TRAVERSE CITY — If there are any concerns for the Red Wings entering the 2014-15 season, defense isn't one of them.
Detroit general manager Ken Holland and head coach Mike Babcock have a deep defensive corps featuring a mix of NHL veterans and youth looking to find their niche in the league, as 11 players vie to play along the blue line this season for the Red Wings.
"I don't have any concerns about the defense," said Holland. "I think the depth of the defense is better now than it was a year ago."
That's because Detroit returns each of its top seven defensemen from a year ago in Danny DeKeyser, Jonathan Ericsson, Jakub Kindl, Niklas Kronwall, Brian Lashoff, Kyle Quincey and Brendan Smith. Add to that the presence of 2011 draft classmates Ryan Sproul, Xavier Ouellet, Alexey Marchenko and Matthias Backman — each of whom is looking to become regulars at the NHL level — and the Red Wings are solid in that department.
DeKeyser and Quincey, who were often paired together last year, were re-signed to a pair of two-year deals during the off-season. DeKeyser's deal is for $4.375 million, while Quincey's was for $4.25 million.
"It was definitely a huge relief," said Quincey. "I was very happy after it got done. Coming back to somewhere where you're familiar, you're not going into a new place, learning new systems and stuff. I think that's an absolute huge positive. On our team we don't have to teach anyone anything. We're going to hit the ground running."
Of course, the backbone of the defense is Kronwall — at age 33 the elder statesman of the group — who scored eight goals and had a team-leading 41 assists last year, just the fifth Detroit defenseman to lead the team in assists in a season. More importantly, Kronwall avoided the injury bug that bit Detroit last year, appearing in 79 games. That wasn't the case for Ericsson, who is trying to bounce back from an injury-plagued year where he only suited up in 48 games. Ericsson broke his finger in a game against Toronto and missed the entirety of the playoffs.
Lashoff had six points in 75 games — easily his most productive season of the two he's spent in the NHL. Smith is looking to continue where he left off last year after he finished strong, while Kindl is hoping to regain the form he showed during the strike-shortened 2012-13 season.
"Brenan Smith took a real step after the Olympic break when Babs (Babcock) put him out there when Jonathan Ericsson went down. It's evolving. They're coming into their own. Jakub Kindl had a really good year in the 48-game season. We signed him to a contract. He came off it a little bit last year," said Holland.
Babcock said Smith's play at camp has been promising as he's managed to avoid costly mistakes that at times have plagued him in his first two years with Detroit.
"When he gets himself in trouble is a big blunder once in awhile," said Babcock. "And when a big blunder ends up in the net, it's hard for you. What I like about him is that in two days, I haven't seen one of those blunders."
The only question that remains for Detroit's defense is which of the younger players will be key contributors this year. Ouellet played in four games with Detroit, while Sproul and Marchenko each got one game under their belts. All three played the majority of the year with Grand Rapids. Backman played most of the season with Linkoping in the Swedish Elite League, then played in two games with Grand Rapids. The growing belief is those four will be spending a little more time in Detroit as they progress and develop.
"The younger guys are really pushing," said Kronwall. "They want to take the next step and get a chance to play. We've got a lot of young D that are really playing well and they had great years in the minors last year. For us older guys, you're not only competing for your spot, but also for ice time.
Holland indicted Sproul, in particular, will be given every opportunity to make the big club this year. Babcock also expects Sproul to push for a job in Detroit. That, along with the fact that Sproul's roommates to start the season in Grand Rapids — Riley Sheahan and Luke Glendening — were called up early and played extensively with the Red Wings, have provided plenty of motivation for Sproul, who along with Ouellet was a second-round pick in the 2011 draft.
"They want us young guys up there," said Sproul. "That's the goal is to make the team and make them happy. Everytime I get on the ice I want coach Babcock to know I'm out there for offense and defense and that he can trust me.
"We push each other and the coach has done a good job of pushing all of us."