Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Red Storm Rising - Part 1: Getting Defensive

The month of June is always an anxious time for Red Wings nation. In a world without thumb injuries or Brendan Smith, the team might be preparing for the Stanley Cup finals right now. Alas; all of the tricks in Mike Babcock's magic bag could not teach the young Wings to anticipate a stretch pass and so, the focus becomes offseason roster management. The Wings are lucky in this regard for if their coach is a magician, it can fairly be stated that general manager Ken Holland is a full fledged wizard. As the architect of the NHL's most successful organization in the past 16 years, Holland has already proven himself to be a master at adapting to ever-changing league conditions. He has won a Cup by tinkering with another man's team in 1997-98; switching goaltenders and adding key contributors Tomas Sandstrom and Larry Murphy for virtually nothing as the season wound down. At the end of the NHL's big spending, pre-salary cap era in 2001-2002, Holland won another Cup by leveraging Mike Ilitch Sr's vast wealth into a team that was truly the best that money could buy. It has been speculated by some that when all is said and done the 01-02 Red Wings will produce 11 Hall of Famers: Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Luc Robataille, Igor Larionov, Nick Lidstrom, Dominik Hasek, Chris Chelios, Brendan Shanahan, Sergie Federov, Pavel Datsyuk and coach Scotty Bowman. When the 2004-2005 lockout signaled the end of "magic carpet ride" team building, Holland proved himself once again a man for all seasons by winning yet another Cup in the post-salary cap era. While his first two Cup winning teams were indeed "beauties", the 2007-2008 Red Wings revealed Ken to be a mad genius of the highest quality. Holland shrewdly blended holdovers from the 2002 team, a generation's worth of elite European prospects from previous drafts, a key free agent, a returning prodigal son, a deadline deal robbery, and a couple of scrap heap, reclamation projects into a championship winning squad. He almost repeated the feat in 2009, but the Red Wings came up just short in a heartbreaking 2-1 game 7 loss to Pittsburgh.

For most men, what Ken Holland has already wrought upon the hockey annuls would be considered a fine career. As impressive as his performance has been however; what Holland is trying to accomplish with the Red Wings at the very moment may well be his magnum opus as a manager. Holland has the kind of problem you're supposed to beg for; he has too many talented hockey players in the organization for one NHL team. Careful sculpting of the roster has left a solid veteran core headlined by his two best players: Pavel Datsyuk and Henrick Zetterberg. Although some of the aging support players are starting to show signs of wear, Holland knows that this group represents his best chance to win in the present moment. Pressure from outside the organization to "get younger" grows every year but young players don't magically step into the NHL and produce deep playoff runs very often. The manager knows that if fans are howling now because Todd Bertuzzi still has a contract it is nothing compared to the deafening roar a lost season spent developing AHL prospects would produce in the Motor City. By the same measure however; years of savy drafting and development have left the Red Wings farm system bursting with young, hungry talent that cannot simply be left to rot in the minors forever. Hot shot forwards, NHL-ready defenders and their various agents can only be held off for so long and for many of the Wing's best prospects, the time to enter the league is either now or very, very soon.

In this regard it's fair to say that the Red Wings' roller coaster, lockout shortened 2013 season was a great boon to Holland. A series of significant injuries, Brad Stuart's relocation to California and the long dreaded retirement of Nick Lidstrom created a skill vacuum at the top of the organization for the first time in years. The word skill is important here because although every fan seems to want Holland to throw his young players to the wolves on the 4th line or the 3rd defensive pairing, doing so is actually a very poor way to develop offensively talented prospects. Not only are gifted offensive players rarely physically suited to a checking line role but it's also pretty hard to develop into a top flight sniper when you're playing 6 minutes a night, with no powerplay time and defense first linemates. As quality ice time opened up over the course of the season however, Holland and coach Babcock worked to rotate a number of young players into key roles on the team. The result was a squad that played predictably poorly in the early season, while young players found their way in the NHL. As the team gelled and gained experience however, the Red Wings came on like a freight train. They secured the 7th seed in the playoffs at the last possible moment before beating 2nd seed Anaheim in 7 games and stretching President's trophy winning (and current Stanley Cup finalist) Chicago to 7 games in round 2. Along the way, fans were treated to a partial glimpse of Holland's grand vision for the future of the Red Wings and if the early returns are any indication; the NHL should brace itself for another long, red storm coming out of Hockeytown.

