Detroit Red Wings Training Camp Preview Part 2: Is the Defense Ageless or Aged?
In part one of my Detroit Red Wings training camp preview, I looked at the depth at forward and the logjam developing for spots on the fourth line.
While the depth on the blue-line isn't quite what it is at forward, there should be some healthy competition in camp for a seventh (possibly even sixth) rearguard slot once camp gets underway in Traverse City, MI on Sept. 18th.
However, no matter how hungry youngsters like Jakub Kindl and Brendan Smith (more on these two later) are to prove themselves in camp, odds are they won't be wearing a Red Wings' jersey with any regularity for a couple of years.
This being the case, Detroit's defense for 2010-11 will be among the oldest in the league.
Now, when things go good, old players are called "experienced." When things go bad, well, then they're over the hill.
Detroit's defensive pairings are essentially set at this point, and they should go, in order of depth: Nicklas Lidstrom/Brian Rafalski, Niklas Kronwall/Brad Stuart, and Jonathan Ericsson/Ruslan Salei.
Set or no, how well each pair performs, and, more importantly, how healthy and energized they will stay is something the Red Wings themselves likely have some concerns about.
What follows is a player by player look at Detroit's (projected) top six defensemen. We'll take a look at the Red Wings' top two defensive prospects that will be fighting for a spot as a seventh defenseman this season, and finally, we'll predict some alternate pairings that might emerge should the projected duos under perform.
Stored properly and handled with care, many wines will only get better with age. However, if kept in the wrong conditions, even the best wines may turn into vinegar with the passage of time.
Metaphorically speaking, I think it's safe to say Lidstrom resembles the former.
Nicklas Lidstrom has become one of the greatest defensemen in NHL history because of his supreme hockey intellect, superb physical conditioning, and mind-boggling durability. These are the same things that have allowed the 40-year-old Swede to enter his 19th NHL season still counted among the better defenders in the league.
Like the whole of his team last year, Lidstrom didn't have the type of statistical season he's used to (nine G, 40 A, +22) in 2009-10.
Some could point to the numerous injuries suffered throughout last season as a reason for Lidstrom's drop in production. Still, others might point to his birth certificate and argue (and perhaps convincingly so) that, even the greatest of players begin to decline with age, and Lidstrom is no exception.
For my money, I'd say the truth is somewhere in the middle. Not having his regularly impressive supporting cast around him in 2009-10 certainly contributed to his drop in points. But, even with a fully healthy and talent-laden line-up, Lidstrom isn't quite the dominating force he used to be.
Regardless, he's still a damn good player and should contribute with regular brilliance.
Up until the Olympic break in February 2010, Brian Rafalski looked sluggish, tired, and a bit off-kilter on Detroit's blue-line.
Then, he started his two week stint with Team USA and exploded offensively, leading the tournament in points after Week 1, and looked nearly unbeatable defensively for much of the tournament.
Whatever was ailing Rafalski in Detroit, seemed to be cured upon touching down in Vancouver.
Though Rafalski certainly looked better upon returning to Detroit to finish the season, his performance for much of the playoffs looked, once again, out of sync. His offensive production was fine (11 points in 12 games), but his usually superb positioning and puck-handling skills seemed to have diminished from previous seasons.
Though he dealt with groin and back injuries in the latter half of the season, one wonders if there was not some more debilitating ailment Rafalski was trying to play through. Players of his calibre don't often slip as quickly as he did unless their bodies are limiting their usual effectiveness.
When people talk about Detroit's early exit in the playoffs being a blessing in disguise as it will afford players an extended rest, Rafalski is one of those players that should benefit the most.
Admit it, you've gone on Youtube more than a couple of times since 2008 and searched for "Kronwall hit on Havlat" only to relish in the glory of that devastating (and yes, legal) hit.
Though Swedes are known more often for finesse, Niklas Kronwall's ability to lay out bone-crunching hits is largely what has secured him as a top-four defender in Detroit.
As satisfying and effective as his physical game is, his susceptibility to injury is nearly as well known as his open ice hits.
Kronwall will be coming into camp less than two weeks after having arthroscopic knee surgery to remove debris from an injury sustained last season. As such, how much he'll be able to participate is still up in the air.
When healthy, Kronwall isn't only a dangerous hitter, but an above average offensive player, capable of running the team's second power-play unit. However, when hampered by injuries, his physical game suffers significantly, as does his overall value to the team.
Normally, stats tell you a lot about a player. But, looking at Brad Stuart's 20-point, minus-12 performance of last season really doesn't do justice to the value he brought to the Red Wings through 82 games.
