D in the D: A Deep Dive into Detroit Defensemen

While the Detroit Red Wings continue to fumble their chances at making the playoffs this season, I began to reflect on when this team really started to stress me out. It’s obvious that this team’s most gaping hole is on the blueline. Since Nicklas Lidstrom retired, the Red Wings defense just hasn’t been the same.

Year

W

L

OL

PTS

PTS%

GF

GA

2011-2012

48

28

6

102

0.622

239

200

2012-2013*

24

16

8

56

0.583

122

110

2013-2014

39

28

15

93

0.567

217

221

2014-2015

43

25

14

100

0.61

231

211

2015-2016

38

28

11

87

0.565

196

207

*Lockout shortened season

In the above graph, 2011-2012 is Lidstrom’s last season in the league. Notice that every category since then has been in decline. Even in the lockout-shortened season, they were only on pace for 95 points.

All this to state the obvious: losing Lidstrom was a huge blow to this team. When he left, we all expected Niklas Kronwall to fill that void. The only problem is the Kronwall isn’t as good of a defenseman. Neither is Quincey or Smith or Ericsson. But I’m not a pessimist; not being as good as one of the greatest of all time isn’t a bad thing, and I always try to look forward to what’s next. I quickly realized that I know nothing about the future of the Detroit Red Wings blue line, so I decided to do some research and here is the result: a deep dive into Detroit’s possible future top-6.

Robbie Russo

Hometown: Westmont, Illinois; Age: 23; Height: 6’, Weight: 190lbs; Shoots: Right

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Robbie Russo was drafted in the 4th round (95th overall) by the New York Islanders in 2011, the same year that he captained Team USA to a gold medal at the IIHF U18 World Championship. He played for the Fighting Irish at the University of Notre Dame and, in 2014-15, closed out his final season with them, as captain, with a 1.025G/GP. This was good for second on the team in scoring.  

At the end of that season, Russo signed an entry-level deal with the Red Wings and reported to Grand Rapids where he’s been a massive addition to the Griffins’ blueline. So far this season, Russo leads all team defensemen in points and ranks 5th on the team’s active roster with 37 points (0.62 G/GP). His plus-46 rating is the best in the AHL.

Russo is a solid puck mover who isn’t afraid to use his body. He’s a complete defenceman and a good leader. Not to mention that a right-handed shot for a defenseman is always a plus on this team. Hockey’s Future projects him as a “middle-pairing defenceman who can contribute to the attack and has some value on the powerplay”. I could see Russo filling a top 4 spot, acting as a big body opposite one of the smaller puck moving defenseman coming up through the system.

Ryan Sproul

Hometown: Mississauga, Ontario; Age: 23; Height: 6’3”; Weight: 205lbs; Shoots: Right

Ryan Sproul was drafted 55th overall in the 2nd round of the 2011 NHL Entry Level Draft. When he was signed to his entry-level contract, Sproul was the golden boy of Red Wings prospects. He had just come off a season where he was named CHL Defenseman Of the Year and his offensive production had everyone looking for him to quarterback the powerplay one day at Joe Louis Arena.

He was a monster playing for Ste. Sault Marie in the OHL, nearly producing at a PPG rate in his final two seasons of junior. But as many learn, the jump to the pro level is never an easy one.

His first season with the Griffins was modest at best. He put up 32 points in 72 games and made it through the playoffs at a 0.5 G/GP scoring rate. Unfortunately for Sproul, the defensive side of his game dragged him down as he made many costly turnovers in his own zone.

His second pro season didn’t get much better. Sproul only put up 24 points in 66 games. Head Coach Jeff Blashill sat him as a healthy scratch towards the end of the season and for the majority of the Calder Cup playoffs. While this was certainly a blow to Sproul’s confidence, he’s come back much stronger this season with 31 points in 66 games, which has been his best offensive season in the AHL yet.

While Sproul has contributed one game as part of the Red Wings roster vs. the St. Louis Blues in 2012, the writing’s on the wall for him. At 6’3, he’s a big guy, but he doesn’t use his body enough on the ice. His puck handling, especially in the defensive zone, is worrisome. While he is showing signs of improvement, it just may be too late for him. Detroit has continued to sign big defensemen with more offensive potential, who all have better hockey IQ, and who are further along in their development.

Xavier Ouellet

Hometown: Terrebonne, Quebec; Age: 22; Height: 6’; Weight: 200 lbs; Shoots: Left.