So if last season was simply a part of Holland's vision, what does the whole enchilada look like? While I'm hardly a personal friend of the notoriously guarded manager; the team's present salary cap situation, the age and contract status of various players on the roster and a careful examination of Wings prospects currently plying their trade elsewhere do offer many hints as to what the future may hold in Hockeytown. With nothing but time to wait until the Free Agency period officially begins on July 5th, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at where I think the Red Wing's roster is headed; both now and in the immediate years to come:

Gang of Five: Depending on how the future shakes out, the Wings' blueline corps will either be the key strength or the glaring weakness of the hockey club in years to come. In terms of raw talent, the Wings are absolutely loaded on the back end and if the younger players in this group reach their maximum potential, the Wings' defense could be one for the ages. Unfortunately, the young defenders who have seen NHL play have not always shown the necessary presence of mind and consistency to be any good at well, defense. Heading up the unit is veteran wrecking ball Niklas Kronwall and his now regular partner, Johnathan Ericsson. At 32 years old, Kronwall isn't likely to develop into a significantly better player than he is now but that's fine with the Red Wings because right now, he's a rock. Ericsson is a more interesting case in that it seems like we've been talking about his enormous potential for years now but it wasn't until very recently that  he began to realize that potential. Still, at 29 it's fair to say that Ericsson has become the player he will be in hockey and the struggle now will be developing the consistency necessary to maintain his (at times) elite level of play. Barring injury or outrageous contract demands, these two men will likely serve as the Wing's top defensive pairing for the next 4 or even 5 years.

After that, the picture becomes a little murky as it's fairly easy to tell which players have a long term future in Motown, but not necessarily how they'll eventually be positioned in the back 6. The Wing's most talented young defenceman is clearly 24 year old Brendan Smith; who is blessed with exceptional skating ability, soft hands, great offensive awareness and a wicked slapshot from the point. At 6'2" and 198 lbs, Smith also has ideal size for the position and he has displayed the kind of mean streak that allows a defender to survive in the modern NHL. Unfortunately whether through lack of experience or because he might genuinely lack a clue, Smith's decision making on (and off) the ice has been utterly maddening. At any given point in time last season Smith's play varied wildly from magnificent to horrendous; oftentimes on the front and back ends of the same shift!  If Smith improves his consistency he has the potential to push Ericsson down to the 2nd pairing; if he doesn't he needs only to look down the bench at teammate Kyle Quincy to see how easily tremendous talent can be wasted in the NHL. On the opposite end of the spectrum is 26 year old Czech defender Jakub Kindl, who for years appeared destined to rot in the Red Wing's farm system because he simply wasn't talented or tough enough to perform at the NHL level. Holland's patience with Kindl has bordered on legendary and after a breakout 2013 regular season and playoff performance, it's fair to question if he had been judged too harshly for his failure to crack a blueline regularly dotted with All-Star talent. Although Kindl possesses a massive frame, he still struggles to use his 6'3", 216 lb body effectively at times; frequently surrendering positioning and leverage against smaller men along the boards. It would be a misnomer to suggest that Kindl is a poor hitter but he certainly doesn't bring the hammer down like a man his size could. Where Kindl has improved surprisingly, is in his oft-maligned offensive skill-set. Although he'll never been confused with Bobby Orr, Kindl has significantly improved his breakout passing in the past year and he's developed a sneaky point shot that has a habit of creating chances in front of the enemy net; even if he rarely scores himself. At this point Kindl is slated for second pair minutes on the back end and there's no reason to believe he will either rise above or slip below that level in the forseeable future.

