Krupa: Wings defense will take time to fix
Detroit — The decline of the Red Wings defense took some time and was prompted by various causes: retirements, injuries, failed draft choices, free agents who chose to play elsewhere, a disadvantageous trade market, some lagging development and the ill-timed departure of Pavel Datsyuk.
It also is likely to take time to fix.
Seeking improvement in two key areas, managing the puck and eliminating odd-man rushes, coach Jeff Blashill said he had a message for the Wings on Friday.
“I told the team this morning if we don’t improve in them we won’t be a good enough hockey team,” he said. “If we improve in them, we’ll get a chance to be a real good hockey team.”
Frustrating is that the only solution reasonably expected as of this October is the same as last October: Any improvement likely must come from within.
Someone from the current corps of defensemen grabbing a critical role by authoring a more consistently fine performance would help. But that was the hope last season, too.
The forwards also need to take stock. Back-checking and fore-checking are essential, and so is possessing the puck.
The Red Wings professed commitment to small improvements all over the ice is likely the only solution to the nettlesome problem of too many goals scored, too easily, during too much time spent in their own zone, in part, because they make too many mistakes.
“It’s definitely the whole team unit,” Darren Helm said, speaking of the defensive contribution of forwards. “We’re looking to be more responsible and thoughtful about what’s going on out on the ice.
“Obviously, you make mistakes in a game. But it can’t be happening six, seven, eight times per game.”
But the Wings’ defensemen also must look to themselves, if only because reinforcements are unlikely.
As long as Niklas Kronwall’s lion’s heart is supported by knees all-too human, his performance is likely to lack the zest of his younger years.
Meanwhile, the current acquisition fantasies include, Jacob Trouba of the Jets, Hampus Lindholm and Cam Fowler of the Ducks and Kevin Shattenkirk of the Blues.
For each, however, their teams want something along the lines of a forward who is a proven NHL scorer and a prospect or an early draft choice, or both. All three teams know demand far exceeds supply.
Unfortunately, the Red Wings’ internal improvement lags amid a rebuild-on-the-fly now entering a fifth season because of failures in scouting and perhaps development.
Drafted in the first round, 19th overall in 2005, Jakub Kindl, 29, now plays for Springfield of the AHL, after the Wings traded him to the Panthers last season for a sixth-round pick.
Kindl never developed as part of the replacement plans for Nicklas Lidstrom, even after the Red Wings signed him to a four-year, $9.6 million extension in 2013.
Brendan Smith, 27, fared considerably better and appears destined for more ice time and a power play role this season.
But occasional mistakes persist, and the 2007 first-round pick, 27th overall, appears destined to max out as a second-pair defender rather than the top-pairing stalwart the Wings require.
Their other low-round draft picks on defense, Xaxier Ouellet and Ryan Sproul in the second round in 2011, 48th and 55th overall, are barely starting in the NHL five years later.
And Dennis Cholowski, the 2016 first-round and 20th pick overall, is a freshman at St. Cloud State.
Draft miracles such as Lidstrom remaining unpicked until the 53rd selection in the third round and Vladimir Konstantinov 221st in the 11th round of 1989 seems beyond the Wings capacity to scout — especially with the other 29 teams now looking where they do.
Meanwhile, the likes of stalwart Ryan Suter and valuable defender Matt Niskanen decided to follow friends who were also free agents and play elsewhere.
Some good signs
When Datsyuk left, and after the Wings offense slumped last season, GM Ken Holland determined it best to sign forwards. Frans Nielsen, Thomas Vanek and Steve Ott arrived without any defensemen.
Nielsen’s defensive aptitude and performance will help. But he is a center.
A man for this moment, clearly, is Danny DeKeyser.
A fortunate find out of Western Michigan, originally, the Red Wings signed DeKeyser to six-year, $30 million deal in June.
The 26-year-old from Macomb Township, in his fourth full season in the NHL, is a potential source of improved play, as he continues to develop.
“As ‘D,’ we definitely have to be better,” he said Friday. “Some of that is on the forwards as well, diving in a stuff like that at the offensive line.
“But, for us as `D,’ we can’t get caught pinching and having guys get behind us.
“I think you’ve just got to improve game after game,” he said, “look at little details that can be better and play simple game out there.”