Krupa: Red Wings scrambling to tune up their defense

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — The sight of 35-year-old Niklas Kronwall perhaps suddenly striking a wall in his 12-year career was troubling.

Asked about it, Kronwall repeatedly denied injury.

“No, just a really slow start,” he would say.

With a roster still in flux, especially along the blue line, the loss of a club’s top hammer on the back end could determine much about the season. Coach Jeff Blashill already was taking chances with the personnel, playing some hunches and vigorously juggling the pairings, looking for the best performance from arguably the most challenged portion of a lineup he inherited, the defensive corps.

A couple of early injuries to the big, potentially key free-agent acquisition, Mike Green, did not help. Kyle Quincey’s ankle screaming pain at him, and the incumbent surgery, added to the woes.

So, Kronwall played and, at some point, began denying any injury.

Meanwhile, Blashill was forced to make big moves along the way, which proved prescient.

One of the veteran lion hearts of the lineup fibbing about an injury puts Kronwall in a long, and soon-to-grow, all-time list of Red Wings who have — shall we say — navigated among issues of fact and fiction, when discussing the topic.

The reputedly “perfect” Nicklas Lidstrom spent the last 14 weeks of his career looking folks dead in the eye and telling a whopper.

NO, IT (ankle or shin, you fill in the blank) IS NOT BROKEN! IT’S A BRUISE. IT’S ALONG THE SKATE LINE, SO IT HURTS MORE.

In fact, Lidstrom, played the last two-and-a-half months of his career with his worst injury, a small crack in his ankle.

For Kronwall, the effect of such considerations was not on the stretch run or the opening rounds of the playoffs. Instead, they were greatly magnified this season by the not always well-disguised turmoil on the Red Wings defense.

After going 3-0 at the start, they hit a 1-5-1 patch and, arguably, ever since then, Blashill has been adjusting, juggling, and then leaving it alone, hoping things congeal. Then, tinkering some more.

It remains a work in progress.

Kronwall out? It is a big deal.

Blashill maintains that on his better nights, Kronwall remains a “No. 1” defenseman.

The Red Wings had better hope so, because without him filling that role, their chances of a deep run in the playoffs diminishes considerably.

Quincey may be their most reliable defender. Mike Green may be their most talented offensive defenseman.

But Kronwall can still offer both.

Others stepping up

Meanwhile, his leadership is essential, his desire is unsurpassed in the room and we now know he may well have more remaining in his tank than has been evident for three months.

Along the way, Blashill identified Brendan Smith as his No. 5 and Alexey Marchenko as his No. 6, when others had doubts and when Smith’s tendency toward occasional peril and Marchenko’s inexperience might have led another rookie coach to risk less.

But Blashill decided it was time for Smith to play and Jakub Kindl to sit, rather than continuing to divide their ice time.

Smith rewarded Blashill. He has played as high as No. 2 and is likely to see more minutes on offense, as he gets some power-play time in Kronwall’s absence.

Marchenko’s season is not phenomenal, like Dylan Larkin’s. But his performance arguably amounts to similar importance.

Without the 24-year-old’s routinely solid positioning, ability to read the play and wisdom in the performance of his limited role, the Wings would have been in a lot more hot water.

Utterly lost in the hackles raised by a portion of the fan base last week, when Quincey returned and Blashill scratched Marchenko in favor of a sextet of him, Kronwall, Green, Smith, Danny DeKeyser and Jonathan Ericsson, is that Blashill harvested Marchenko, after watching him last season in Grand Rapids.

Getting something going

Both Smith and Marchenko are now in place because Blashill discerned they should be.

“There’s some guys who are going to have to step up a bit,” said Ericsson, who was to move to the left side — with which he is more comfortable, although he has not played it for a couple of seasons — to pair with Marchenko.

“I felt good before my injury, and after that I had a little hard time coming back. On the West Coast, now, I had some little problems that made me skate a little worse. I felt like I had to fight for every stride, pretty much.

“But, since we came back, I got a lot of treatment and it got better last game.”

Ericsson said that while the nearly constant personnel adjustments are not optimal for any team, “You’ve got to get things going.

“You want to try to switch your depth and get some chemistry together. But when we get something good together, you want to stick with it.”

Perhaps the two to four weeks without their old, reliable will spur something in the defensive corps, and by the playoffs, Blashill will “want to stick with it.”