For much of this NHL season, the news regarding Detroit’s professional hockey has been about as cheery as that regarding the city’s finances.
The Red Wings’ woes have been (and will continue to be) so well documented that some of the brighter spots peeking through the gloom of this season aren't getting much attention.
For example, defenseman Niklas Kronwall has been evolving his game throughout the season, and that has given the Detroit Red Wings a substantial edge—but his effort seems to have gone largely unnoticed.
Though Kronwall was dubbed Detroit’s top blueliner upon the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom, this was largely an aspirational appointment.
While nobody entertained the notion that Lidstrom could be replaced—he never will be—his slot at the top of the Red Wings defensive depth chart had to be, and thus, Kronwall slid right into it.
Still, Kronwall was a No. 1 defenseman in name only.
While his legendary open-ice hits, smooth skating and offensive instincts had long since made him an invaluable part of Detroit’s arsenal, Kronwall’s ability to suitably fill a No. 1 position was a mystery.
His first opportunity was cut in half last season due to the NHL lockout, yet he delivered an outstanding performance, potting five goals among 29 points through all 48 games.
Kronwall’s minus-five rating left something to be desired but given the Red Wings’ injuries last year, it was hardly something on which to fault him.
Still, half of a season wasn’t exactly a solid measure of Kronwall’s ability to truly distinguish himself as Detroit’s top rearguard.
Through 44 games played this season, Kronwall has not only continued to produce offensively (4G, 24A) and maintain a plus-five rating, but he’s also been able to elevate his game in a way that goes beyond statistics.
Watching Kronwall over the course of the season, one sees that he’s been able to grow his game to another level.
Kronwall’s thundering body checks have been replaced by an ability to use his positioning to foil oncoming forwards. While Kronwall was always adept at jumping up in the play offensively, he’s chosen his spots much more carefully as the season has progressed—providing a good example to Detroit’s youthful blue-line corps.
Indeed, when defenseman Brendan Smith was sidelined with a shoulder injury in early November, he told MLive.com’s Ansar Kahn his plan was to watch Kronwall to help improve his game upon his return.
Smith was a minus-six and had a single point through his first 10 games of the 2013-14 season. In the 10 games he played after returning from injury, he improved to plus-four and picked up three points, ostensibly by doing his best “Kronwall” imitation.
That imitation is pulled off much better when focusing on responsible defensive play rather than crushing onrushing forwards.
Funny, as being “Kronwalled” is now a ubiquitous reference to any debilitating collision, but the man responsible for its existence has displayed the reason why with ever-increasing rarity.
Niklas Kronwall has changed his game this season to emerge into the true No. 1 defender Lidstrom’s retirement forced him to be.
The edge his punishing physical play gave the Detroit Red Wings in seasons past has been replaced by the edge only a mature, responsible leader can provide a team.
Kronwall’s emergence into one of the NHL’s top No. 1 defenders has not only provided the Red Wings with an indispensable resource on the roster, but also a rare bright spot amidst an otherwise dreary slog through the 2013-14 season.