Krupa: Not signing Phaneuf was best for Red Wings

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit – The big-name defenseman reportedly headed to the Red Wings in a trade 12 months ago, Dion Phaneuf, stood in the visitors dressing room Wednesday in front of a scrum of a dozen media folks, mostly from Canada.

Immediately after the morning skate, Phaneuf looked relieved and happy in his new red Senators cap.

And the Wings likely remain pleased they never made the deal.

Phaneuf, 30, finally had been traded from Mike Babcock and Brendan Shanahan’s reclamation project, the Maple Leafs, to the Senators, who are managed by another old friend of the Red Wings, former coach and general manager Bryan Murray.

Babcock and Shanahan are looking to dump salaries, and Murray saw Phaneuf as a second-seat defenseman to complement his franchise player, 25-year-old Erik Karlsson.

The transaction came at a time when the Wings defensive corps is thin.

Just down the concourse, Niklas Kronwall and Mike Green, two of the top four defensemen on the depth chart, walked around their dressing room in T-shirts and shorts, working out to the extent their injuries permit and taking some treatment — Kronwall for his surgically repaired knee and Green for a temperamental groin.

Kronwall and Green both skated a bit. But they were out of the lineup Wednesday against the Senators.

They also missed the game Monday against the Panthers.

Without them, the Red Wings shut out the Atlantic Division leaders with a defensive corps of Kyle Quincey and Danny DeKeyser, Jonathan Ericsson and Alexey Marchenko, Brendan Smith and Jakub Kindl.

Keeping it simpler

It was the much-improved Smith who was rumored to be traded to the Leafs for Phaneuf, along with forward Stephen Weiss, who was an even bigger disappointment in Detroit than Phaneuf was in Toronto.

The Red Wings decided to keep Smith and buy out Weiss.

Smith earns $3.75 million and is an unrestricted free agent after next season. A terrific skater, he celebrated his 27th birthday Monday and is contributing more on offense and limiting mistakes.

The defensive unit helped hold the Panthers to five shots halfway through the game, 23 total.

“It’s not fun when guys are out,” captain Henrik Zetterberg said of the injuries. “But we have players that come in and play well.

“We’ve been playing a little bit better as a team, too. Maybe keeping it a little simpler, and that maybe happens a little easier when you have key guys out.”

Quincey, 29, was plus-5 before playing the Senators. His two goals and four assists in 18 games is, for him, a good pace.

His salary is $4.25 million and he is a free agent this spring.

DeKeyser is good and getting better. A plus-12 headed into play Wednesday, his six goals lead the defensemen, and he has eight assists. The 24 year-old makes $2.25 million and is a restricted free agent at the end of the season.

Ericsson is up to a plus-seven, despite no small amount of inconsistency the past two seasons. The 31-year-old makes $4 million, which increases to $4.25 million from 2018 to 2020, when his six-year deal expires.

Marchenko, 24, remains reliable and was scheduled to play his 45th game (of the 55 played by the Wings) on Wednesday. He makes $700,000 and is a restricted free agent at the end of the season.

Kindl turned 29 on Wednesday. As Smith cemented his role, Kindl played less. He appeared in his 26th game, against the Senators. His $2.5 million salary jumps to $3 next season, after which he will be free agent.

Not trading for Phaneuf gave the Red Wings the cap room to sign Green. Green has one more goal and four fewer assists than Phaneuf in five fewer games, and his $6 million salary this season and the next two is far more palatable, despite the need for more scoring, than Phaneuf’s cap hit of $7 million for this and the next five seasons.

Room with the cap

Not acquiring Phaneuf also allowed Smith and Marchenko to develop, and left the Red Wings cap maneuverability.

Keith Yandle, 29, of the Rangers is an unrestricted free agent after the season, and would help the Wings power play.

Dan Hamhuis, 33, of the Canucks would provide more defense and some play-making.

Phaneuf was not all that much of an upgrade over Smith. Green is better, and Yandle and Hamhuis might both be better still. The serviceable depth they showed on the blue line Monday provides some fodder for trades, and it helps until Kronwall and Green return.

It is possible Kronwall could skate in practices this week. And Green’s groin?

“Still day-to-day, and I think that’s the best way I can put it,” Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. “You know, it’s a groin deal, where it could feel the same for three weeks or it could really start to progress and get better.”

Meanwhile, he liked the defensive corps against the Panthers.

“Organizational depth allows you to absorb injuries,” Blashill said. “It’ll be another real big challenge, here, tonight, obviously, with a real good offensive team.”