It wasn’t long ago that the Detroit Red Wings had one of the deepest, most dependable defensive corps in the NHL. Of course, any blueline is going to look great with a once-in-a-generation talent like Nicklas Lidstrom eating up 25+ minutes for a couple of decades. But the Red Wings had more going for their team than simply a 7-time Norris Trophy winner hiding the warts of lesser defensemen (although, he did that as well). They were able to pair Lidstrom with three-time Olympian Brian Rafalski for four seasons before he decided to hang ‘em up at the tender age of 37. Sounds like a great foundation for a perennial Cup contender.
While their top-pairing was among the best in the game, their second pairing was equally respected. Brad Stuart and Niklas Kronwall may not have been the most dominant, marquee pairing in the league, but they were nothing short of spectacular when considering they were the 3rd and 4th best defensemen on the team. With Lidstrom, Rafalski, Stuart, and Kronwall all eating up plenty of minutes per game, they were able to shelter the likes of Jonathan Ericsson and Jakub Kindl with third pairing minutes and a veteran partner in Ruslan Salei. Life was good in Hockeytown.
How the mighty have fallen.
If the season were to start tomorrow, the Red Wings would boast a Niklas Kronwall/Kyle Quincey top pairing. That sounds like a strong second pairing, but not the kind of duo that can shut down the opponent’s best players night after night. That’s Ken Holland’s reality.
Behind the Kronwall/Quincy twosome, head coach Mike Babcock will probably try to pair Jakub Kindl and rookie Brendan Smith with veterans Ian White and Jonathan Ericsson. That’s right, the Wings could be forced to use Jonathan Ericsson as the stable player in a defensive pairing.
The sound you just heard was every single Red Wings fan throwing their laptop into a wall.
Surprisingly, the Red Wings only have six defensemen on their entire roster that have any type of NHL experience. For some perspective: Jakub Kindl is a grizzled veteran with his 106 career games compared to Brendan Smith’s 14 career games. Also of concern: neither player has ever appeared in a playoff game. No wonder Holland has been seen repeatedly kicking Keith Yandle’s tires.
The problems for the Red Wings are not necessarily the defensemen on the roster. Kronwall and White have proven to be legitimate NHLers that could play for any team in the league. Ericsson and Quincey have proven that they have what it takes to play in the NHL—but have also had long bouts with inconsistency in their short careers. Kindl looks like he’ll grow into an NHLer and Smith has the potential to be a very strong blueliner for years.
The individual players aren’t the problem this season. It’s the roles they’ll be forced to fill.
Kronwall is undoubtedly an NHL player. But is he the type of defenseman that can not only play on the top-pairing, but control opponents top-lines and cover for a defensive partner that may be out of his element? That’s the role that Lidstrom had played for years with the Red Wings and it’s the role that needs to be filled by someone on the roster. Detroit is depending on Kronwall to fill the Alpha-Defenseman role in some capacity.
Ericsson can be a good player when he’s playing 18 minutes per game and shows flashes of potential throughout a game. But can he be a defenseman that the Wings depend on 82 games per year to give them 20 solid minutes every game? Ask any Red Wings fan and they’ll tell you it’s not a sure thing.
Brendan Smith has all the tools to be a very good defenseman, but do the Red Wings really want to depend on him as a top-4 defenseman while he’s still trying to find his way as an NHL player? For that matter, do they want to depend on Kindl either?
Can White or Quincey prove that they are top-pairing defenseman? Sure, they’re NHL defensemen, but there’s a huge difference between “making a roster,” and being a player that opponents work their game plan around.
You can address your condolences to: Howard, Jimmy.
The strange part is that the Red Wings have always been the standard when it came to putting individual players in positions to succeed. An above-average player may look mediocre on a top-pairing or top-line, but they’d look much more impressive when playing a secondary role while all-world talents did the heavy lifting. For all of the things the Red Wings organization does right, that may be the real key to their success.
Of course, we’re not exactly breaking ground here. The Red Wings are going to have to address their blueline in a way that they haven’t been forced to do in about 20 years. But with Ryan Suter choosing the Minnesota Wild and the rest of the top-tier defenseman already signing in other cities, the Wings (and their fans) are slowly coming to grips that this may be the crew they’re forced to open the season with in 2012. Sure, Ken Holland can continue to pursue a trade for a veteran (and by all accounts, he should), but there’s no guarantee that a guy like Keith Yandle is walking through that door.
Every season the experts look at the Red Wings and say, “this is the year that it starts to show that they’re too old.” And every regular season, Detroit proves that it’s still a playoff caliber team. But while we were all watching the veterans celebrate their birthdays, we may have been watching the wrong thing. It’s not age threatens to doom the Red Wings’ 2012-13 season; it’s that they have a below average defensive corps. Remove the logo from the front of their jerseys and the six players set to start on opening night do not resemble a playoff blueline. They just don’t.
It’s hard to believe this is the reality, but for the first time since 1990, Detroit may not make the postseason. Even more shocking, it’s not age that could put an end to their playoff streak—it’s a lack of talent.
Who saw that coming?