The Wings will need to step things up defensively if they hope to contend for a playoff spot.
Well folks, we’re already fifteen games into the 2017-18 NHL season, and I still haven’t gotten around to writing the final installment of my Red Wings preview that I’m sure all my readers have been awaiting with bated breath. I’d like to take this opportunity to personally apologize to both of you; you shouldn’t have to wait this long for my opinions. In this segment I’ll take a look at what Detroit has to offer from a defensive perspective, and we’ll review how the team is looking so far this year.
Spoiler alert: if you thought the forwards preview was grim, you may want to avert your eyes from the first section.
Probable defensive pairings:
DeKeyser – Daley
Kronwall – Green
Ericsson – Jensen
So if you’ve just awoken from the coma you’ve been in for the last five years, and are wondering how the Wings managed to go from being one of the most feared teams in the league to one of the least, this ought to do a fair amount of explaining. The defensive pairings the Wings are throwing out on a nightly basis are meh at best and terribad at worst. Oh, my kingdom to have Nick Lidstrom back in his prime; even in his current state he could still probably improve this Wings defensive corps. Garnering top-line minutes when healthy (although currently out of the lineup for the next few weeks while healing an ankle injury) is Danny DeKeyser, the 27-year-old defenseman entering his fourth season in the league. After a promising first couple of seasons in Detroit, DeKeyser was rewarded with a six-year, $30 million contract – one that now looks to be one of the worst in the league. Over the past two seasons DeKeyser has come up well short of the lofty expectations fans and executives have set for him, playing like a below-average defenseman, while getting paid like a well-above average one. The fact that he’s still a top-pairing D-man for Detroit says a lot about the talent the Wings have on the back end.
DeKeyser’s usual partner is Trevor Daley, a veteran defenseman the Wings signed from Pittsburgh as a free agent in the offseason. Daley brings an immediate – if unspectacular – presence to the team, and is respected around the league as a solid, defensive defenseman who moves the puck well, but isn’t necessarily a scoring threat. In Daley’s thirteen NHL seasons he has only cracked double-digit goals once, when he put up sixteen while manning the blue line for the Dallas Stars in ’14-15. This is a great signing for the Red Wings, as he should bolster the Wings’ defense a fair amount, a needed boost for a unit that gave up the most goals in the Eastern Conference last season.
On the second defensive pairing are veterans Mike Green and Niklas Kronwall. Green is probably the most talented defenseman on the team this season, and brings an offensive aspect to his game that none of the other blue-liners offer. As such, Green often anchors the Wings’ top powerplay unit, where his shots from the point give goalies fits. In contrast to the defensive-minded Daley, Green has cracked double-digit goals in six NHL seasons, including last season and in 2008-09, when he potted a whopping 31 with the Washington Capitals. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Green finish the season on a team other than Detroit, however, as he is perhaps the best trade bait the Wings have to offer. Kronwall, on the other hand, may not finish the season on the team for a different reason. Injuries have plagued the 36-year old for the past handful of seasons, and the Swedish defenseman is currently playing on what roughly equates to half a knee. Once one of the most feared players in the league, Kronwall terrorized opposing forward carrying the puck up the half-boards with his patented back-first hits. Sadly, without the use of functioning knees (and being able to have Nick Lidstrom cover up for any mistakes he might have made), Kronwall has regressed into an old, slow shell of his former self. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kronwall goes on Long-term Injured Reserve at some point during the season, and eventually retires. At least we still have old videos like this, I suppose:
Making up the third pairing are Jonathan Ericsson and Nick Jensen. Ericsson is essentially a taller version of Kronwall: old and slow, although he doesn’t really have the excuse of injury to fall back on. He’s been a much-maligned player amongst the Wings fanbase for years, and is often included on lists of worst contracts around the league. Jensen is coming off of a somewhat promising rookie season, and looks to be a solid puck mover, but isn’t particularly physically imposing. The team will be banking on his improved play to potentially anchor the defensive corps a few years down the road.
The bottom line: I mean, the Wings are still gonna get scored on. The addition of Daley was a nice step in addressing some of the team’s defensive shortcomings, but I still think the best case scenario for Wings fans is that the team can manage to be mediocre in their own end this season. The horrendous goal differential the team put up last year needs to be attacked from both sides if the team wants to contend for a playoff spot this year.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5
If there’s one position that the Wings are decidedly above league average at, it’s goaltender. Both Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek have shown themselves to be highly capable in net, and can be relied upon to provide a lot of support when the team in front of them inevitably screws things up. Unfortunately, both players have struggled with inconsistency during their careers. Howard has played well when given the chance, posting a solid .915 save percentage during his time in Detroit, including a stellar 2.10 GAA and .927 save % last season. Howard, however, has struggled to stay healthy, as injuries have kept him off the ice for much of his career.
Petr Mrazek represents a very different style of play from Howard’s, as he relies much more on his athleticism to stop shots, whereas Howard is much more technically proficient. As such, Mrazek is prone to streaky periods of play. Mrazek has put up a similarly solid .913 save % over his three years in Detroit, but that includes a disastrous .901 last season – his only year under .918. Mrazek’s riskier style of play often leads to easy scoring opportunities for opposing teams, and his poor rebound control leaves much to be desired from a player with so much potential. The Red Wings organization has criticized his work ethic in the past, sending a message over the offseason by choosing to protect the older Howard in the NHL expansion draft over the one-time perceived future of the organization.
The bottom line: Wings fans should expect Blashill to play the hot hand at goalie, with Howard probably getting 60% of the starts. Both players are highly capable netminders, and if Mrazek can regain his confidence he will remain the future of the team. This is a position the Wings will not expect to struggle at this season, although if the team around them underperforms I would expect Howard to be traded to a contender at the trade deadline. This is easily the Wings’ deepest position.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Final predictions: This is kind of a hard team to read going into this season. The forwards are largely young and unproven, and though they have a fair amount of potential, they aren’t yet expected to be world-beaters. If the defense can at least be mediocre and players like Mantha and Frk can have breakout seasons, the Wings can likely sneak into the playoffs as a 7- or 8-seed. As it is, I think the team is better than last season, but still not a playoff contender. I see them putting up 85 points – a six-point improvement from last season’s efforts – and just missing out on the playoffs. At least they should be an exciting team to watch.