The final mortal lock in the Red Wing's future defensive corps would appear to be 6'3", 190lb college free agent sensation Danny DeKeyser. Although he only played in a total of 13 games and contributed a mere 2 points to the Red Wings' cause last season, DeKeyser's poise, awareness and strong defensive play clearly belied his age (23) and lack of big league experience. Despite the lack of production, DeKeyser also displayed elite passing skills, a strong accurate shot and an almost psychic sense of where to put the puck to safely clear the zone under duress. Although he'll never be an elite hitter like Kronwall, Danny showed a willingness to lay the body with relish when necessary and if he continues to gain weight and upper body strength; opposing players will learn to take note of when he's on the ice. In short, the Wings were simply a much better team with DeKeyser in the second pairing than they were with Brendan Smith performing the same role. Where exactly Danny fits in terms of minutes next season will depend a lot on DeKeyser's ability to contribute something offensively and Brendan Smith's (in)ability to stop dropping hand grenades in Jimmy Howard's lap from the defensive zone.

Wildcard Rearguards and the Distant Future: In the immediate future the two wildcard defenders in the Red Wing's plans are likely Kyle Quincey and Brian Lashoff. Most Red Wings fans are by now familiar with Quincey's immense struggles to live up to either his potential or Wings management's apparent faith in him. Without some kind of massive turnaround next year, it's likely that Quincey will go down as the Red Wing who played well for everyone except Detroit in his pro career. Kyle still has the size, skating ability and offensive skills to turn his career around but at this point, and given that he's about to enter his late 20's; I've given up hope that he'll eventually do so. Lashoff is a more interesting prospect because during brief cameos with the pro club he has displayed strong checking abilities, decent positioning and at least some defensive awareness. Unfortunately he's also been something of a black hole with the puck; he's an average at best passer and his shot offers absolutely nothing offensively at this point. At only 23 years old, there's certainly time for Lashoff to grow but virtually nothing about his time in either the NHL or the AHL suggest he'll ever be more than a 5th or 6th defenseman in Detroit. The Wings also have Carlo Colaiacovo hanging around but his extensive injury history, age (30) and largely uneven play suggest he's not a long term answer in Hockeytown; despite his surprising effectiveness at times during the 2013 playoffs. Ian White will be allowed to leave in Free Agency in part because he isn't very good anymore and in part because of some poorly chosen words during the most recent lockout. This leaves one of Lashoff, Quincey or Colaiacovo as the team's sixth regular defender, another as the primary on-roster backup and the 3rd completely in limbo. My best guess for the immediate future is that Quincey will be given every opportunity to win the job next season, Lashoff will apprentice for a year as the 7th defenseman and Carlo will be traded for virtually nothing because his contract is easier to move than Quincey's would be.

In terms of long term future prospects, the Wings have a trio of potentially excellent players who are all at least 2-3 years away from being ready for the NHL. Of the 3, Mattias Backman appears poised to break into the senior lineup first. At only 21 years of age, the 6'3", 176lb Backman is already playing 20 minutes a night against grown men for Linkoping of the Swedish Elite League. Physically, he is described as an elite skater with outstanding mobility in all directions by scouts within the organization. His passing game is also top shelf; last season he finished with 24 assists in 52 games for his club, which when combined with 2 goals was good enough to make him the 8th highest scoring defenseman in the Swedish Elite League. He also displays elite mental abilities; his positioning is flawless, he has outstanding vision and anticipation at both ends of the ice and he is noted for rarely, if ever making a mistake with the puck. Probably the nicest thing that can be said about Backman is that legendary Wings director of European scouting, Hakan Andersson described him as looking like "Alexander Edler" in October of 2012. The downside is that Mattias is basically allergic to contact; in two seasons in the SEL he has been credited with almost no hits whatsoever and that just isn't going to cut it at an NHL level. Going hand and hand with his aversion to bodychecks; Backman is also incredibly skinny for a man of his height and will definitely need to gain at least 10lbs before he can play regularly in Hockeytown. Despite these shortcomings, Backman has the kind of game that makes him destined for the NHL and probably sooner, rather than later. He could be with the Wings as early as 2014-15 if Quincey flames out and there are no available stopgaps on the market. More likely however; Mattias will spend another year in Sweden, learn the North American game for a while in Grand Rapids and join the Wings for a promising career starting in 2015-16.

