Stronger Danny DeKeyser emerging as 'elite' defender for Red Wings

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
Red Wings defenseman Danny DeKeyser owns a plus-10 plus-minus rating.

Detroit — The recent offense has been nice, goals in two consecutive games, but that isn’t what stands out for coach Jeff Blashill.

When you mention defenseman Danny DeKeyser to Blashill these days, Blashill goes to the defensive end of the rink and the standout play DeKeyser has provided this season.

“Danny has been excellent this year, and I mean excellent,” Blashill said. “He’s been a top-pair defending defenseman all season long whenever he’s been healthy. Our record shows it, when he and Mike Green, when they’ve been in the lineup. He’s been that good.”

Hand injuries have limited DeKeyser, 28, to only 26 games this season. He has 12 points (three goals, nine assists) while averaging over 21 minutes per game, while also possessing a plus-10 plus-minus rating.

That plus-minus is impressive, considering the quality of players DeKeyser is facing, and obviously not allowing many goals when he’s on the ice.

“He looks stronger and his physical battles are harder and he knocks people around way more,” Blashill said. “He’s really taken a step into becoming an elite defender in the league — what I envisioned that he would be and I believe he is, right now.

“Overall, boy, if Danny keeps giving us in these next 30 some games the way he’s given us the games so far, we’re a real good team. If he gives us that in the future, we have a real good defender on our hands.”

A key difference in what Blashill has seen with DeKeyser is a physically stronger player, something DeKeyser worked on over the summer.

At 6-foot-3, 192 pounds, DeKeyser  always has had a slender body that could be taken advantage of by the stronger forwards around the league.

But that hasn’t been the case as much this season.

“His real focus was on adding strength and power, and that was the No. 1 thing I said to him, beyond anything else: Add strength and power and when you come back, you’re just that much stronger on the ice,” Blashill said. “He did that, and it shows.”

DeKeyser’s goal-scoring surge the last two games is evidence he does have the offensive skill that many scouts felt he possessed at Western Michigan.

He’s had as many as eight goals (2015-16) and 31 points (2014-15) in his career, and Blashill wouldn’t be surprised if DeKeyser can match those totals again in his career.

“He starts a lot of time in the defensive zone, and he doesn’t play on the power play, so it’s hard to get a lot of production at that point,” Blashill said. “(But) he has good skill, he can produce.”

DeKeyser credits playing with Nick Jensen in recent games as a key reason for his recent surge.

“I feel good on the ice, and me and Jens’ have good chemistry back there,” DeKeyser said. “We seem to read well off each other and we’re making some pretty good plays out of our zone and not getting hemmed in much.

“That’s a big thing, when you’re getting pinned in your zone, you’re getting tired and it takes away from your offense.”

Injury update

Forward Dylan Larkin (strained oblique muscle) practiced Wednesday, but Blashill wouldn’t say definitively that Larkin would return to Thursday’s lineup against Vegas.

Larkin has missed one game with the strained muscle.

“He did pretty good, but the biggest concern is we, the coaching staff and training staff, don’t want to put him in a situation where all of a sudden he’s set back for two weeks,” Blashill said. “That’s something we’ll talk about.

“We still have to feel confident he can go through the game and not get set back.”

Forward Tyler Bertuzzi (upper body) hasn’t practiced and missed both games last weekend since getting checked hard into the boards Jan. 22 in Edmonton.

Blashill said Bertuzzi had tests on his neck which came back fine, but Bertuzzi simply isn’t ready to practice yet.

“Cognitively, from a testing standpoint, he’s doing all right. It’s just matter of him feeling, in a spot, where he’s ready to start a progression,” Blashill said. “He’s not quite there yet.”

Defenseman Trevor Daley (foot) practiced and appears ready to rejoin the lineup this weekend.

“Not available (Thursday), but at some point during our trip, he’d become available,” Blashill said.

No fluke

As an expansion team last year, the Vegas Golden Knights reached the Stanley Cup Finals, shocking the hockey world.

The Golden Knights (30-21-4, 64 points) have proven this season that all that success of a year ago was for real.

“What they’ve done over the last two years is proven they’re a good hockey team,” Blashill said. “It’s not a fluke at all. They’ve got lots of speed, they play a simple style that allows guys to play fast and hard.”

Blashill feels picking goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was a significant piece for Vegas in the expansion process.

“Fleury has continued to be a top-tier goalie in the league,” Blashill said. “That’s going to put you in a good spot.”

Golden Knighs at Red Wings

Faceoff: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit

TV/radio: Fox Sports Detroit/97.1 FM

Outlook: Vegas (30-21-4, 64 points) is coming off a 3-2 shootout victory over NHL-leading Tampa Bay. … RW Alex Tuch (16 goals, 40 points) and former Michigan LW Max Pacioretty (16 goals) lead a balanced attack, backstopped by G Marc-Andre Fleury (28-15-4, 2.47 GAA, .911 SVS).

Twitter: @tkulfan