Xavier Ouellet is easily the defenseman on this list with the best chance of becoming a full-time Red Wing anytime soon. Due to the offensive prowess he showed in the QMJHL, the Red Wings drafted him in the 2nd round (48th overall) in 2011 and signed him to a three-year entry-level contract.

In his past three years with the Griffins, XO has worked on improving his defensive game to become a better all-around defenseman and he’s been showing up all over the scoreboard. In last year’s AHL playoffs, Ouellet led all defensemen in scoring, recording 6 points and a team-leading plus-6 rating. This season, in 52 games with the Griffins, XO has recorded 25 points (4G, 21A) in what has been his most offensive season in the AHL.

This has been enough to catch the eye of the Red Wings coaching staff as he’s the only player on this list so far with any experience playing in the NHL. The team started to call him up two seasons ago and, to date, Ouellet has played 30 games with the Red Wings and has recorded 4 points (2G, 2A). Interestingly, his numbers are better under Babcock than they are Blashill, but that is likely a result of the lower sample size he’s had this year (only 5 GP vs last year’s 21).

Overall, XO is an excellent skater whose game continues to improve as he builds confidence. He looked shaky in his last call-up with the Wings, posting only 1 point and a minus-2 rating. Hockey’s Future projects him as a “sound lower-pairing defenseman”, but I think he has the potential to be top-4. He’s great in our end and defending the zone, but where he lacks confidence is on the offensive side, holding the blue line and setting up scoring chances.

Joe Hicketts

Hometown: Kamloops, British Columbia; Age: 19; Height: 5’8”; Weight: 187 lbs; Shoots: Left

Joe Hicketts is one of the most anticipated youngsters coming up through Detroit’s farm system. Undrafted in 2014, Hicketts signed a three-year entry-level deal with the Red Wings after attending their September training camp. In 2013-14, Hicketts put up 6 goals, 18 assists, and a +25 rating in 36 regular season games with the Victoria Royals of the WHL. This was after he missed three months recovering from surgery due to an upper-body injury. His offensive play continued to show this year as he put up 12 goals, 52 assists, and a plus-17 rating in 62 games for the Royals. That’s a scoring rate of 1.03 P/GP.

These impressive numbers in the WHL earned Hicketts a roster spot on Team Canada for the last two IIHF World Junior Championships. In 2015, his three assists in the tournament went virtually unnoticed on a powerhouse team – arguably the best team that Canada has iced since 2008 – that had scoring contributions from Max Domi, Connor McDavid, Curtis Lazar, and Robby Fabbri. In 2016, he played on a less-than-stellar Team Canada that couldn’t manage to medal. Despite this, Hicketts finished top-10 in defenseman scoring leaders with three points in five games. This point total was good for fifth on the team. 

Hicketts was one of the few bright spots on an otherwise underwhelming Team Canada and his offensive ability could do well for the Red Wings in a few years. He’s small so he won’t be laying guys out like Kronwall does or protecting the puck with his body the way Ericsson does. But he’s fast and he’s got good hands. He’s part of this new wave of defensemen who don’t have a lot of weight to throw around, but can drive the play forward and move the puck. I see him as top-4 with the Detroit Red Wings one day.

Vili Saarijarvi

Hometown: Rovaniemi, Finland; Age: 18; Height: 5’9”; Weight: 163 lbs; Shoots: Right.

Vili Saarijarvi was selected in the 3rd round (73rd overall) of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft by the Detroit Red Wings. Like Hicketts, he’s part of this new wave of small defenseman who are quick on their feet and smooth with their hands. He came up through the Finnish hockey system, where he was one of the top U18 offensive defensemen.

In August of 2014, Saarijarvi made the jump to North America so he could begin his transition to the “North American style” of hockey. He landed in Wisconsin, where he played for the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL. That season he put up a modest 23 points in 57 games. Despite this not being good enough to put him on the list of 210 North American skaters in the Central Scouting final rankings, Detroit selected him anyways in 2015. They have a good track record for sleeper picks in later rounds.

Being only 18 years old, the Red Wings let him continue with his training in junior hockey. So Saarijarvi began the 2015-16 season in Flint, where he was selected by the Flint Firebirds in the 2015 CHL Import Draft. While the overall season for Flint was, to say the least, a dramatic disappointment (they finished dead last, fired their coaching staff – twice! – and the players staged a walkout – twice!), Saarijarvi shined through it all, putting up 43 points in 59 games. This was good for 3rd amongst all skaters on a team that went 20-42-4.

He also looked great at this year’s World Junior Championships, where he put up 4 assists in 7 games to help Finland to a gold medal.

