TRAVERSE CITY — Two years ago, Jonathan Ericsson was the Detroit Red Wings second-youngest defenseman.
Now, the 29-year-old is the second oldest.
It illustrates how quickly the Wings have rebuilt their defense, mostly with draft picks who were in the system.
“It’s been a major overhaul in terms of age,” Wings GM Ken Holland said Thursday at the team’s Development Camp at Centre ICE.
The transformation was kicked into overdrive last season when Nicklas Lidstrom retired, Brad Stuart opted to return to the West Coast, and marquee free agent Ryan Sutter signed with Minnesota.
The two veteran free agents the Wings brought in, Ian White and Carlo Colaiacovo, played sparingly down the stretch.
Instead, the Wings defense, anchored by Niklas Kronwall and Ericsson, relied on a batch of relatively fresh faces that included Kyle Quincey (27), Jakub Kindl (26), Brendan Smith (24), Danny DeKeyser (23) and Brian Lashoff (22).
“I look at last year and we finished fifth in the league in goals against,” Holland said. “Down the stretch, when we had to make the playoffs in our last 11 games, we allowed 14 goals in regulation. Our young defensemen we’re learning on the fly. At times, there were some growing pains. Maybe they made decisions that led to goals against, but there is no other way to go about building a team. Sure, there’s a lot of youth there, but we feel good about our defense.”
Coach Mike Babcock agreed.
“Our back end was the biggest improvement area of our team,” he said. “We improved so much back there that we were able to be a good team in the playoffs. The growth of our back end allowed us to focus on forwards in free agency.
“There’s been lots of kids who have come and played a little bit. To come and play all the time, and then stick and make the team better, that’s another thing. We had that happen last year.”
The two veterans, Kronwall and Ericsson, are the leaders.
“There’s no Nick Lidstrom (back there), but Nick Kronwall is a really good player and Jonathan Ericsson has developed into a real good shutdown player,” Holland said.
The Wings drafted five of the seven — Kronwall in 2000, Ericsson in 2002, Quincey in 2003, Kindl in 2005 and Smith in 2007. Lashoff was an undrafted free agent signed in 2008 while DeKeyser was a much sought-after undrafted free agent signed late last season.
“That was our plan (drafting defensemen),” Holland said. “Jim Nill (former assistant GM) and I talked about it six, seven years ago. We knew the end of Nick Lidstrom’s career was coming. We had Brian Rafalski (who retired after the 2010-11 season) then, too. We certainly knew we had to draft defensemen.”
Drafting and developing players has become key since the NHL instituted a salary cap. The Wings have several top-flight young defensemen at the Development Camp here this week, all hoping one day to be Red Wings.
“Everybody is looking for defensemen,” Holland said. “Defensemen are hard to find. If you’ve got one (prospect in the system), there’s a chance that one is not going to make it. But if you’ve got six or seven, you hope three or four make it. We just signed Jakub Kindl for four years. Dan DeKeyser is 23, Brendan is just 24. We’re hoping some of those guys are around here for a long time. In the meantime, it gives these prospects here a chance to develop. We hope we wake up three or four years from now and we’ve got an excess of defensemen. That’s the hope.”
Even though Holland likes the team’s home-grown talent, he said the players must still perform.
“It’s nice to have draft picks on the team, but the object is to make the playoffs,” he said. “You’re trying to find players that can make a positive difference to allow your team to make the playoffs.”
DeKeyser is one of those who had a positive impact on the Wings, once he signed after leaving Western Michigan University.
“He was a tremendous bonus,” Holland said. “Lots of teams made a pitch to sign him. Fortunately, he’s home grown (born in Detroit) and there’s opportunity here. We obviously liked him, but how quickly he made an impact was a bit of a surprise.”
Although the change of the guard has been most evident on defense, the Wings are also blending some of their young forwards into the everyday lineup. Joakim Andersson, 24, played in 52 games last season, counting the playoffs. Gustav Nyquist was in 36 games. Thomas Tatar, 22, who led the Wings minor league affiliate in Grand Rapids to the Calder Cup, will be on the team this season. Rising prospects like Thomas Jurco and Riley Sheahan are on the horizon.
“We built the team through the draft in the 1990s,” Holland said. “We built the team again in the late 1990s, early 2000s with the Zetterbergs, the Datsyuks, the Howards, the Filppulas, the Hudlers, the Franzens. We’re trying to do it all over again.
“We’ve worked hard the last seven to eight years hanging on to our draft picks. We moved back two picks (in the first round this year), as an example, to get an extra second round pick. We’re trying to get extra picks, hang on to our picks. We’ve been more conservative at the trade deadline. We’re probably as deep with prospects as we’ve been since the 1990s. Part of it is a philosophy, part of it is obviously good drafting by our scouts.”