Getting Defensive: A Review of Detroit’s Blue Line

Last night’s loss to Pittsburgh made me start to contemplate the Detroit Red Wings’ defense and the set-backs it suffered during the off season.  With the premier of Brendan Smith and Mike Commodore and the absence of Nicklas Lidstrom, I couldn’t help but notice some glaring inconsistencies during the game that carried over from the 2010-2011 campaign, as well as some roles that have still been left vacant. 

 The blue line took a blind-side hit in the off season with Brian Rafalski’s retirement, and the right-handed all star defenseman is hard to replace.  With all the top defenseman being signed to overinflated contracts by other teams in free agency (Wisniewski is no more worth $33 million than Roberto Luongo is worth $27 million), Ken Holland had no choice but to settle for modest talent with Mike Commodore and Ian White.  Both fill the right-handed shot vacancy, but lack in point generation.   By comparison, Rafalski had 48 points last season, while Ian White only has 38 total in the last FOUR YEARS.   Commodore spent the half of last year in the AHL, only scoring two assists in 11 games.  That’s a quite a deficit to overcome, and eventually will affect Detroit’s scoring production.  

 Another thing to consider is the inevitable retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom.  Like every Wings fan, I hate to think about life after the seven-time Norris trophy winner returns to his homeland in Vastmanland, Sweden.  True, Detroit’s defense will suffer, but I never thought it would ultimately be the difference between success and failure for the organization.  Detroit has more depth than a lot of other teams in the league.  However, a quality replacement is still needed and I don’t see any potentials in Detroit or Grand Rapids.

 While everyone has named the Brendan Smith the Successor to the Defenseman Throne, the stats from his last night’s game against the Pens simply don’t support his claim. With almost twenty minutes on the ice, Smith only registered two shots on goal and no points.  His slap-shot and ability to interpret the opposition’s offensive strategy (both of which make Lidstrom such a luxurious commodity) was almost non-existent.  He resembled more an AHL prospect than an elite NHL blue-liner.

 In a few years, Smith may mature, but Nick’s time is almost up.  In order to fill that void, Ken Holland needs to find a top-line replacement soon (I’ll give you a hint:  He’s in Nashville and will be a RFA in July).  Without a valid surrogate, the Wings’ defense will surely falter.

 …And that’s where the problem already exists.  Even with Lidstrom in the lineup, the defense is still faltering.  Last year, the team was 23rd in the league for goals against and only 17th in penalty kills.  Perhaps the problem was Lidstrom’s lower than average ice time (below 20 minutes), Rafalski’s back injury or Jonathan Ericsson’s overall performance (his $3 mill upgrade still irks me).   Aside from increasing Lidstrom’s time on the ice, I’ve yet to see proof that the other problems have been resolved. 

 The one ray of light for Detroit’s blue line is Niklas Kronwall. His stellar performance in Pittsburgh (I G, 4 SOG) highlighted his incredible talent.  Last season, he was second in +/- for all Red Wing defensemen and third in scoring. 

With only one more year left on his contract, I expect Kronwall to increase production in order to increase his paycheck.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a record season.

 Also, the Wings have almost $6 million to spend before the trade deadline.  If the defense fails, Holland can easily acquire a suitable replacement with a little bit of money and a couple trades.  Perhaps he can even entice a 6’4 Canadian to play in Hockeytown (He’s the one wearing a rather angry looking kitty on his chest).

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