Most recently, to get him out of the toxic environment in Flint, Saarijarvi was re-assigned to Grand Rapids where he was quickly reassigned to the Toledo Walleye. The Griffins have a bit of a backlog on defense right now and the best thing for Saarijarvi is to be playing. He’ll get that playing time in Toledo. He’s great with the puck and has the offensive potential that the Wings blueline could benefit from. Once he rounds out his defensive game, he’ll make a fine top-4, if not top-2, offensive defenseman. Plus, he’s right handed.

Dan Renouf

Hometown: Pickerington, Ontario; Age: 21; Height: 6’3”; Weight: 209 lbs; Shoots: Left

Dan Renouf came to us as a surprise signing in early March when the Wings signed him to a two year entry-level deal right out of the University of Maine. The organization had been scouting him since his time in the USHL and saw him as a late round draft pick. When he went undrafted, the Wings watched him closely as his development accelerated through the University of Maine program. In 111 games with Maine, Renouf had 10 goals, 28 assists, and a plus-14 rating. But in the last 38 games, he put up 6 goals and 9 assists, leading all team defensemen and ranking 5th amongst active players this season. Renouf will forego his senior year at the University of Maine to play for Grand Rapids, where he’ll also be contributing to this year’s Calder Cup playoff run.

Like most of these college signings, this is a low risk/high reward situation for the Red Wings as Renouf has a ton of potential. He is a big body on the blueline who’s not afraid to throw his weight around. He plays safely and intelligently in his own end, making little to no mistakes. He’s somebody who will keep his opponents to the outside and then lead the breakout when they finally cough up the puck. If he does make the big leagues one day, he’ll be half of a bottom-4 pairing and probably the Wings best penalty killer.

So there you have it: the Detroit Red Wing’s next D-corps. Except it is very likely that half of these guys never rep the winged wheel on the ice, especially not together. I think it’s pretty obvious to everyone that there is quite the logjam of able defensemen in Grand Rapids right now and they won’t all get a shot at the big club anytime soon with the current contract situation on the Wings blueline.

Cap Hit

2015/16

2016/17

2017/18

2018/19

2019/20

Green, Mike

6

6

6

6

UFA

Kronwall, Niklas

4.75

6

5.5

3.5

1.75

UFA

Ericsson, Jonathan

4.25

4.25

4.25

4.25

4.25

4.25

Quincey, Kyle

4.25

4.25

UFA

Smith, Brendan

2.75

2.25

3.25

UFA

DeKeyser, Danny

2.188

2.25

RFA

Marchenko, Alexey

0.719

0.7

RFA

Mike Green, Nick Kronwall, and Jonathan Ericsson will lock up three of the top-4 spots for the next couple of seasons. Assuming they let Quincey walk at the end of this season, his spot will likely go to Xavier Ouellet who seems to be leading the pack in Grand Rapids for defensemen that management favors. I think it’s all but guaranteed that DeKeyser and Marchenko will be locked up this summer with some term, which means that the next available full-time position on the blueline doesn’t open up until the end of next season and that only opens up if they don’t re-sign Brendan Smith (which I don’t think they will, but that’s a topic for another day).

Realistically, I see Joe Hicketts and Vili Saarijarvi being the future of the Red Wings blueline. I think that if Ryan Sproul were going to get his chance, he would have gotten it by now. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him walk away from the Red Wings when his contract is up and go to a team that will use his speed. That leaves Russo and Renouf who are kind of toss-ups for me. They might get a shot in the next couple of years on a call-up and if they play lights out, they might have a chance at staying up. But with the cap situation right now, I’d say it’s a long shot.

These kids are all good and some of them even have the potential to be great. They are still young and growing both their games and their bodies. Who knows; maybe one of them is the Red Wings’ next Nick Lidstrom. Only time will tell.

  • Nick Seguin

    GREAT ARTICLE BUT WHAT KIND OF HOT GARBAGE IS THIS SAYING “One of them is the Red Wings’ next Nick Lidstrom”. ABSOLUTE JOOOOOOKE, U CLOWN OF A WRITER

    • Nick Seguin

      Well, I said that MAYBE one of them could be the next Nick Lidstrom. I don’t think that any of them are, but you never know. When Lidstrom was 18, I don’t think anybody expected him to have the career that he did. Who knows – one of these kids may end up surprising us!

  • greyhoundsrfast

    “he’s a big guy, but he doesn’t use his body enough on the ice. His puck handling, especially in the defensive zone, is worrisome.”

    That sounds an awful lot like someone else we know…