TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – While there are some in the hockey world who may think the young defense in Detroit was a mirage last season, there are those who have seen the firsthand growth in the Red Wings’ 20-something defensemen that they believe otherwise.
The days of Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski and Brad Stuart locking down the blue line are over. The torch has been passed to guys like Brendan Smith, Jakub Kindl, Brian Lashoff and Danny DeKeyser, the young guns who will be keys to the Red Wings’ defense for years to come.
“Kindl, Smith, DeKeyser and Lashoff are huge for us because they are kids,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “Can they do it again? If they don’t do it again we’re not as good, so I don’t know the answer to that. I’m just going to watch and see what happens. We need them all if we are to advance if we’re going to be a good team and the D is everything.”
Heading into the abbreviated lockout season, the defense was supposed to be the Red Wings’ weak spot. Injuries compounded the problem for a unit that used 10 different defenders during the 48-game schedule. But by the end of the regular-season, the defense had significantly cut down on the goals-against. In the first month, Detroit surrendered 2.83 goals per game, but by the end of the year they were allowing just 1.5 goals in the final 10 games.
“We had our struggles last year, there’s no doubt about that. A lot of ups and downs,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “We had some games where some things went really well. We had some games where they didn’t go so well. It wasn’t very pretty at all, but I think as the year went on we figured out how we had to play and I think everyone chipped in. We got better and better, and that’s a big key. You want to get better and better as the year goes on and not the other way around.”
Last January, the Red Wings didn’t know what they had in Lashoff, who was in AHL Grand Rapids, and DeKeyser, who was finishing his collegiate career at Western Michigan. Lashoff was pressed into service when injuries mounted. He made his NHL debut in the season’s second game, and made quite an impression.
“It was a great year. It was learning experience as well as me being able to take advantage of an opportunity that was there. I learned a lot,” Lashoff said. “I had my ups and downs, but overall I learned a lot and how to play in this league. It’s tough, but I think I learned as the season went on.”
Lashoff produced a goal and four assists in 31 games with the Wings. Still, he was contend to be the guy that the Wings summoned from Grand Rapids when a roster spot opened in Detroit.
“Going into last season I wanted to be that guy that was the first call up,” he said. “I think when they had me there it was a huge confidence booster and it showed I was close to being able to play. I wanted to show them I was ready when needed to be called on.
“I take the momentum from some of the games I played last year from when I was playing and playing a lot and I’ll take that into this year.”
The future remains unseen for the young defensemen, but something Babcock isn't worried about is a sophomore jinx.
“I think that’s more so on a forward when this space goes away if you’ve scored," the Wings' coach said. "I’m not so certain that it is for these guys, they’re defenders who defend. Most of them really – besides Kindl’s got a little offensive – I mean, they’re defensive defensemen.”
While Lashoff bounced between Detroit and Grand Rapids a few times, only hand surgery forced DeKeyser out of the lineup a month after he arrived in April.
“He just skates so good and he’s so smart He’s gotten way stronger, he came in at 197-pounds, which is significantly heavier and stronger than last time,” Babcock said, referring to DeKeyser. “It’s still a great advancement for him, I mean, they’re all a year older, a year more experienced and should be a year better, and those are four key guys for us. Lash and those three got to make a big imprint for us.”
The Wings like what DeKeyser brings to the defensive zone. He’s a smooth puck-mover and a steady defensive defenseman, who will only get better with time, Kronwall said.
“He makes things look so simple out there, regardless of the situations he gets put in,” Kronwall said. “He just seems to figure out a way to get through it and make it look simple.”
It’s that composure in the defensive end that will help DeKeyser become a valuable tool for the offense.
“The way we want to be playing the game as D-men we need everybody to be able to move the puck,” Kronwall said, “and I think DK really solidified our top six when he came in and ever our top four. He was that good.”
The Wings will start the season next month with seven defensemen on the roster, including Kyle Quincey and Jonathan Ericsson. Should injuries occur, the front office staff is confident in the stockpile of young talent they’ve accumulated in Grand Rapids, knowing that Xavier Ouellet, Ryan Sproul and Richard Nedomlel are only a phone call away.
“We know that our scouts have done a great job over the years, making sure that we get good people into the organization, not just good players,” Kronwall said. “These are young kids who are knocking on the door. They want to grab someone’s jersey and that’s the way you want it to be.”
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