'Size still matters': Young, big-bodied players strengthening Wings' lineup

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit — Three of the Red Wings who have been noticeable on the ice over the last week have something in common.

In a league where speed has become valued and has largely taken over, big bodies can still be effective and dictate a game in their own way.

Michael Rasmussen (age 21, 6-foot-6, 229 pounds), Givani Smith (23, 6-2, 210) and Adam Erne (25, 6-1, 212) all have used their strengths to make an impact in recent games and add another dimension to the Wings’ lineup.

Michael Rasmussen has tallied two goals and an assist over the past five games.

“Size still matters,” coach Jeff Blashill said of the impact being big has these days in the NHL.

A big, strong, immovable player will have certain advantages on the ice that a smaller, lighter player cannot have in certain situations with, or without, the puck.

“There’s different ways to separate yourself,” Blashill said. “One is through speed, one is through size and one is probably through competitiveness and hockey smarts.

“If you have all three, obviously, you’re a special player. If you don’t have any of them, you’ll have a hard time creating any sort of offense.

“(But) size definitely matters. If you’re bigger and longer, that’s like an NBA defender that is long — they’re hard to play against.

“Ultimately you want good players in those big packages and those guys (Erne, Smith, Rasmussen) are big players.”

The Wings’ size and willingness to battle and win confrontations around the net Sunday in Tampa was one key reason the Wings were successful in an impressive 5-1 victory.

The Wings carved space around the goal and went strong to the net. On the defensive end, they kept the Lightning away from goaltender Thomas Greiss.

“That’s what Blash always talks about, winning the net-front and that goes for both ends,” Rasmussen said. “A lot of us did a good job in front of our net and in front of their net, too, getting bodies in front.”

Here’s how these three big, young Wings made an impact on the recently completed road trip that ended on a positive note:

Rasmussen: With each passing game, the 2017 first-round pick is beginning to look like the player the Wings envisioned when they selected Rasmussen ninth overall.

Rasmussen is becoming a big, hulking center who is tough on the boards, a handful around the net, and is taking steps toward becoming a shutdown center.

“Ras has taken some real steps forward as a player, there’s no doubt about that,” Blashill said.

Rasmussen has two goals and five assists in 24 games, but the two goals have come in the last five games, including one in Sunday's victory.

A sure sign the coaching staff is beginning to trust Rasmussen more? He played 19 and 16 minutes, respectively, in the two games in Tampa.

“He’s got more responsibility on the penalty kill and five-on-five, and (Saturday) was one of his best games all year,” Blashill said. “He was solid again (Sunday) on the back end of a back-to-back. He’s a big man. He’s a very good defensive player because he’s long and makes it hard on the other team, and he’s good around the net.”

Blashill felt the goal Rasmussen scored will help in a variety of ways, too.

“Goals matter to these guys, points matter. That’s just the reality of it,” Blashill said. “You feel better about yourself.”

This latest stretch of hockey by Rasmussen is arguably the best he’s looked in the NHL — and Rasmussen doesn’t disagree.

“A lot of it is growing, just growing my game and growing as a person,” Rasmussen said. “I’m just trying to get better every day and I’m really helped by the guys in the room. I can’t put a finger on it. I’m just having fun playing hockey.”

And, for a change, being healthy.

“Definitely, physically, I’ve had to battle some injuries (over the last couple seasons) and that’s never fun,” Rasmussen said. “It (being healthy) brings your best game out. I feel strong and mentally I feel good.”

Red Wings' Givani Smith (42) fights with Panthers' Ryan Lomberg (94) during a game last week.

Smith: He earned high marks and plenty of praise around the locker room for the way he stood up for Dylan Larkin after Larkin was hit Thursday by Florida’s Riley Stillman.

“It’s a testament to who Smitty is,” forward Luke Glendening said.

As Smith refines and broadens his offensive game, he could become a true force in the lineup, given his size, physicality and toughness.

“When he gets into the offensive zone, he’s a load,” Blashill said. “He’s a hard guy to check and he has pretty good hands in those (hard) areas, and he knows to go to the net. He’s a load.”

Erne: He isn't as tall as the other two, but he's bulkier, strong on his skates, doesn’t back down around the net, and has already reached a career high with eight goals to go along with 13 points.

Erne has carved out a role on the power play and has continued to earn the trust and confidence of the coaching staff.

“He plays hard, plays the right way and goes to the right areas at the right times,” Larkin said. “He has great timing in front of the net, and has a great shot. He has always stuck with it and that’s something everyone can learn from.”

Predators at Red Wings

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

►TV/radio: BSD-plus/97.1

►Outlook: The Red Wings (13-22-5) and Nashville (20-18-1) open a quick two-game homestand and series. …Nashville has climbed into the fourth and final playoff seed, thanks to an 8-2-0 surge. …Goalie Juuse Saros (11-7-0, 2.27 GAA, .928 SVS) has been outstanding lately.


Twitter: @tkulfan