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Red Wings desperate for difference-makers on defense

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
At age 37, Niklas Kronwall was the oldest defenseman on the Red Wings last season.

Detroit — The Red Wings have tried to do patchwork on the position and fill the gaps best they could, but it hasn’t worked well enough.

When talking about Detroit's defense unit  and many fans would rather not  it’s an area that’s been debated and criticized by fans and analysts for many years.

Mostly, it has been criticized.

When analyzing the defense last month as the Red Wings broke for the summer, general manager Ken Holland admitted it’s a position the organization needs to retool.

“Our defense is old,” said Holland, noting the age on defense.

How they go about upgrading the defense will be interesting to watch.

More: National development program reloads for NHL Draft

The NHL Entry Draft in June will be a big help, considering the Red Wings have two first- and second-round picks, including the No. 6 pick overall.

Free agency doesn’t appear to be a relevant avenue to upgrade, and trades are usually difficult to come by. So drafting and internal improvement are how the Red Wings likely expect to mainly improve on the blue line.

The defense last season consisted of Trevor Daley (age 34), Danny DeKeyser (28), Jonathan Ericsson (34), Mike Green (32), Nick Jensen (27) and Niklas Kronwall (37), with Xavier Ouellet (24) and Luke Witkowski (28)  Witkowski shifted between forward and defense, as needed  often healthy scratches.

Green is the lone player on defense who is an unrestricted free agent, and after having neck surgery in late March, his future with the Red Wings is uncertain.

The organization may consider re-signing Green to a short-term contract  he is one of the team's better offensive defensemen  but bringing him back would block the path of a younger defenseman from Grand Rapids.

The Red Wings desperately could use an injection of youth and high-end talent into the group.

With the retirements of Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski, and the trade of Brad Stuart over the last decade, the Red Wings haven’t been able to sufficiently restock on defense through the draft.

Signing DeKeyser, an undrafted free agent, was a plus as he’s proven to be a proven NHL player. But picks such as Ouellet, Jensen and Ryan Sproul (traded to the New York Rangers) haven’t made the positive impact the Red Wings had hoped they would.

“We haven’t done a good enough job of drafting defensemen that have been high impact,” Holland said.

They’ve certainly tried.

Brendan Smith (first round, 2007), Jakub Kindl (first round, 2005) and Kyle Quincey (fourth round, 2003) were drafted in early rounds and offered occasional glimpses of promise.

But never over a lengthy period of time  all three were inconsistent and have continued that characteristic in other organizations  and all three were ultimately traded away or not re-signed.

The Red Wings are hopeful of more sustained success from their recent draft selections.

Draft picks Dennis Cholowski (first round, 2016), Filip Hronek (second round, 2016) and Vili Saarijarvi (third round, 2015), and undrafted free agent Joe Hicketts are recent additions the organization hopes can restock the position.

Hicketts showed intriguing potential in a late-season recall from the Griffins, while Hronek had a great rookie season in Grand Rapids.

Cholowski completed a dominant junior season, but is likely to need seasoning in Grand Rapids before being tested in the NHL.

“You have to drafted them and develop them,” Holland said.

With four picks in the first two rounds of next month’s NHL Entry Draft, the Red Wings will likely concentrate on defense, whenever possible.

“I would anticipate some of those four picks, and three third-round (picks), some of those picks will be used on defense,” Holland said.

How vital a deep and talented defense is to any NHL team was shown last summer during the expansion process as the Vegas Golden Knights were entering the league.

Holland noted how teams that possessed depth on defense worked side deals with Vegas in hopes of retaining defensive depth.

“In the end of the day most of them paid a price in order to hang onto their defense,” Holland said. “Defensemen are coveted in this league, and those defensemen (elite top-pairing) that can play in the league, a defenseman that can make a difference, we have to draft and develop them.”

Lacking on 'D'

The Red Wings’ defense last season, with games, goals, assists, points and plus-minus rating.

Mike Green: 66 games, eight goals, 25 assists, 33 points, minus-14.

Niklas Kronwall: 79-4-23-27, minus-14.

Trevor Daley: 77-9-7-16, minus-5.

Nick Jensen: 81-0-15-15, minus-8.

Jonathan Ericsson: 81-3-10-13, minus-7.

Danny DeKeyser: 65-6-6-12, plus-2.

Xavier Ouellet: 45-0-7-7, minus-3.

Luke Witkowski: 31-1-3-4, minus-1.

Joe Hicketts: 5-0-3-3, plus-5.