It’s become an elephant in the room for Detroit Red Wings fans and the scribes that cover the team on a daily basis. Every season there’s a small celebration for keeping the playoff streak alive, but those postseason runs have been unremarkable for three of the last four years.
Nicklas Lidstrom retired following the 2011-12 campaign, essentially leaving Niklas Kronwall as the anchor on the blue line. While he’s been serviceable (and cheap) since then, the rest of the defensive group has left much to be desired.
In Game 2 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Detroit’s top-six looked like this.
|Niklas Kronwall||Jonathan Ericsson|
|Kyle Quincey||Danny DeKeyser|
|Brendan Smith||Marek Zidlicky|
No coincidentally, the Lightning stomped the Red Wings in that contest, white washing the Winged Wheel via a 5-1 final. Tampa’s high-octane offense put 30 shots on goal, which was actually an improvement for Detroit considering it gave up 46 shots in Game 1.
It’s a small sample size, but it’s indicative of a lager problem for the organization. They prevented shots at an excellent rate during the regular season, but does this top-six group really scare anyone heading into a playoff series with Detroit? The Lightning have skated circles around Detroit’s defense, and the top two pairings have had a hard time keeping pace with the likes of Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Nesterov.
Nikita Nesterov suddenly turning into a very productive defenseman for Tampa Bay. It's like an endless supply of talent, yeesh.
— Daniel Friedman (@DFriedmanOnNYI) April 19, 2015
Jonathan Ericsson is in way over his head on the top pairing. He’d be an average No. 4 guy, but the 31-year-old doesn’t have the skill set to adequately suppress either of Tampa’s top two lines. Kyle from WingingItInMotown.com did a tremendous write up on Ericsson a little over a month ago, and while the post is dated, the points made are not. He writes:
“Simply put, the Red Wings are in a tough spot in terms of their top-pair. There are a lot of games where Ericsson will completely biff something, and Niklas Kronwall is able to cover him for it. On the other hand, there will be nights where maybe Kronwall is having a rough go of it, and needs some help.. Can Ericsson do that? The answer is no, not as of late, and he’s not doing anything to show me that he’ll be able to for the next five years of his questionable contract terms.”
Those same deficiencies that made Ericsson an ineffective top-pairing defenseman a month ago still exist. He’s not a good skater, his hockey sense is average at best and his outlet passes aren’t exactly Brian Rafalski-esque. In other words: Ericsson has no business playing 20 minutes a night against the opposition’s most effective forwards.
It’s not his fault that he’s frequently asked to take on too much responsibility though. Ken Holland and Co. are guilty of totally neglecting the blue line at the draft, instead banking on landing big free agents like Ryan Suter or Anton Stralman.
Talk about counting your chickens before they hatch.
Detroit whiffed on Suter when he was a free agent in 2012 and couldn’t land any of the top FA defensemen this past summer. They targeted Stralman, Matt Niskanen, Dan Boyle and Stephane Robidas on July 1, only to see every one of them sign somewhere else. Starlamn’s agent was famously short with Detroit, simply telling them “no” when they tried to open conversations about the current Lightning defender.
Holland admitted to approaching a number of free agent defensemen only to be rejected outright. He said this to Helene St. James from USA Today following a brutal outing on July 1:
We made pitches to a number of defensemen. For a variety of reasons, they opted to go elsewhere. I don’t know why they’re not coming here.
This forced the Red Wings to re-sign Quincey, who hasn’t been particularly good since coming over from the Colorado Avalanche (technically the Lighting) in February of 2012. Just think about that for a moment: The Avs have needed defensemen badly over the last few seasons, yet they passed on keeping the veteran around.
Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman jumped at the chance to move Quincey for a first-round draft pick, and he turned Detroit’s 20212 pick into high-end goaltending prospect Andrei Vasilevskiy.
This is the guy that is on your second pairing three years later? The guy that couldn’t stick with a rebuilding team in Colorado? That’s the brutal truth for the Red Wings, but you wouldn’t know it based on Holland’s draft record since Lidstrom retired. There’s no replacing a presence like him on the blue line, but the organization has been totally uninterested in even making an attempt to shore up the defense.
They haven’t taken a defenseman in the first round since 2007 and have only used two top-60 picks on defenders in that same time frame. Holland selected zero blueliners at the last draft and hasn’t picked one higher than 139th since grabbing Xavier Oullet at No. 48 in 2011.
If free agent defensemen don’t want to come to Detroit and Holland isn’t drafting any, where do the Red Wings expect to get help on the blue line? The answer is unclear, but the issue has been evident for three seasons now and the organization hasn’t taken steps to address it.