Joe Hicketts, Vili Saarijarvi vie to be part of long-term solution on Red Wings defense

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
Red Wings defenseman Joe Hicketts            has played in 13 NHL games, registering three assists.

Grand Rapids — There will be changes on defense for the Red Wings in the near future.

Age, contract issues, retirement and just the natural movement of personnel from the minor leagues and into the NHL, it will amount to new faces in the Wings’ lineup.

There are likely to be too many variables in play. Change is inevitable.

With that in mind, and knowing young defensemen such as Dennis Cholowski and Filip Hronek already have earned spots in the Wings’ lineup this season, patience is key.

Defenseman Joe Hicketts, who began the season on the Wings’ roster after a rash of injuries put four Wing regulars on the sidelines, is willing to be patient.

“We didn’t get the results (in the standings), but every game, myself and the other young guys, we improved every game,” Hicketts said. “That’s the organization is looking for, trying to get some younger pieces in there, but you still need that mix of older guys as well.”

Niklas Kronwall and Nick Jensen are unrestricted free agents after this season.

Kronwall, 38, is likely to retire, although he has yet to confirm it. The fact Kronwall has played well this season, along with the fact he’s been able to stay healthy despite a troublesome knee, offers the slight chance Kronwall could play one more season — but it’s unlikely.

Jensen, 28, will either be dealt before the Feb. 25 trade deadline, or be re-signed as a low-cost, dependable, older defensemen on an increasingly younger unit.

In the summer of 2020, veterans Trevor Daley, Jonathan Ericsson and Mike Green all are unrestricted free agents. The chances of all three returning to the Wings is extremely minimal, and even two might be optimistic thinking.

So, there are openings on the horizon. And the promising play of Hicketts, Vili Saarijarvi and Libor Sulak in Grand Rapids, and recent draft picks Jared McIsaac and Gustav Lindstrom in juniors, and Sweden, respectively, offer plenty of optimism for the future.

Saarijarvi, 21, had an outstanding training camp in October, but was projected to Grand Rapids from the start.

He’s basically brought that level of perforance to the Griffins from Day One, with 11 points (two goals, nine assists) in 43 games, with a plus-5 plus-minus rating.

“Just getting to watch all those NHL guys, then playing with them and competing with them,” said Saarijarvi, “seeing that I can play their and keep up with those guys, it gave me a lot of confidence.”

Saarijarvi was a 2015 third-round pick who played 42 games with the Griffins last season and progressively got better as the season progressed.

At 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, Sarrijarvi isn’t the biggest defenseman around, but he’s gotten stronger physically, and his defensive positioning continues to improve.

Still, it’s Sarrijarvi’s skating that makes him most dangerous. The Griffins’ coaching staff wants him to maximize that asset.

“When I come up the ice, if I stop moving my feet, I’m kind of giving my options away,” Saarijarvi said. “The other teams, they’re going to know I’m going to pass the puck when I don’t move my feet. When I move my feet, I open up way more options for myself.

“On defense, I have to be a little bit harder to play against and kill plays early.”

Saarijarvi found training camp to be useful for many reasons, but  watching the veterans on the Wings and how they prepared was most important.

The competition for jobs and playing time, be it at the NHL or AHL levels, is always present.

“Just how to be a pro every day,” Saarijarvi said of what he observed in training camp. “I learned that last year, too. You have to compete every day for your job because there’s always guys there, guys who want to take your spot, and I have to be the guy challenging up for spots (too)."

Red Wings defenseman prospect Vili Saarijarvi is a plus-5 in Grand Rapids.

Hicketts, 22, played eight games in October with the Wings, going point-less, with a minus-6 rating. He’s now had 13 games in the NHL, with three assists.

The time in October, playing with Cholowski, Hronek and Sulak, and against a difficult NHL schedule, was a learning experience.

“What is it they call it, a trial by fire?” Hicketts said. “We were all put in situations, maybe a lot of us either weren’t expecting or weren’t ready for what happened. We had a bunch of guys injured, which you don’t want, but we did a good job of it, (though) we didn’t get the results we wanted.”

When Mike Green was placed on the injured list in December with a foot injury, Hronek was called up instead of  Hicketts.

Sure, there was some disappointment, Hicketts said, but ultimately he understood the reasoning.

“You want to be there so bad, but at the same time, I understood,” Hicketts said. “Mike Green is a power-play guy, so you’re going to bring Filip up to play power play. I understand that now.

“I’m happy for him. He’s worked extremely hard, we’re still good buddies, and at the end of the day, both our goals are aligned. We want the whole organization to do well. It’s about winning.”

Sulak, 24, (6-foot-2, 207 pounds) exhibited, arguably, the most raw skills of any of the young defensemen in training camp, but his inexperience showed in the October debut.

In six games with the Wings, Sulak didn’t have a point and was minus-4, having a difficult time adjusting to the pace of the NHL.

But Sulak has settled down in Grand Rapids, and in 38 games had nine points (one goal, eight assists) with a plus-3 rating.

Twitter: @tkulfan