The Detroit Red Wings have a number of X-factors this season on their roster. The varying degrees of success for these X-factors will obviously determine how well the Red Wings do this season.
Some of these X-factors can range from goaltending to how well the top-six forwards group does. Other issues at play can be the contributions of those players who actually make the roster.
This article will focus on an entirely different X-factor, though: defense.
Or more specifically, why Jonathan Ericsson is the most important X-factor on the Red Wings this season.
Overstocked Forwards Group
If anything is going to be lacking on this Red Wings team, it is going to be on the blue line. The Red Wings have 16 forwards signed to NHL contracts, per CapGeek, meaning that they are more than good with talent up front.
This takes some pressure off of each individual forward, as the forwards who end up making the team will be the forwards who can help the Red Wings (hopefully) win consistently.
The forwards group didn't seem to be the issue last year, and it should continue to be one of Detroit's strengths.
Goaltending Looks to Be Solid Again
With the exception of Jonas Gustavsson's uncertain ability to back up Jimmy Howard for an entire season, the Red Wings' goaltending situation remains relatively solid.
Howard defied some hockey pundits who questioned whether he could win without longtime blue liner Nicklas Lidstrom playing in front of him.
Given the Red Wings weren't overly successful last regular season—finishing in seventh place—the playoff goaltending was nothing to argue about, as Howard backstopped the Red Wings to a 3-1 series lead against Chicago before losing three straight.
If Howard can remotely duplicate his efforts of last season, the goaltending X-factor is off of the table.
Defense as the Weakest Link
For at least the second straight season—and possibly longer, depending on who is counting—the Red Wings defense will be the team's weakest (but not necessarily weak) link. Although the Detroit blue line took a while to form last season, it eventually solidified late in the regular season, just in time for the playoffs.
This long process was drawn out by the Red Wings' multiple injuries to members of their blue line last season.
This season, the Red Wings have newer defensemen who are fighting for a starting position. Both Brian Lashoff and Dan DeKeyser were not on the team at the start of last season. This means that once again, the Red Wings defense will have to adjust and take a period of growth to mature into the defense that they had at the end of last season.
Ericsson Must Continue to Improve
Admittedly, Ericsson had looked like a bit of a failure when he re-signed for three years and $9.75 million.
- THE MALIK REPORT: Jonathan Ericsson, one of the NHL’s better-playing ‘Mr. Irrelevants’: Sportsnet posited a... http://t.co/Z1FidMQEOB— Kukla's Korner (@kuklaskorner) June 29, 2013
When he signed the deal in the 2011 offseason, fans and hockey pundits alike wondered if Ericsson was a flameout after his stellar 2009 playoffs.
Bleacher Report's P.J. Sapienza wondered, "Could he have been just a one-hit wonder?"
Sapienza went on in his article to put forward that Ericsson was at the time only, "at best...the fifth-defenseman, and that is too steep of a price to pay in the salary-cap world."
Ericsson has steadily improved his play with Detroit, proving that he can actually log top-line minutes this past season.
Jonathan Ericsson finally came into his own this season. He is 29. Brendan Smith is 24. #redwings— Nick Cotsonika (@cotsonika) May 28, 2013
He has become much more physical on other players and no longer looks like he is out of place while hitting people. This past season, Ericsson became one of the most reliable players at clearing the puck out of his own zone—something he struggled with earlier in his career.
Ericsson Needs to Be the Red Wings' Most Consistent Defenseman
Plain and simple, Ericsson needs to be consistent this season. He needs to prove to himself and to the rest of the hockey world that the monumental strides he took last season were not flukes.
If Detroit is to continue to take strides toward a Stanley Cup, it cannot depend on the consistent play of its newcomers on defense.
The consistency that is expected must come from Ericsson.
Other slightly more seasoned players like Kyle Quincey might have more playing experience than younger defensemen, but that doesn't necessarily mean Quincey and Brendan Smith will be consistent.
Ericsson must carry the defense. Yes, Niklas Kronwall has a big responsibility, but for the Red Wings to go anywhere in the regular season or postseason, Ericsson must be as good or better than Kronwall.
A Lot to Prove
It isn't that Ericsson has a lot to prove with this 2013-14 season. It is that Ericsson has everything to prove this season.
He is in a contract year and will be an unrestricted free agent next season. Although he will earn a handsome pay raise next year, Ericsson can put himself in the "top-tier defenseman" category if he can prove that he belongs on the first pairing with Kronwall on a full-time basis.
In order to do this, Ericsson needs to be consistent, decisive and strong on the puck.
He may not contribute a ton of points on the scoreboard, but he must be the best defensive defenseman that the Red Wings have.
If he can step up to the plate this season, the Red Wings and the rest of their younger defense corps truly have a chance to do something special.
All statistics and information via CapGeek.com unless otherwise noted.