection spots left, and with all due respect to Danny DeKeyser, the general assumption is that the veteran defender will be left unprotected due to his declining play and the fact that the Kraken are unlikely to willingly take on his $5 million cap hit. That leaves three players that are worthy of protection for one reason or another.

Troy Stecher

In my year-end player evaluations, I named Stecher as the Red Wings’ top defenseman this season. Signed for one more season at a very reasonable $1.7 million, the 27-year-old had 11 points through 44 games this season while mostly playing on the team’s second defensive pairing alongside veteran Marc Staal. Through five seasons in the NHL (four with the Vancouver Canucks, one with Detroit) he has 86 points through 330 regular season games.

Troy Stecher Detroit Red Wings
Troy Stecher, Detroit Red Wings (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Signed in the 2020 offseason, my initial reaction to the two-year term on Stecher’s contract was “alright, Kraken bait”. Since then, I, as well as the rest of Hockeytown, have grown to appreciate what the native of British Columbia has to offer. His pairing with Staal was one of the best in the league through the first of the season (in terms of analytics) and he was a big reason why. While he is not uber-skilled, he battles all over the ice and rarely puts his team in a bad position. With prospect Moritz Seider set to join the Red Wings next season, Stecher could really excel on the right side of Detroit’s bottom pairing. A solid 2021-22 season would lead the Red Wings to a sweet return should they choose to trade him at next year’s trade deadline, and it would lead him to a nice raise on his next deal.

Of course, maybe my initial thought about Stecher was correct. Considering he’s from British Columbia, a move to Seattle would move him closer to home and the Canucks team that let him leave in free agency. Leaving him unprotected may draw attention away from other attractive forwards the Red Wings will be forced to expose. It may not seem like the best decision to leave the team’s best defenseman exposed, but if Yzerman wants to prioritize Detroit’s homegrown talent, Stecher will not make the cut.

Dennis Cholowski

Five years after the Red Wings selected Cholowski with the 20th pick of the 2016 draft, he has yet to make his mark on the NHL in a meaningful way. He was noted as a bit of a “project pick” when the Red Wings made the pick, but patience for the 23-year-old has just about run out.

Dennis Cholowski Grand Rapids Griffins
Dennis Cholowski, Grand Rapids Griffins (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Through 104 games in the NHL, Cholowski has 10 goals and 27 points, including three points through 16 games this season. A native of British Columbia just like Stecher, he has always offered intrigue as a future power play quarterback – a skill that he consistently put on display in the American Hockey League (AHL) with the Grand Rapids Griffins – but he hasn’t been able to translate that potential to the NHL. To use a baseball term, he’s a “Four-A” player: too good for the AHL, but not quite effective enough for the NHL.

Cholowski will have to pass through waivers before reporting to the AHL starting next season. This will not only factor into Detroit’s thinking, but also Kraken GM Ron Francis’s. If there’s a chance he’s going to be picked up on waivers, Seattle should stay away unless they intend on giving him a shot in the NHL. Of course, a new opportunity with a new team could be just what the doctor ordered for him.

There are two big reasons why the Red Wings should protect Cholowski:

  1. If he does realize his potential, you have to hope it happens in Detroit.
  2. The Red Wings are lacking depth on the left side of the blue line, and Cholowski happens to play on that side.

Given the Red Wings’ lack of depth on the left side, next season could and should present the offensive defender with a prime opportunity to finally stake claim to an NHL spot. The potential is there, and if Yzerman elects to protect him, Cholowski has to take that as a vote of confidence. Whether it’s with Detroit, Seattle or somewhere else, next season is going to be the biggest of No. 21’s young career.

Gustav Lindstrom

The other homegrown talent Yzerman has to make a decision on is 2017 second round pick Gustav Lindstrom. The 22-year-old is the youngest of the three listed here, and easily has the least amount of NHL experience with just 29 games. A native of Sweden, he is also the only defender on this list that wasn’t born north of Seattle. A defense-first defender, he has just four points in those 29 games, though three of them came in his 13 games this season, including this nifty feed to set up forward Jakub Vrana’s first goal as a Red Wing:

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With only 29 games of experience, it is unwise to act like we know exactly what kind of player Lindstrom is….but I’m going to do it anyways. Whether it’s been with the Griffins in the AHL or the Red Wings in the NHL, he plays the exact same game: safe, positionally sound hockey that allows him to “disappear” in the way that you hope defensive defenders do. To that point, his stat line in the AHL this season matched his stat line in the NHL: 13 games, three points. Plays like the one above tease that he has some offensive instincts to go with his strong defensive play, but offense is not what you’re looking for when you have this player in the lineup.

If the Red Wings were to lose Stecher to the Kraken, Lindstrom would be able to step into his spot on the right side of the bottom pairing, and he’d probably look pretty good in that spot too! He can play on the penalty kill, and he doesn’t need to log a ton of minutes to be effective. However, with the Red Wings’ logjam of NHL players and prospects on the right side of the blue line, it’s fair to wonder if it makes sense to prioritize this player ahead of a left-handed guy like Cholowski or a proven NHL talent like Stecher. It’s not like Lindstrom oozes potential in a way that screams “protect me” either; he’s a quality bottom pairing defenseman, but that’s probably all that he’ll amount to in the NHL. You can replace that fairly easily.

It’s Good to Have Options?

Make no mistake – the decisions facing Yzerman and the Red Wings are not nearly as difficult as the choices being made by some of his counterparts throughout the league. If the hardest decision Detroit has is whether or not to protect Stecher, then that shows just how easy the Red Wings have it during this process (although it also highlights the team’s lack of depth throughout their lineup.)

If Seattle chooses a defender from the Red Wings, whether it’s Stecher, Cholowski or Lindstrom, they will be adding a player with the potential to become a sneaky-good selection. The Vegas Golden Knights took forward Tomas Nosek from the Red Wings back in 2017, and he has been a mainstay on their fourth line ever since. Surely Francis and the Kraken hope to extract the same kind of value now that it’s their turn. All we can do now is wait for the lists to be revealed….

Which defenseman would you leave exposed to the Kraken? Share your thoughts in the comments section down below!

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