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Fixing The Blue Line: how the Red Wings can get better at defense

It’s not a shock to Red Wings fans that Detroit’s defense was quite bad this past season. The team ranked in the bottom five in goals against, allowing over 3 goals per game. For the team to return to the playoffs, fixing the defense must be a top priority, and while no fan is reasonably expecting a playoff return next season, incremental improvement is a must. Team General Manager Ken Holland noted improving the defense in his postseason interviews last week, so it is obviously on the mind of management, which leads to today’s question: how can the Red Wings get better defense for the 2019-20 season? Let’s examine it through several avenues:

The Roster Logjam

Right now the team has Danny DeKeyser, Jonathan Ericsson, Trevor Daley, Mike Green, and Madison Bowey signed for next season, with Niklas Kronwall as an unrestricted free-agent and prospects Filip Hronek and Dennis Cholowski looming as well. That’s a lot of players in the mix, without a lot of room to put them on the ice. Sorting through this mess is the first priority of business for Holland & Co. this offseason, and this situation is important to consider, as it gives the Wings little room to change the roster in one summer.

Injury Complications

No discussion of the defense is complete without discussing how injured this group was this year. None of DeKeyser, Daley, Ericsson, and Green played more than 52 games in the NHL this year and they are only getting older. Daley will be 36, Ericsson will be 35, and Green will be 34 this coming season. Given the rather frightening knee/leg injuries that Ericsson sustained at the end of this season, it is unreasonable to think he will be healthy the full year and Trevor Daley has missed 69 games over the past three seasons due to injury. Mike Green’s mysterious virus issue that cost him half of the season this year is another gigantic question mark. If Niklas Kronwall is brought back, there is no guarantee that the soon-to-be 39 year-old will be healthy for a full season again. Point is: no matter how we plan the depth chart to be, the age of this defensive corps means there will be injuries, potentially many.

Hronek and (probably) Cholowski should be on the roster full-time

One of the nice things about this past season is that we saw Hronek and Cholowski both play slightly more than a half-season in the NHL and both showed the capacity to be full-time players in the league. If we’re differentiating between the two, Hronek was a clear cut better than Cholowski, and it was evident that coaches agreed. Hronek’s average time-of-ice was nearly 2 full minutes higher than Cholowski’s (including a 13 game stretch where Hronek averaged 23:44 TOI(!)) and while the coaches sheltered Cholowski, starting him in the offensive zone 61.0% of the time, they threw Hronek into the fire, giving him a 46.9% oZS%. Hronek’s possession numbers were substantially better, as was his offensive output (0.5 PPG vs 0.31 PPG). Basically, Filip Hronek is an NHL player and at just 21 years-old, he has a legitimately high ceiling in the NHL. As one of the two best defensemen the Red Wings had this past season, Hronek must be in the NHL full time next year.

Now that isn’t to say that Cholowski shouldn’t be in the NHL too. While his development is still a notch behind Hronek’s at this point in time, the raw offensive instincts he showed early in the season were quite promising. Detroit returned Cholowski to Grand Rapids to work on his positioning and defensive game and it will largely come down to the scouts’ opinions on whether Cholowski is ready to come back. That said, given that the rest of the defensive NHL roster is frankly brutal, Cholowski will be an upgrade over several other guys and probably should spend most all of next year in Detroit.

Other prospects who could make pushes?

Before formulating a final plan, it’s important to see what other prospects could make the NHL roster with a strong offseason. Joe Hicketts will be 23 in the offseason and has played 16 NHL games over the past two seasons and has seemed fine in his time. He, in theory, would be the next man up when injuries strike, but it is unclear if he will ever be a full-time NHL player. Vili Saarijarvi is a solid piece in Grand Rapids but has strangely become an offensively limited defenseman who lacks size in the AHL, and right now does not seem like a top prospect anymore. What is perhaps more likely is that one of the two 2nd round defensemen from the past two drafts make pushes: Gustav Lindstrom or Jared McIsaac. Lindstrom just began to break into the SHL this year and while he may need more time in Sweden, it is also not ridiculous that he could be brought to Grand Rapids this offseason and be a potential AHL call-up type.

