Krupa: Defense must grab opportunity to improve
Detroit – The redevelopment of the Red Wings defense marks a transition in the history of the franchise.
The need for it helped mark the end of an era that included four Stanley Cups. A nearly full restoration is likely required before the next one.
After the retirements of Nicklas Lidstrom, who will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in two weeks, and Brian Rafalski, who should make it in someday, too, and trading the rights to Brad Stuart, the Wings’ rebuilding along the blue line is now in its fourth season.
The process has reached a delicate phase.
Less than 10 games in, the defense has provided considerable cause for concern.
Under a new coach, with a new highly prized free agent fitting in, it has stumbled defensively and sputtered offensively.
That the Red Wings are near the bottom of the NHL in puck possession, a statistic they can be confused with having invented, is not necessarily the harshest evidence. But when the other guys have the puck 55 percent of the time through the first eight games, it is a damning indication.
Other evidence includes too many turnovers, an occasionally serial failure to clear the zone and some spotty judgment on the most critical issue facing a defenseman who considers pursuing some offense: Should I stay, or should I go?
Is it simply a period of adjustment, or did Mike Babcock take some vital spirit with him to Toronto?
Now, a troubled unit is one-third in sick bay.
The free agent, Mike Green, is out about two or three weeks. Kyle Quincey, likely the Wings’ most effective defender, contemplates the latest concussion to affect the team — his.
But athletes understand opportunity.
Those provided with it now, in pregnant form, include Jonathan Ericsson, 31, who has been looking to solidify his game since last season.
Jakub Kindl, 28, seeks to emerge as both a reliable offensive contributor and defender, which the Wings hoped they selected in the first round a decade ago.
Brendan Smith, 26, skates like the wind, is getting a chance on the power play and still has some young NHL defenseman’s miscues to get out of his system.
Alexey Marchenko, 23, must play stouter in the big league, while marshaling his ample puck-moving skills.
If not for significant depth at the position, Xavier Ouellet, 22, would be allowed to wonder why the heck he is back in Grand Rapids when it certainly looks like it is about his time to play in the big league.
The two others have little need for opportunity, but must respond to the requirements of the moment.
Danny DeKeyser, 25, looms large, as he did when he saved the game for his laggard mates Saturday with scintillating stick work behind Petr Mrazek, on a puck headed over the crease.
And Niklas Kronwall, 34, remains regularly capable of strong performances on the blue line, in addition to providing ample mortar for the bricks forming this team.
With all of that depth, one wonders about a two-for-one trade for a more established defenseman. But the days of worthwhile deals of that ilk existed mostly before the salary cap.
The good news is, to a man, they seem to understand the circumstances.
The bad news? They apparently require reminders, as in Vancouver on Saturday when things were said that ignited emotion and fine edge. And, suddenly, with their ears pinned back, they were the aggressors again.
It is easy to play too slack on the back end in the NHL.
It is also easy to play too tight.
And a Red Wings defenseman, prototypically, must both extinguish and ignite offense. His is not an easy gig.
At the moment, however, the opportunity is great.
“Oh, 100 percent, it’s an opportunity,” Quincey said, of a situation that arises in part at his expense. “It’s a good chance for them to take it.”
It is Smith’s nature to be game.
“You have to grind and play better and help the team,” he said. “These points all matter, come playoff time.
“There’s things that we could have done better early. But we’ve obviously changed it and done better as of late. We’re making better plays.
“It’s kind of a new mentality,” he said, of new faces on the roster and a new coach.
“With everything, I think we have gotten better.”
Regardless, it is subtly among the more difficult positions to play in sport.
On their performance rests much of the current fortune of the Red Wings.
The rebuild along the blue line, meanwhile, remains incomplete, and integral to a 12th Stanley Cup.