Krupa: Red Wings making room for ripened defensemen

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — A veteran who long contributed to their cause is suddenly gone from the Red Wings roster.

Two young defensemen were in the starting lineup Sunday, against one of the top offensive teams, the Rangers.

That speaks volumes about where the Wings are headed in the last half of a trying, disappointing season. Approaching a logjam, as some healthy players return amid long-playing stretches for the reinforcements, Ken Holland and Jeff Blashill provided strong evidence Sunday they are interested in playing the young defensemen.

They were immediately rewarded for the decision.

The Wings played good defense Sunday, giving up a goal only in the wide-open, frenetic 3-on-3 in a 1-0 overtime loss.

They limited the shots and scoring chances of the Rangers, who began the day with the second-most goals scored and the second-best power play on the road.

Red Wings fall in OT, surrender valuable point

Drew Miller was not out there. The veteran defensive forward was exposed to waivers 30 minutes before the start of the game.

Defenseman Xavier Ouellet, 23, and the less experienced defenseman Nick Jensen, 26, stayed on the roster. With the return of Niklas Kronwall after eight games with a knee injury, Miller was made to pay the price of the numbers game.

On Sunday, Ouellet, 23, started. It was his 62nd career game.

Jensen paired with Kronwall, in his 14th game.

Ouellet played 21:17, second-most among the defensemen to Danny DeKeyser’s 23:19. Jensen played 15:43, a bit less than Kronwall’s 16:14, but during two more shifts than the veteran.

Kids show mettle

For a team challenged in their fifth season of a self-proclaimed “rebuild on the fly” to spend less time in their zone, leave it more adroitly and boost a power play lagging for two seasons, the corps of defensemen remains the major cause for concern.

Mike Green has helped solidify it with improved play this season, including eight goals and 14 assists in 39 games.

But short of a blockbuster trade before the deadline, Feb. 28, to acquire the much-in-demand Kevin Shattenkirk, from the Blues, the only improvement available on the back end might be from new players, who ripened — maybe even over-ripened — in Grand Rapids.

And the events of Sunday provided definitive evidence the Wings now intend to, in the vernacular of the game, “play the kids back there.”

Wings waive Drew Miller, welcome back Niklas Kronwall

Miller’s workmanlike accomplishments in eight seasons have resulted in penalties killed and good coverage on many occasions against some of the top lines in the NHL. He can also irritate.

It seemed likely Sunday that another team will find use for Miller, perhaps with a playoff run in mind.

But Ouellet and Jensen look ready. Both played well, again, against the Rangers, and the process of “making room” for them on the roster took a giant step forward.

Veteran help needed

Perhaps some of Holland’s motivation is showing young defensemen to the Blues, in case the Red Wings are finally able to put together a package that results in luring that disappointing club into a trade for Shattenkirk.

“We’ve talked lots this year about earning trust, and I think those guys have played well, here, lately,” Blashill said. “But, I think it’s an everyday league.

“And if they keep playing real well, they will keep themselves where they want to be.”

For the Red Wings, the difficulty of all of this is the likelihood that none of the current roster of seven defensemen, plus Brendan Smith who is out with a knee injury, will amount to a No. 1 or strong No. 2 in the course of his career.

And the fact of the matter is, Shattenkirk might not be, either.

He is, however, likely the best defenseman available this season.

Regardless, the Wings’ brass was wise Sunday to keep their assortment of young additions to the No. 3 through No. 7 or 8 slots, and to continue the search for the replacements for Niklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski, now gone for five and six seasons, respectively.

The culling of a veteran presence helps keep the young defensemen in the lineup. And Smith’s eventual return might require another adjustment.

Regardless of Shattenkirk and the Red Wings ability to acquire him without leveraging too much of the future, Ouellet and Jensen should be on the roster now, and playing.

And the strong possibility the Red Wings have bid adieu to an honorable, veteran warrior is the necessary, worthwhile price. @GreggKrupa