Amrita Ghimire, 8, of Farmington has her bike helmet signed by Wings defenseman Danny DeKeyser in Livonia. (Steve Perez / Detroit News)
Livonia — Danny DeKeyser seemed about as relaxed as summer itself.
Tanned and wearing shorts and a white V-neck T-shirt with sunglasses hooked into the V, he signed autographs on children’s safety helmets and whatever youngsters and parents queued up to offer him at a Kohl’s store last week. DeKeyser wore his hair maybe even a bit longer than during the season.
“I think it’s just helpful to raise awareness with kids to wear helmets when they’re out playing sports,” said the highly prized, 24-year-old Red Wings defenseman about one of his what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation activities.
“It’s something simple that can avoid injuries, or even somebody getting killed.”
The youngsters ranged between excited and awestruck.
DeKeyser, who was born in Macomb and lives in Macomb Township, spends the lion’s share of the offseason close to his family in his native state, where he grew up playing for Compuware and later at Western Michigan.
“I stay in Michigan all summer, so I’m just around here,” DeKeyser said.
“I like to keep travel to a minimum during the summer because we travel enough during the season. And Michigan’s great during the summer. If summer was about two months longer, it would probably be one of the best spots in the country.
“But, yeah, I like living here.”
Entering his second full NHL season in two months, DeKeyser is critical to the Red Wings rebuilding plans. As a young defense continues to mature, the franchise did nothing during the offseason to add a veteran presence on the back end or a much needed puck mover.
The lack of a fast, precise launch for the praised transition game is what is still missing five years after their last appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals and two years after the consecutive departures of Brian Rafalski, Brad Stuart and the future member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, Nicklas Lidstrom.
Good health throughout the roster and an improved offensive performance by DeKeyser would go a long way toward making 2014-15 a pivotal year for the team and its prospective defensive star.
Getting away from skating
An early, disappointing exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs April 26 was followed, for DeKeyser, by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championship in Belarus, where his cerebral approach to the game was on display.
DeKeyser is nothing but smart on the ice. His stick skill while defending shows flashes of something approaching what Lidstrom did for 20 seasons in Detroit.
For now, the offensive performance can improve.
Four goals and 19 assists last season easily could double, and the Red Wings might still need more unless they add an offensively minded defenseman.
After two assists and 16 penalty minutes in Minsk, DeKeyser came back to Michigan to begin the process of preparing for another long slog through the NHL schedule.
So, what did he do on his summer vacation?
What he should: He relaxed, and quite a bit, actually.
At first, like almost all NHL players, DeKeyser simply shut it down to let his body recuperate after nine months of hockey.
“Usually a few weeks,” he said. “I don’t know about everybody, but usually about 2-4 weeks is what guys usually take off.
And despite his much lauded skating, DeKeyser, a masterfully mobile defenseman, does almost none of it in June and July before beginning to get back into it in August, a month or so before heading to training camp in Traverse City.
“I don’t skate much in the summer,” he said. “I usually just hit the weights, and I just try to bulk up every summer as much as I can. You lose a few pounds during the season and I try to build it back up during the summer.”
Some work with fun
DeKeyser’s lanky frame provides him with extensive reach, but not a lot of bulk. A priority has been to gain weight, and he clearly has filled out a bit.
“Oh, I just always eat as much as I can, lift weights and stuff like that,” he said.
“I’m starting to get back on the ice. Just started once or twice a week, right now. But still working out, though, every day.”
And there has been a lot of recreation around southeastern Michigan and the upper Lower Peninsula.
“I golf, I boat, I fish; stuff like that,” the soft-spoken DeKeyser said. “I think everybody’s different, though a lot of the guys like to golf.
“I mean, I’m not any good. But I can play.”
Despite its frustrations, DeKeyser said he finds golf relaxing.
“I play with just friends and family, my girlfriend — whoever’s around,” he said.
He also can be found on Lake St. Clair or on the water near Charlevoix.
“I have a power boat,” he said. “Nothing crazy. It’s not real fast or anything like that. I just gets me out on the water.”
Most of the fishing lures in his tackle box are for bass. But in a shoulder-shrugging sort of way, DeKeyser indicated it is less about catching fish than just fishing.
“I go after lots of stuff,” he said. “I boat St. Clair, a lot. A couple of weeks ago, I was up in Lake Charlevoix, up north.”
'I think we have a good team'
If he was in a funk after the early elimination by the Bruins, DeKeyser did not have a lot of time to dwell on it.
“The season before, we beat Anaheim and took Chicago to a Game 7, and then, unfortunately, didn’t win that one,” he said. “But that was a good playoff run for us. We’d like to have gone a lot farther, obviously.
“And then last season, I think we were all a little disappointed with how it ended, four games to one. That’s really not much of a series.
“So, hopefully this year, make a longer playoff run and have a chance to win.”
Asked if he expected more personnel moves this offseason, especially along the blue line, DeKeyser spun things forward.
“I think we have a good team,” he said. “I think, last year, down the stretch we started playing really good hockey, up to playoff time. And then, in the playoffs, we couldn’t really put it all together like we wanted to.
“But I think we’ve got a ton of talent. We’ve got a lot of skill. And hopefully this year we stay healthy, too. That’s a big thing, too, because once you get everybody in the lineup, then I think we’re a pretty good team.”
As for his game, and the team’s need for more of an offensive push from the back end, DeKeyser said he intends to improve steadily.
“I just try to improve every year, just a little,” he said. “You know, just take another step after last season and try to play a little better than last year.”
Over time, considering how well the largely stay-at-home defenseman is playing, that steady improvement is likely enough for a comparatively successful career.
Meanwhile, he is a restricted free agent, and the Red Wings must at least tender him an offer for him to play this season. With roster decisions always crucial, but especially with a salary cap and amid a rebuild, many observers are wondering if the Red Wings can manage to sign DeKeyser and Daniel Alfredsson.
At the very least, beyond a simple offer that would keep DeKeyser on the roster, general manager Ken Holland likely will seek to lock up DeKeyser for a couple years.
By then, the salary cap, due for significant boosts in the coming seasons because of a $4.8 billion television agreement signed in Canada with Rogers Media, should afford DeKeyser considerable bounty.
This summer, the business aspects of the game seem distant.
DeKeyser is happy in Michigan.
“I don’t really think about it very much, other than that I’m pretty confident a deal will get done before training camp,” he said. “And it’s just something that my agent and Kenny deal with mostly.”