TRAVERSE CITY — A year ago there were a lot of questions surrounding the Detroit Red Wings defense.
Those questions arose when longtime captain Nicklas Lidstrom retired after an illustrious career and Brad Stuart was sent to the San Jose Sharks.
A year later, the unknowns about the Wings’ back line appear gone, helped by a young core of defensemen who gained valuable experience and played well when thrown into the fire during the team’s run to a 22nd straight playoff appearance that included a first-round series victory over Anaheim.
In less than a year, Detroit went from asking who was going to fill the open spots in the lineup to wondering how the Red Wings are going to find playing time for all these blue-liners?
Jakob Kindl, Danny DeKeyser and Brendan Smith are all back in the mix, as is Brian Lashoff. Each player, while under the age of 27, has stabilized a unit that finished last season ranked fifth in the NHL in goals against. They join more experienced veterans in Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson and Kyle Quincey to form a strong and capable group.
“We’re excited about the potential of the defense because last year when our season was on the line the last 11 games of the year I think we gave up something like 14 goals in regulation or overtime,” said Wings general manager Ken Holland. “They really buckled down. Obviously, Kronner is in his 30s and everyone else is in their 20s so we’re hoping it’s a defense that can continue to evolve and get better and better.”
Detroit showed the faith it had in its young group by re-signing Kindl to a 4-year, $9.6M deal and Smith to a 2-year, $2.525M deal.
“I knew I was never going to take Lidstrom’s spot, or Stuey’s spot or Kronwall’s spot,” said Kindl, Detroit’s top pick in the 2005 draft. “All of the sudden the door opened last year, Nick retiring, Stuey moving to San Jose and the next thing you know you look at our back end and we’re such young guys.”
Kindl’s patience paid off and he was able to respond when the opportunity presented itself, recording four goals and nine assists in 41 games. He added five points in Detroit’s playoff run and posted a plus-4 during the postseason.
Kindl’s partner on defense, DeKeyser, is back after an 11-game stint that immediately followed a brilliant career with Western Michigan. His season was cut short in the playoffs when he injured his thumb against Anaheim, but he returned in time to help Grand Rapids win the AHL title. He played well when he was thrust onto the big stage, showing he was ready to have an impact right from the get-go.
“I think it was big. Anytime you can get some playoff games and some playoff experience that’s always great coming into the next season,” said DeKeyser. “Hopefully, that transition will roll into this year.”
Kindl said he likes being paired with DeKeyser, impressed by what the 23-year-old was able to do prior to his injury.
“I thought we played pretty good last year together,” he said. “Danny, when he came up from college, he stepped right in and he looked really good out there. It was a little frustrating to see him hurt. Who knows? The (Chicago) series could’ve ended differently if he was healthy. Danny’s a good skater. He makes good plays and he skates well with the puck. I felt really good with him when we played together last year and the same thing (this year).”
Holland said it was surprising to see DeKeyser make such a big contribution so soon.
“It’s a big jump from college or juniors to the National Hockey League, especially because we were in playoff games down the stretch,” he said. “Games were big. Any mistake was critical and he played really solid. We knew he was 6-foot-4 and he was mobile. Those things we knew, but certainly his composure and his ability to make a first pass into the middle of the ice were things that at the NHL level — with the speed, the pressure — we were very, very surprised with.”
DeKeyser said the transition to the NHL is made easier because of the veteran influence of Kronwall, Ericsson and Quincey.
“They’re always there to help you out,” he said. “Say you make a bad play, or have a bad shift or a bad period, they keep your spirits up and nobody yells at you. They get behind you and help you to be better. They’re always there to support you. I just try to get more and more comfortable out there every day. Just learning from Kronwall, Ericsson, guys like that.”
Smith, who is getting ice time with Quincey, sees a lot of potential out of the young group, especially after the way the defense played in crucial games down the stretch. Now, it comes down to fighting to earn playing time this season.
“We’re all so competitive and we want to be on the ice. For us, it’s competition. We love this,” he said. “We’re all fighting for (a spot). Not even if you’re fighting for a job on the team, but if you’re fighting for power play time, penalty kill time, more ice time. Getting to play at the start of the game, the end of the game. We’re all proving ourselves and we always want to get better. These are things we’re going out to this camp to try to prove.
“I think the better you play defensively the better you play offensively because then you’re in the offensive zone. That’s something we’re looking forward to and that’s something we’re trying to work at.”