Jeff Blashill has spent the first 45 games of the season trying to get the Detroit Red Wings’ special teams figured out.
That’s never an easy job for a rookie head coach, but now things have just gotten more complicated.
Tuesday, the Red Wings coach told the media that defenseman Nicklas Kronwall would be out for 2-4 weeks after arthroscopic knee surgery and forward Drew Miller will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL.
Miller, a penalty-kill specialist, had just returned from a broken jaw when he hurt his knee on Jan. 10 against Anaheim. The Red Wings knew the injury was bad, and that was confirmed when he underwent reconstructive surgery this week in Detroit.
“Drew had major surgery, reconstructed ACL, as well as meniscus repair,” Blashill said. “We weren’t sure initially what it was going to be.”
He’s not an offensive threat – he has one goal and one assist in 28 games – but he teamed up with Luke Glendening on Detroit’s top penalty-killing unit. The Red Wings aren’t great at killing penalties to begin with, they rank 20th in the league at 79.6 percent and are one of two teams without a shorthanded goal, and now they need to replace their primary penalty kill specialist.
What makes things more frustrating for Blashill is that he can look down the bench and see one of the best defensive forwards of the 21st century, Pavel Datsyuk. Datsyuk, though, is 37 and already getting more ice time than any other forward on the roster. He deserves that time – Corsi For percentage has him and injury-prone Teemu Pulkkinen as the team’s best possession drivers – but Blashill doesn’t want to use up his legs on the penalty kill.
Instead, Blashill is planning on going to the other end of the age spectrum and give 19-year-old Dylan Larkin some time killing penalties. That’s not an ideal solution, since Larkin is the team’s leading scorer and its only All-Star, but he has experience in the role.
Before his first NHL game, Larkin spent two weeks in May with Team USA at the World Championships. On a roster made up of NHL players and college kids, Larkin anchored the penalty-killing unit and helped the Americans win a bronze medal.
Justin Abdelkader, a member of Detroit’s first power-play unit, is also expected to spend some time killing penalties.
The situation with Kronwall is more complicated for Blashill in one sense – he plays significant time in all phases of the game – but easier in other ways. Kronwall was a star during Detroit’s run to the 2008 Stanley Cup and he’s still one of the biggest hitters in the league, but he has struggled this year as a 35-year-old on a bad knee.
“It’s been going on most of the year,” Blashill said of the injury. “Rather than risk and being a four-week or longer surgery because we let it slide, let’s take care of it now.”
The timing works in Detroit’s favor, as they only play five times before getting nine days off for the All-Star break. Even if the injury keeps him out for three weeks, he could miss as few as 13 games.
Blashill already has an extra defenseman in town – 24-year-old Alexey Marchenko – so filling the lineup spot won’t be an issue. Marchenko has seen significant time on the penalty-killing unit during his 35 games this season, so he should slot in for Kronwall on Detroit’s second defense pairing.
The problem will be on the power play, where Kronwall is a fixture with his booming slap shot. He’s scored 31 of his 74 career goals with a man advantage. While he’s gone, his time will either go to Danny DeKeyser, who has never scored a power-play goal, or Brendan Smith, who has two.
“Between the two of them, one of them will get an opportunity,” Blashill said. “Smitty hasn’t had much power play time in the NHL. This could be the opportunity for him and if he is, we believe he’s got the skill set to execute it.”
In a way, having Kronwall out now could be a bonus for the team. At 26, Smith has been playing well in even-strength situations, and he could boost the league’s 18th-ranked power play. If nothing else, he and probably DeKeyser will get some valuable power-play experience that will help the Red Wings in the long run.
If Kronwall comes back healthy, he goes back to his normal spot, but if he’s not able to regain his form, Blashill will have already trained his replacement.
That fits into Blashill’s plan – he wants to win now while building a roster that will take Detroit’s postseason streak from its current 24 years well into the 30s.