DETROIT – Fans will get a look at two of the best young defensemen in the league when the Red Wings host the Nashville Predators Tuesday at Joe Louis Arena.
Seth Jones and Danny DeKeyser are currently ranked 1-2 in rookie ice time while showing glimpses of offensive prowess in their first full NHL seasons.
While the two U.S.-born defensemen have played well in their freshmen year, they took different paths to pro hockey.
The son of a former NBA star, Jones was the fourth overall pick selected by the Predators last June. The 19-year-old, who played on the U.S. National Development team in Ann Arbor, has played in every game this season and trails only perennial All-Star Shea Weber by two-points for the scoring lead among Nashville defensemen.
“They’re both gifted players,” Wings goalie Jimmy Howard said. “Both have taken different routes to getting where they are. There’s no wrong way. If you’re going to make it to the NHL, you’re going to make it. Both of them deserve all the praise they’ve gotten this year. Seth Jones, I met him over the summer at the (Olympic) orientation camp. He’s a good kid, humble, just like Danny. Two very special players.”
DeKeyser’s path sent the Warren, Mich., native through the junior ranks in western Canada and eventually to Western Michigan University. He wasn’t drafted and it wasn’t until after his third season with the Broncos that he became a highly-sought commodity as a rookie free agent last April.
“I don’t think anyone ever considered Dan DeKeyser in the class with Jones, so that’s a compliment to him,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “But DK is a guy who took a totally different route.”
Jones was ranked No. 1 by some NHL clubs, but ended up falling to the Predators at No. 4 in the June draft. He was among three Americans taken in the first round and has been compared to future hall-of-fame defenseman Chris Pronger.
DeKeyser didn’t draw the same comparisons.
“I said to DK, ‘Why did you go to Trail?’ Because no one wanted him,” Babcock said. “He told me when he got to the U.S. junior league he started as the third defenseman and ended as the sixth. ‘Why did you go to Western?’ It was the only place that wanted him. That’s been the story, where Jones has been a star from the get-go. It’s now that DeKeyser has taken off so much that he’s putting himself in a different class.”
When the Red Wings signed DeKeyser last spring, they liked him for his ability to be a stay-at-home, shutdown-type of defenseman. The 6-foot-3 DeKeyser is a smooth skater who uses is long reach to baffle opposing puck-handlers. But lately, he has gained more confidence on the offensive end of the rink, where he has produced two goals and six assists in the last 10 games.
“I think his confidence is getting better and better and I think he’s realizing too what he’s capable of,” Niklas Kronwall said. “When he came in he was so solid for us at both ends, but I think now he just feels confident enough to join the rush too. He’s really good in our own zone, making that tape-to-tape pass and now he’s joining the rush and being really affective for us whether it’s on the PP or just 5-on-5 creating chances. He’s a real good player out there, so it’s great to see him and we need that from him.”
With confidence comes bigger responsibility and more ice time. DeKeyser even played stepped into a specialty team role last Friday when Daniel Alfredsson was a last-minute scratch against Washington. The blue-liner played the point on the second power-play unit and even scored in more than 26-minutes of ice time – five-minutes more than his season average.
DeKeyser has averaged 21:46, which is 2:18 shy of Jones who is leading the league’s rookies with 24:04 of ice time. The son of former NBA forward Popeye Jones, the Nashville rookie has four assists in the last 10 games.
“Playing that many minutes is great for their confidence early,” defenseman Kyle Quincey said. “When you play that many minutes you don’t have that much time to think. So I think it’s nice for those guys to get into a rhythm and keep going.”
Quincey can’t say enough good things about the growth of his defensive partner.
“You’re seeing more of his offensive ability coming out,” Quincey said. “He’s getting more ice time and the confidence is coming out and he’s playing big minutes. The coaches are showing confidence in him, so he’s going to have confidence in himself.”
Though DeKeyser became ill Monday and left practice early, Babcock said the young defenseman will play against Nashville.
SHOOTOUT DROUGHT: This is the ninth season that the shootout has been used since the NHL instituted it in 2005, and surprisingly, Detroit is in the bottom third of the league with a 38-45 record – that’s a mediocre 45.8 percent.
Since the shootout inception, Detroit shooters have a 32 percent success rate, scoring 93 goals on 291 chances. But in recent seasons, the Red Wings have struggled mightily in the shootout. They are winless in their last seven shootouts at Joe Louis Arena and 2-9 in their last 11 overall. Worse yet, Detroit shooters are 6-for-38 in that stretch.
“The elephant in the room is we haven’t scored in the shootout,” said Babcock, who had his players taking shootout chances at the end of Monday’s practice.
Through 2011-12, Datsyuk led the league with 31 goals in the tiebreaker, but since then, the most entertaining player in shootout history has scored just twice in 11 attempts and is tied for third all-time with Florida’s Brad Boyes.
Kronwall is the only defenseman to ever score a shootout goal for the Red Wings, only because the shootout went 11 rounds. So don’t expect him, or any other rear guard, to take a shot anytime soon.
“If you’re looking at a D-man shooting I think you’re looking at 11 rounds again,” said Kronwall, who is 1-for-2 in shootouts. “It’s whoever the coach feels comfortable with, (but) given the chance – and I’m sure any of the D-men would love getting a chance – you also realize that there are a few guys ahead of you.”
Defenseman Brendan Smith was a solid shootout scorer during his minor-leagues days and wouldn’t mind taking a turn in an NHL shootout.
“When I was with Grand Rapids I was one of the top three shooters, so I’ve always been a pretty good shooter,” said Smith, who was 6-for-14 in AHL tiebreakers. “But obviously we’ve got way better shooters on our team from world-class players, but the puck just isn’t going into the back of the net.”
TUESDAY LINEUP: With Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss out of the lineup, Babcock said he anticipates deploying 11 forwards and seven defensemen against the Predators.
That means Smith, who has missed six games with a shoulder injury sustained in Edmonton on Nov. 2, will dress Tuesday.
“He can skate and he can pass the puck. He just has to be efficient without it and not force things,” Babcock said. “We’re rolling along winning, Smitty got hurt and we didn’t win. Now you can say Big E was out and Mule was out. But it just goes to show you you’re back end has to be able to move the puck for you. Smitty can move the puck.”
INJURY UPDATE: Weiss (groin) practiced with the Wings for the first time in more than a week. The veteran center was injured in the first period against Dallas on Nov. 7.
Alfredsson has sat out the last two games with a groin injury. He skated for a short time Monday after the Red Wings practice. “It’s nice to be back skating. See how it is tomorrow,” he said.
The veteran forward said he felt some discomfort and tightness as he skated in warm-ups before last Friday’s game against the Capitals. “Decided to be cautionary and make sure it doesn’t become a lingering thing,” he said.
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