January 26, 2013 at 6:15 pm

Gregg Krupa

Red Wings defense takes some baby steps toward improvement

Detroit -- In addition to a nice 5-3 victory Friday over the Wild — and Zach Parise and Ryan Suter — there was more encouragement for the Red Wings.

The defensemen played a bigger role in their offense.

They helped even the Red Wings record at 2-2, and it should provide some solace for their fans, who had been extraordinarily fretful through three games.

Niklas Kronwall doubled his assist total for the year, adding two to make it four.

Brendan Smith assisted on the second Red Wings goal. Then, Smith made a nifty transitional play, starting from his belly in front of Jimmy Howard, at the end of a Wild power play to start the rush that led to Henrik Zetterberg's goal, which gave the Red Wings the lead for good at 3-2.

Smith did not get an assist, but only because the NHL allows just two per goal.

Perhaps it was sign of things to come for the Red Wings bright hope for the future on the blue line.

And it all raised the defensemen's contribution to the Wings' offensive efforts from two assists through three games to five through four.

The Red Wings looked quite a bit better last night, once they got going. And the defense getting more involved in the attack was an important part of the initiative.

"We could us a few more guys back, and that would help us as well," said coach Mike Babcock, referring to three defensemen, Jonathan Ericsson, Ian White and Carlo Colaiacovo, still out with injuries.

"As the game went on and we got better and the D got more comfortable, we were able to move the puck better," Babcock said.

Missing Lidstrom

How do we miss Nicklas Lidstrom? Let us count the ways.

It is a parlor game we could play all season, and maybe for the next few, without quite talking to topic to death. Such were the contributions of the future member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, who now resides in Sweden, probably having a bit more pizza, cheeseburgers and Punsch — a Swedish licqueur — than he did the past 20 years, when gaining a pound or two was simply not allowed.

When the Blues decimated the Red Wings in the season opener seven days ago, six goals against and lots of confusion and misplays among the defensive pairings were so apparent that Lidstrom's defensive ability immediately became prominent on the list of missing ingredients.

But the Red Wings also were shut out that night, and they entered play last night 29th in the 30-team league in goals scored, 1.33 per game.

Shut out completely on 15 power plays, they were last.

That is, in part, Lidstrom, too.

Arguably the best offensive defenseman in the NHL during his career, Lidstrom often sparked the offense.

During his 20 seasons, the Red Wings scored 5,336 regular-season goals. Lidstrom officially participated in more than one-in-five of them, scoring or assisting on 21.4 percent.

That is a big chunk of the offense, which the Red Wings must hope to begin to replace.

And that was not all of the offense he prompted.

Quarterbacking both the top line and the first power play unit, he stretched the ice with both passes and skating that created room for the forwards.

He might not have scored 78.6 percent of the goals, or assisted on them, but his puck distribution and keen ability to "read the play" offensively allowed the highly-skilled forwards the space to perform.

His efficiency in advancing the puck out of the Red Wings zone was both remarkable and contagious.

Lidstrom was so deft, we hardly noticed; and other units of five skaters benefited because the second and third defensive pairings saw it done, continuously.

The fact that Brian Rafalski, a fine offensive defenseman and terrific playmaker, retired the season before Lidstrom only makes the lack of offensive performance on the back end all the more apparent.

Change of style

That is why Niklas Kronwall's best offensive season last year was so encouraging, and why the passing and scoring talents of White and Kyle Quincey are essential to success of the Red Wings.

As for Smith?

His offensive abilities are vaunted. But not all 23-year-old defensemen play offensively like the 23-year-old Lidstrom, when he tallied 10 goals and 46 assists, in 1993-94.

In truth, the Red Wings have no one capable of approaching Lidstrom's offensive performance, season-after-season. And it is shows.

"It's more of a grind type of game," Babcock said, adding that it is something to which Red Wings fans are not accustomed, but something of which they are likely to see much more.

"We'll just have to continue to develop the back end."

After the big win, Kronwall was not yet satisfied with the defense, offensively.

He said they were better "on-and-off" than in previous games.

But his snappy, precise outlet pass to Zetterberg, who advanced it to Damien Brunner got the Wings going Friday.

And the Wild had a tough time stopping them.

gkrupa@detnews.com

Daniel Cleary collides with Wild defenseman Nate Prosser along the boards during the second period of the Red Wings 5-3 victory. / David Guralnick/Detroit News
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