While Backman appears to be next in line to find his way to the big club in Detroit, he is not the most talented defensive prospect in the Wings' farm system; that honor goes to 6'4", 200lb OHL phenom Ryan Sproul. Just how good is Ryan Sproul with the puck? Last year he lead OHL defensemen in points (66), assists (46) and he tied for the league lead in goals at the position with 20. This would be impressive in it's own right, but Sproul managed to accomplish this in a mere 41 games after sitting out 6 weeks with a broken arm suffered just 7 games into the season. His shot is sublime, he's an elite passer at the OHL level and after a year spent working on his skating, he's also one of the more mobile defensemen in the entire league. Offensively it's hard not to watch Sproul play and draw comparisons to former Wings' stalwart Brian Rafalski; except if Rafalski were bigger and had a heavier shot. For all of his promise as an offensive talent and future powerplay quarterback however; Ryan still struggles with the finer points of actually playing defense. He has worked hard to improve himself from "horrible" to merely average defensively and this is reflected by his even +/- rating in the OHL last season. He is still nowhere near an acceptable quality defender for the NHL however and like Backman could stand to gain a few pounds before he makes the final leap. Sproul will make his AHL debut in Grand Rapids next season and could stay there for up to 4 years if the parent club remains healthy and stable. With Ryan's offensive skills however it seems unlikely he'll have to wait quite that long to see NHL action; I wouldn't be surprised to see him with the Red Wings in 2015-16 and if not then, certainly by 2016-17.

The final defensive prospect worth discussion at this point in the Wing's system is elite QMJHL defender, Xavier Ouellet.  Despite being only 19 years old at the time of this writing, Ouellet is already a hardened 4 year veteran of Quebec junior hockey; serving as team captain for his final two seasons. As depicted in the photo, he was also selected to play for Canada in the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championships last season. Ouellet is neither as smooth as skater as Backman, nor as offensively gifted as Sproul; he is however an excellent 2-way defender with enough agility and burst to join the rush as the primary puck carrier. Additionally, Xavier displays the kind of heart and character that will eventually endear him to fans in Hockeytown when he does finally crack the lineup. Scouts describe Ouellet as having a strong work ethic, being responsible in his own zone and rarely making mistakes with the puck. His physical play and checking seems to improve with every year of development and recently Xavier has displayed a willingness to drop the gloves if his team needs it. At 6'1" and 190lbs he's still a little small for the NHL but consistent weight work at the professional level in Grand Rapids could solve that problem in no time. Although Ouellet is talented, he is not an elite talent in any one area of play, so it will be important for him to continue to play within himself, make the smart pass and avoid displays of "hero hockey" if he wants to crack the Wings lineup before his 4 years of AHL waiver-exemption have expired. Although it's merely speculation at this point, I believe that Ouellet's past history suggests that he will attack the weight room with gusto and respond to any challenges the AHL presents him with. Watch for Ouellett in a Red Wings uniform as soon as 2015-16 but like Sproul, if he does have to wait it won't be much longer than an additional year. I also don't put much stock into the rumor that the Wings might trade Ouellet to Montreal this offseason; there's a pretty big drop off in terms of perceived talent between Xavier and the next few guys in the system.

Speaking of the next few guys in the system; dark horse candidates to keep your eye on include Adam Almquist, Nick Jensen and the intriguing, but injury prone Alexei Marchenko. Jensen is the college veteran, oldest of the 3 and a man who's game is built on tremendous speed and a desire to play aggressive, in your face hockey. He's not a great defender however, plays far too much hero hockey to fit well into the Wings' system and needs to improve his shot to compliment his quarterbacking skills on the powerplay. Almquist has the most developed mental game of the trio; if not for a lack of size, skating ability and extreme upper body strength issues, he might already be in the NHL at 22. Finally, Marchenko is said to be a very similar prospect to Backman; although injury issues and playing in the KHL have caused him to receive only a fraction of the attention afforded his Swedish counterpart thus far.

(Editors Note: This article is part of an ongoing series discussing the Red Wings' roster both now and into the future. You can find Part 2 here , Part 3 here and Part 4 here.)


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you very much. I'm working hard to get better at this writing stuff almost every day :)

      Very much appreciate the comment. :)