Ever the physical player, Stuart and his regular defense-partner, the aforementioned Kronwall, have wrecked havoc on opposing teams' top offensive forwards. Last season, Stuart was without his buddy for nearly half the season, leaving him to shoulder the majority of the physical defensive load.
He did not disappoint.
As Detroit struggled to get healthy, Stuart emerged as perhaps their most reliable defender, not only continuing to dominate physically, but often playing a smart defensive game in his own zone.
True, his tendency to turn the puck over was exploited now and again, but overall, Stuart raised his game when the team needed him to and that counts for more than what shows up on a stat sheet.
There were times during Detroit's 2009 playoff run when Jonathan Ericsson looked like the best defenseman on either team and he had yet to play his first full season in the NHL. At 6' 4", he not only made use of his projecting frame, but exhibited a foot speed and hockey sense that few young defenders can display so early in their career.
Things looked bright for the 25-year-old Swede as the Wings began the 2009-10 season. However, the rigors of playing a full regular season, combined with a leg injury that sidelined him for 20 games not only stunted his development, but set him behind the pace set from the previous playoff year.
Ericsson acknowledged his struggles with life as an NHL regular at the close of last season and has stated he's more prepared for the role this season.
If he can come close to the defenseman he was in the '09 playoffs, his time on the third pair may not last long as the Wings clearly want him well on his way to top four status.
To this point, these player profiles have largely referenced each man's 2009-10 season in Detroit.
Salei spent the past two season with the Colorado Avalanche. However, his 2009-10 season was limited to just 14 games as he was sidelined with a back injury for most of the year, and after playing for Team Belarus at the 2010 Winter Olympics, returned to Colorado as reserve defenseman.
Once a top-four blue-liner in Anaheim (the team that drafted him and for which he played nine of his 13 NHL seasons), Salei is now properly positioned as Detroit's sixth defenseman.
His grit and nastiness should come in handy in the playoffs, as will his experience.
However, though he was signed to a one-year, $500,000 deal over the summer, Salei will still be expected to prove his worth in training camp in order to avoid splitting time with recently demoted Derek Meech or one of Detroit's young prospects.
Speaking of young prospects, let's get back to Kindl and Smith mentioned at the start. These two are No. 1 and 2, respectively, on Detroit's prospect list and will be given a shot to make the team out of camp.
Detroit's first pick in the 2005 Entry Draft has come along nicely in his four years as an AHL player.
The Czech-born defender made his NHL debut during last year's injury-plagued season, appearing in three games, contributing no points, and had an even-plus/minus rating.
Kindl is projected to be a top four defender and while his size (6' 3", 213 lbs), speed, and willingness to play with an edge is promising, he has yet to round out his offensive game and play with the puck.
Kindl has an excellent shot at emerging as Detroit's number seven defender, however, the recent demotion of Derek Meech to the AHL suggests only Meech's departure via trade or waiver wire pick up will pave the way for such a role for Kindl this year.
Compared at different times to Niklas Kronwall and Brian Campbell, Smith's career potential figures to be that of a power-play quarterback.
Smith was a Junior at the University of Wisconsin last year where he turned in an impressive breakout season which saw him lead all NCAA defensemen in scoring with 52 points. Clearly an elite player at the college level, Smith decided to skip his senior year and signed a three-year, entry level contract with the Red Wings in late May of 2010.
That's kind of when Smith's story begins.
Within days of signing the contract, Smith was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct after allegedly punching a man at a party.
Questionable off-ice conduct, as it turns out, isn't a new thing for Smith as he had previously been suspended for a game while with Wisconsin for violating the team's off-ice conduct rules.
Behavior (and perhaps, maturity) issues aside, Smith is still a bright prospect for the Wings and should greatly benefit from the experience of participating in his first NHL training camp.
As is the case with Kindl, in fact, more so, making the team, even as a No. 7 defender is all but impossible this season.
However, should (God forbid), Detroit suffer a rash of injuries on the blue-line this season, having a young defenseman of Smith's ability on the depth chart bodes well for the Wings this year and beyond.
As I stated at the beginning of this preview, there's not a whole lot of mystery surrounding what Detroit's defensive pairings will look like at the start of the season. Nevertheless, training camp is an opportunity for a coach to tinker and make adjustments that might prove necessary should Plan A fail to prove successful. With this in mind, I give you the following:
A prediction of Detroit's alternate defensive pairings for 2010-11:
Top Pair: Lidstrom - Kronwall
2nd Pair: Stuart- Rafalski
3rd Pair: Ericsson - Meech/Kindl
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