McIsaac had a phenomenal season in the QMJHL for Halifax, finishing second in points-per-game scoring by a defenseman, earning a trip to the World Juniors on Team Canada (a huge achievement) and being named to the QMJHL second All-Star team. As this is McIsaac’s third season in the Q, the Red Wings will be faced with The Michael Rasmussen Problem with McIsaac, where junior hockey rules forbid McIsaac from playing in Grand Rapids next season, meaning he either must go back to Halifax, a league he may well be too advanced for, or come to Detroit and play in the NHL full-time. While I think it’s more likely than not he stays in Halifax for one last year and tries to push for the NHL in 2020-21, if McIsaac has a great summer and camp, it’s not ridiculous to think that he could make the team at age 19. After all, no one thought Dennis Cholowski would be on the roster for most of the 2018-19 season at this time last year.

Conclusion

If I had to set a plan for next season, it would probably be the following.

The top pairing should be Danny DeKeyser and Filip Hronek. DeKeyser was solid when healthy this year and Hronek was arguably the team’s best defenseman. The two played well together down the stretch as well. The second pairing should be Mike Green (when healthy) and Dennis Cholowski. The third pairing then should be Madison Bowey and ideally, Niklas Kronwall (if re-signed). If Kronwall is not brought back, I would slot Daley on that third pair with Ericsson being scratched. To me, if it requires buying out Daley or Ericsson’s last year to make this lineup happen, it’s worth it. The Wings will be well under the cap this next season and the subsequent years, so eating a buyout is not a terrible proposition.

Will this defensive unit be great? No, probably not. However, the hope is that Hronek and Cholowski continue to develop, while DeKeyser and Green stay healthy, which could mean a steady top four, with a likely subpar bottom pair. But it is likely to be incrementally better than last season, almost purely by virtue of keeping Daley and Ericsson, two of the worst defenders in all of hockey, out of the lineup. It also sets up slots for younger players to slide in when Kronwall, Daley, Ericsson and Green’s contracts come off the books after next season. Lindstrom or McIsaac could take two of those slots, while the Wings would have some money to go fishing for an above average, steady veteran next summer (Torey Krug?). All things considered, this isn’t going to be a big upgrade, purely because of the contract logjam, but any small improvement that allows young players to break in full-time should be considered an improvement.

  • tyhee

    “For the team to return to the playoffs, fixing the defense must be a top priority, and while no fan is reasonably expecting a playoff return next season, incremental improvement is a must”

    For a rebuilding team it seems to me that while incremental improvement each year may be nice, rebuilding isn’t linear and what is important isn’t that year over year performance improves but that the likelihood of future success improves.

    Given a choice of:

    1. a return to health of the aging core and corresponding improvement in the performance of the defence, or

    2. the aging core decling further and lost quite a bit of time with injuries, Hronek becoming a solid 2nd pair regular, Cholowski and Hicketts performing most of the season with Detroit as capable depth player, McIsaac starring at the WJC and being a QMJHL all-star, the Wings getting Bowram with the 6th overall pick and him proceeding to be a WJC and WHL all-star, with the overall performance of the Wings defence being no better than it was in 2018-19,

    most fans would prefer # 2 to #1.

    I think given a choice between the Wings defence being somewhat better next season led by improvements in Green, Kronwall and Daley, or a little worse with regular roles for
    If the following hypothetical situation were to occur next year, would it be good or bad?

    1 The Red Wings don’t come to terms with Kronwall so he is not on the team next season;

    2. The Wings draft Bowran Byrum with the 6th overall pick and return him to junior, where he is an all-star in the WHL and teams with McIsaac in starring on the Canadian defence at the WJC;

    3. Green, Daley and Glendening have poor, injury-plagued seasons and are worse than in 2018-19;

    4. McIsaac stars for Canada at the WJC and is named MVP of the QMJHL;

    5. Hronek is a regular season-long on the 2nd pair and does better than holding his own, while Cholowski begins the season as depth but due to injury plays most of the season for the Wings and plays adequately on the 3rd pairing;

    6. Hicketts begins the season in Grand Rapids but gets called up quickly due to injury and proves himself a capable depth defenceman, performing at about replacement level.

    7. Bowey gets into most games on the 3rd pair and performs at a league-average level.

    The Wings’ defence in that scenario may be no better than in 2018-19, but imo the improvement in the likelihood of the defence being competitive in the future would be better than the defence improving led by Green, Kronwall and Daley.