Dan DeKeyser, 23 and recently of the Western Michigan Broncos, is the newest addition to a young, increasingly solid corps of defensemen. (Daniel Mears/Detroit News)
Detroit — Gordie Howe turns 85 Sunday, and the Red Wings will honor him as they play one of their Original Six rivals, the Blackhawks.
Nicklas Lidstrom is back in town for the second time this season, watching the practice Saturday and the game Sunday. Earlier in the week, he went to work for his old team, calling young Dan DeKeyser, whom the Wings and much of the rest of the NHL coveted, and promising him signing on with the Wings would be a good move.
DeKeyser, 23 and recently of the Western Michigan Broncos, is the newest addition to a young, increasingly solid corps of defensemen. After taking a call from his boyhood idol, Lidstrom, the Metro Detroit native skated in front of him Saturday and will probably sit near him watching the game Sunday.
Pages of the calendar turn, and the Red Wings honor the old glories while scouting fresh faces for those that may lie ahead.
There will be few games all season in which the transition the Wings are undertaking in 2013 is more poignantly noted than Sunday, against Chicago. Lidstrom and DeKeyser will be watching from on high, as a retooled defensive corps — and one considerably bigger and younger than those skating for the Red Wings in many recent years — warms up with a team all wearing uniforms emblazoned with Howe's number, 9.
Stanley Cup years from the distant past will be recalled, along with Stanley Cups won more recently. And the Red Wings can certainly be excused if they take just a bit of time today to peer forward, and to realize that the retooling of their roster, even before DeKeyser's arrival, was proceeding apace.
"Ken Holland handed him the phone and said it was me," Lidstrom said of his phone call with DeKeyser. "We had a good little chat and just talked about the positive things I learned over the years, here, with the team.
"I told him he'd be coming to a very good organization, a very committed organization, a team that wants to win, ownership that wants to win.
"I know he had a lot of teams asking for him, and he had a lot of meeting with a lot of teams. So it wasn't easy for him. But we're happy to have him here."
DeKeyser couldn't refuse
Did a phone call from his boyhood idol affect his decision, DeKeyser was asked.
"Yeah, definitely," he said. "It's definitely something special to me, growing up and watching him my whole life.
"He just said it would be a fun place to play, and take his word for it."
DeKeyser said he has worn the jersey number 5 most of his life, out of respect for Lidstrom. When it came time to pick a number in Detroit, he knew 5 will be retired, and 15, 25, 35 and 55 are taken.
The kid said he took 65 because "it had a 5 in it, that's all."
"But, yeah, you know who my idol was. I don't think I need to say it."
For the present, DeKeyser's arrival may stanch the thought, at large and running loose in some reaches of Hockeytown since last summer, that good players now reject the Red Wings.
Well, much of the NHL coveted DeKeyser.
"I like that he signed here," coach Mike Babcock said. "I like that he's a real good defender. He skates good.
"He's obviously been good at his level. He's been a dominant player there for the last two years. And we're excited to have him."
Meanwhile, other moves might be in the offing. Perhaps the increasingly attractive Jay Bouwmeester, who seems reborn in Calgary this year under a new coach, Bob Hartley, or another top defenseman will arrive before the trade deadline Wednesday -- or, what is more likely, through a trade or free agency this offseason.
Time waits for no one, and the Red Wings brass has a firm grasp of that concept.
Amid some wailing and gnashing of teeth from some fans and commentators, they basically stood pat with their lineup since last summer.
Along the way, they have determined that Jakub Kindl can be more competitive and that he does have NHL-level offensive skills and can mostly avoid the sort of miscues that carelessly yield goals. They have determined that Brendan Smith can take care of the chores on defense before flashing his obvious offensive talent.
And, most surprisingly, they have determined that the 22-year-old Brian Lashoff can play well enough in the NHL to kill penalties, right now.
"I think it's looking pretty good," said the leader of the new, younger and bigger defense, Niklas Kronwall.
"We got a chance to see guys like Lash and, now, DeKeyser also, that maybe in a regular year we wouldn't have seen," Kronwall said. "So I think it looks pretty good for us into the future.
"There's no doubt: You can't find guys like Lidstrom anywhere. He's one of a kind. But what you can do is try to have as much depth as possible, and then do it together, instead."
Great prospects in the wings
And there may be more help down on the farm.
"You know, the WCHA Defenseman of the Year is a draft choice of ours, Nick Jensen," said Wings general manager Ken Holland, who was obviously pleased to have DeKeyser on the roster.
"One of the best defensemen in the Quebec junior league is Xavier Ouellet," who also is the property of the Red Wings and poised to turn professional next season.
"I think the leading scorer in the OHL is Ryan Sproul," another Wings prospect on defense.
"We've had a guy who was a cornerstone for 20 years, and we knew we had to overhaul. But when we look at our roster and see that Nick Kronwall's in his 30s and that everybody, you know, (Carlo) Colaiacovo and (Ian) White, Lashoff, (Jonathan) Ericsson and (Kyle) Quincey, they're all in their 20s."
Every qualified observer forecasts considerable movement among the NHL rosters either before the trade deadline, or this offseason. There is a new, lower salary cap next season and some inducements in the new collective bargaining agreement for franchises to move a couple of big salaries before those individual contracts expire.
The Red Wings currently sit in playoff position, having won crucial games on the road over the past three weeks. They have largely retooled their defense, with the possibility of making a big acquisition along the blue line, and then using money under the cap and their opportunities via free agency to add scoring depth upfront.
There is still some angst about the future. But certainly less than at the start of the season.
"I think we're in a good position," Holland said. "Because we've got a lot of competition, we're going to have to make some decisions on defense, heading into the summer.
"But the young kids have really stated a case, and allowed us to have some depth."
They have also allowed Holland, Babcock, assistant general manager Jim Nill and the rest of the brain trust to account for exactly what the Red Wings have, and what they need to get either this week, or this summer.