Niyo: Green could be weapon Red Wings lack

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — On the one hand, Mike Green shouldn't have any trouble fitting in.

Green, the biggest offseason acquisition for the Red Wings in free agency, is the kind of offensive defenseman this team has long sought, a veteran blueliner with a right-handed shot — something that has been missing since Brian Rafalski retired in 2011.

And as Green prepared to make his home exhibition debut Wednesday, he laughed about how his genetic predisposition was helping make his transition to a new team rather seamless.

"For me, pretty much everybody's left-handed, so I'm an easy pass for everybody," he said. "It's great. I shouldn't have any excuses."

Nor should the Red Wings, who've given us a few too many in recent years, explaining away early playoff exits and puzzling roster decisions and repetitive free-agent misses while clinging to that treasured playoff streak.

But this is one move — and one player — that'll help define a new coach's first year at the helm in Detroit, as Jeff Blashill figures out how best to utilize a player with obvious strengths and weaknesses.

There are plenty of other challenges for Blashill, obviously, starting with the No. 1 goaltender battle that'll play out over the coming weeks — advantage Petr Mrazek, for now — and figuring out which of the NHL-ready youngsters will be asked to bide their time in Grand Rapids this fall.

Yet, finding a way to get the most out of Green, who was signed to a three-year, $18 million deal July 1, has to be near the top of the list. Because if he pans out — and too many of general manager Ken Holland's recent signings haven't — the Red Wings might finally get back to scoring the way they did when they were legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.

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Clearly, the Red Wings are still lacking a true No. 1 defense pairing, with an aging Niklas Kronwall skating alongside Jonathan Ericsson in that role on most nights and in most situations.

But in Danny DeKeyser, whom Green joins as the No. 2 pair, the Red Wings have a young defenseman Blashill on Wednesday called "an elite player in the league" and "an underrated player nationally."

"I don't think he gets the respect he probably deserves," Blashill said.

DeKeyser hasn't gotten the extension he deserves yet, either, signing a two-year bridge deal before last season that pays him the same as Brendan Smith ($2.25 million) and barely half what Kyle Quincey is making. Locking him up on a long-term contract should be a priority for Holland now.

In the meantime, a player Mike Babcock dubbed "a human eraser" in the playoffs last spring — "He makes all the mistakes everyone else makes go away," Babcock said — figures to be as busy as ever.

Because make no mistake, the 29-year-old Green will make his share. More than his share, actually, which partly explains his reduced ice time with the Capitals last season. But while he's a risk-taker, pinching and rushing and trying to make plays, he's also one of the league's best 5-on-5 point producers from the blue line, finishing second among NHL defensemen in points per 60 minutes in 2014-15.

'Fun to watch'

Wednesday night, we saw flashes of that, albeit against mostly minor-leaguers in Chicago's road lineup. Blashill praised his zone breakouts afterward. ("That's where I noticed him the most - his poise and his passing was great," the coach said.) And Green also looked comfortable manning the point on the No. 2 power play, nearly netting his first goal when a slapshot from the high slot clanged off the crossbar in the second period.

"It's one thing to be an offensive defenseman and have good offensive skill," Blashill said. "But he's got elite offensive skill. With the right(-handed) shot, that's been talked about lots. But I think, more important, is just the skill set that he brings."

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Scary, too, at times, I suppose. But at least for now he'll be playing with a better defense partner than he's seen in years, though Green won't say it himself. (DeKeyser is no Tim Gleason or Jack Hillen.)

"It's great," Green said of his new pairing. "He skates so well and moves the puck so well, it's very easy to read off of him. And I feel like already within camp, that short period of time, we were able to sort of unite and understand each other. It's gonna take some time to kind of fine-tune our game, but I'm extremely excited to play with him."

How much Blashill will play both of them remains to be seen. In Washington, Barry Trotz limited Green's minutes and his role, which wasn't easy for a two-time Norris Trophy finalist who once scored 31 goals in a season and twice tallied 70-plus points.

Keen to embrace challenge

DeKeyser probably doesn't have that kind of offensive upside, but he has much more than he has shown thus far. And what the Red Wings need desperately is a defensive pair that can generate more offensive chances. So if there's a risk here, it's one worth taking.

And besides, as Blashill noted, echoing Babcock's sentiment, "If (DeKeyser) is put in situations where there's breakdowns, he can make up for a lot of different players' mistakes. He has the ability to make a ton of defensive plays with his stick, breaking up 2-on-1s and other things like that. So he's got great recovery ability. I just think Danny is an elite player, and putting him with Green puts two elite players together."

No pressure there, right? And when I mentioned to Green the void he's being asked to fill has been here since Rafalski and Nicklas Lidstrom retired in successive summers, he nodded his agreement.

"I mean, when you put it that way, yeah, for sure," said Green, who never wanted to leave Washington, the franchise that drafted him in the first round (along with Alex Ovechkin) in 2004.

But, Green knows why he's here — "It's not really a gray area, in that sense," he says — and insists he's ready to embrace the challenge.

"I'm excited for the opportunity," he adds, "and I'm gonna make sure I do that."