Red Wings' Youth Need To Step Up on Blueline and in the Crease

Jim Balint@MrJBalintCorrespondent IDecember 9, 2009

The Red Wings are slowly getting healthier, but still need you players to assume a bigger role on the team.

Today, I’ll take a look at the defensive players that the Wings are hoping can step in and step up.

Considering Jonathan Ericsson has only been playing defense for seven years, he has come a long way in a short time. When the Wings found him in 2001, he was playing center for his junior team. The Wings’ scout convinced him to switch to defense, and the Wings drafted him with the last pick in the 2002 draft.

Ericsson made his first appearance in the NHL in 2007, playing eight games, notching a goal, four penalty minutes, and a minus-three rating.

The next season, the Wings called him up from Grand Rapids for an extended stay, to fill in for the injured Andreas Lilja.

Leading up to the playoffs, Ericsson posted a goal, three assists, 15 penalty minutes, and a minus-one rating in 19 games.

Spending most of the playoffs on a defensive pairing with Nicklas Lidstrom, Ericsson drew the team's top line each shift. In the second round, against the Anaheim Ducks, he tallied two assists, and even got his nose dirty, fighting Corey Perry.

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In the conference finals, Ericsson saw a healthy dose of top forwards Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane. In four games, he posted a goal, an assist, six penalty minutes, and a plus-two rating, while averaging over 20 minutes a game.

Coach Mike Babcock was a bit more careful with Ericsson in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Penguins. While he did score two goals and added an assist in the seven game series, Ericsson averaged a little over 16 minutes a game.

Now a fixture on the Wings’ blue line, Ericsson is developing into the shutdown defender the team will need once Nicklas Lidstrom retires. He has learned much from spending time both in the locker room and on a line with the perennial All-Star and Norris Trophy nominee.

Ericsson does have one advantage that Lidstrom never enjoyed: size.

At 6’4”, Ericsson can stand up physically to the bigger forwards in the league. This, not to mention his long reach, makes him a challenge to get around. If he can fill out that frame, he can become a defender to rival the likes of Chris Pronger.

Jakub Kindl was called up to help the defensive corps when Brian Rafalski went down with back spasms earlier this season. In the two games he played, he posted a minus-two rating and averaged just over 13 minutes a game.

That’s not a very striking stat line, but for a rookie defenseman, it’s not bad either. He didn’t make any glaring mistakes expected of a rookie playing in his first two NHL games. He posted an even plus/minus in New Jersey, where the Devils had their pick of which forwards they wanted to use against him. Not overwhelmingly impressive, but it shows he’s making strides to live up to his high draft pick status.

Back in 2003, he was drafted fifth overall to Kitchener in the CHL import draft. After a  rough first season he found his game, finishing sixth in defensemen scoring the next season and helping his team to the three seed in the playoffs.

That season, the Wings drafted Kindl 19th overall and signed him to a three-year contract.

Kindl was brought in the following preseason to tryout and almost made the team out of camp, but was sent back to Kitchener to refine his game. He finished the year eighth in defensemen scoring and posted a plus-23 rating.

Kindle has spent the past two years in Grand Rapids. He experienced a slow rookie campaign there as well, having a league-worst plus/minus despite a hot streak in the first half of the season. In his sophomore season, he found his stride again, scoring five goals and 22 assists in the first half of the season, earning an all-star nomination.

If not for the depth the Wings currently boast, Kindle would be on the roster right now.

While he could certainly benefit from the experience, he does have some issues in his game to iron out. If he can correct the giveaways in his own zone, become more consistent offensively, and play with a little more edge, he will no doubt develop into a top-two defenseman for the Wings. He has all the skills to succeed in today’s game, he just needs to put it all together.

The Detroit goaltending carousel continues to spin, and the most recent addition to the mix has been Jimmy Howard.

Despite being tabbed “the goalie of the future” for several years, Howard has spent the majority of the past four years in Grand Rapids, awaiting his chance to prove himself.

When signed initially, he was beat out by incumbent goalie tandem Chris Osgood and Manny Legace. The following year, the Wings let Legace walk, but re-signed Dominik Hasek.

Many thought Howard would get his chance last season when Hasek retired again, but the Wings signed Ty Conklin from Pittsburgh.  

Finally, Howard received his chance to play this season, and has done a decent job. He’s even outperforming Ozzy, if only slightly.

In his first full season, he has posted an 8-5 record, with a 2.55 GAA and .910 save percentage. Comparatively, Osgood has posted a 6-5 record with a 2.75 GAA and .896 save percentage.

If Howard wants to cash in on the “future of the franchise” moniker, he needs to minimize those soft goals that seem to plague Red Wing goalies and develop confidence in the crease. In order to stay in the net as a starter, he needs to act like he belongs there.

Regardless of what was going on around them, you could never shake the confidence of Martin Brodeur or Patrick Roy. If Howard can play well more consistently, he has the ability to take the starting role from the sentimental favorite.

Of the three players examined here, Howard is the x-factor. Ericsson is established as a solid defenseman and will only get better with time. Kindl has been sent back to Grand Rapids on Monday and needs to continue his development.

Howard is here to stay, and if he can turn into the goalie that the Wings’ brass promised he was, he can take the Wings deep into a playoff run.

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