Ouellet shines but Wings endure growing pains on ‘D’

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg high-fives fans during a "red carpet" arrival for the Red Wings before Monday night's game. It will be the final home opener for the Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena.

Detroit —These are important games for Red Wings young defenseman Xavier Ouellet, and he is performing well.

Ouellet played only five games last season for the Wings — Alexey Marchenko eased ahead of him on the depth chart — but Ouellet earned an All-Star nod for his fine season in the AHL.

Now, the 23-year-old seeks to stake his claim on a permanent roster spot, but he also needs to help lift the team, in the absence of the Niklas Kronwall, amid clear growing pains on the blue line.

“I think I am playing well,” said Ouellet, a native of Bayonne, France, who grew up in Terrebonne, Quebec. “I think I’m doing what I’ve got to do.

“I want to make sure that I gain the coach’s confidence. I want to play smart. I want to play hard. I want to be good defensively and go from there."

After playing 21 games for the Red Wings in 2014-15, the mere handful of opportunities last season was a harsh reality, Ouellet said.

“It was tough mentally,” he said. “But you need to accept it and keep working and not quit. I wanted to be here. I’m getting the opportunity now, and I want to do something about it.”

Coach Jeff Blashill said he has noted Ouellet’s efforts.

“I think he’s played two strong games,” said Blashill, who is looking for more assertiveness from his defensive corps in their own zone, quicker exits and a better push on the transition through the neutral zone.

“I think him and (Jonathan) Ericsson have both played two real strong games.”

The final period begins for Joe Louis Arena

The Red Wings defense was hard-pressed in the first two games of the season, both losses in which the team spent a disproportionate amount of time in their own zone. Simply getting possession of the puck and moving it swiftly out and through the neutral zone was more often an ambition than an accomplishment.

It was a deterioration of their performance from last season, which was below par for the Red Wings’ defensive unit.

Ouellet, another in a long line of Wings’ over-ripe prospects, hopes to help.

“When you play a lot in your zone, it’s hard,” Ouellet said. “You get tired and you have less energy to make plays offensively. So, we need to find a way to get out of our zone.”

Meanwhile, if Ouellet does not make the roster, as Kronwall returns, he would be exposed to waivers, having run out of options to return to Grand Rapids.

“Obviously, I have no control over this, except just trying to help this team win games right now,” he said.

Xavier Ouellet moves the puck during the Red Wings' season opener against Tampa Bay last week.

Ouellet, a 2011 second-round pick, 48th overall, was the Wings’ highest-drafted defenseman since Brendan Smith in the first round, 27th overall, in 2007.

In 2005, they drafted Jakub Kindl in the first round, 19th overall. Kindl never quite worked out, was traded to the Panthers for a late draft choice last season and now plays for their AHL club, the Springfield Thunderbirds.

If exposed to waivers, Ouellet almost certainly would be claimed by another team.

Throughout his junior and AHL career, Ouellet provided evidence he is responsible defensively, tough physically and capable of providing some offense.

Playing for Blainville-Boisbriand Armada of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League as a 19-year-old in 2011-12, he was the team's second leading scorer with 21 goals and 39 assists in 63 games.

In 61 games with the Griffins last year, he had four goals, 25 assists and was a plus-18.

If Ouellet fulfills his promise, he projects as a second- or third-pair defenseman who can contribute on offense, perhaps to the point of a significant amount of time on the power play.

“I’m trying to play really strong defensively, make sure I make the right play,” he said. “But as a D-corps, we need to pick it up.

“We need to play better as a unit, as a group and find a way to not give them any goals.”