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Photo Credit: © Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Mitsos: Self-reflection journey helps me remember Niklas Kronwall for the good years, not the bad

As you may have heard, Niklas Kronwall retired Tuesday morning, and the video tribute the Detroit Red Wings released on all social media channels, as well as a story about the press conference the following day, has every fan reminiscing of the good ol’ Kronwalled days.

But my initial reaction was much different.

I’ll be honest, when I heard Kronwall was retiring, my first reaction was, “Well, that’ll free up a spot on defense for a young guy to take.”

Does that make me a terrible person? After everything he’s given for this franchise, my gut reaction essentially was good riddance? As I write out my thoughts, I feel like I should punch myself in the face.

Especially considering the fact Kronwall’s departure doesn’t even change a whole lot on the blue line. Sure, it’s one less aging veteran the Red Wings no longer have to worry about, but as I wrote about two months ago when attempting to predict Detroit’s opening night roster, I didn’t even have Kronwall on the 20-man roster.

Has this stretch of three consecutive seasons with no playoff berths made me exponentially more cynical? Am I so desperate to watch a winning team that I’m actively cheering for the aging veterans to leave the game they have dedicated their whole lives to playing?

Kronwall was not the same player he was five to 10 years ago, ask any serious Red Wings fan and they’ll tell you that. A plethora of injuries, not to mention being 38 years old in a game that continues to get faster and faster, caught up to him and kept him from being the dominant defenseman we all loved.

That’s not to say Kronwall turned into a pylon on skates overnight. Sure, he wasn’t the same player, but he was in no way the reason the Red Wings have struggled in recent years. He may have lost a step, but considering the fact he was essentially playing on one leg, what Kronwall has been able to do over the last few seasons is pretty remarkable.

He led the entire team in games played last season with 79 — more than Dylan Larkin, more than Andreas Athanasiou and more than Anthony Mantha, the young guys who are just getting their feet wet in the NHL and will make up the core of the new Red Wings. He played 79 games the season before that, as well.

I’ve been a Red Wings fan since the early 1990s, so I was spoiled with a playoff berth every season of my fandom until three seasons ago. Sure, there were seasons during that span where they made the playoffs but didn’t have a legitimate shot of making a long Cup run. But watching the eighth-seed Los Angeles Kings win a Stanley Cup in 2012 proved that timing is everything when it comes to the playoffs. You don’t have to be the best team to win the Stanley Cup, you just have to be the best team from mid-April to June.

So, watching three straight seasons of no playoffs plus no lottery pick in the draft has seemed like an eternity. And maybe that’s why I’m so quick to say good riddance. It still seems like a cop-out, especially considering how great Kronwall was in his prime.

Prashanth Iyer dug up some interesting stats, both of which exemplified how dominant Kronwall was. The first, a list of the top-15 defensemen in goals above replacement from 2007-13, is pretty telling.

There’s Kronwall, just two spots below Nicklas Lidstrom, who is hailed by many as one of if not the greatest defenseman to ever play the game.

Of course, one stat does not define a player’s career. Iyer also tweeted Evolving Wild‘s RAPM charts for Kronwall from 2007-10. It’s a pretty remarkable stretch that I had all but forgotten about due to recency bias.

These are elite-level charts. The kind of charts you would expect to see for a Norris Trophy-winning defenseman like P.K. Subban, Victor Hedman or Lidstrom.

But Kronwall never even sniffed a Norris Trophy nomination. The highest he got in voting was 10th during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.

I remember the day Lidstrom announced his retirement. I watched the press conference at my parents’ house, sitting on the couch with this feeling of hopelessness. Lidstrom’s retirement signified the end of an era. Kronwall’s announcement didn’t have the same effect for whatever reason.

Maybe because Kronwall retired during a rebuilding period when the future offers more positives than the present, whereas Lidstrom’s retirement was the first step toward that rebuilding period that took place a few years too late — a time when the future offered more negatives than the present.

There’s no doubt Kronwall had an impact on every single player he played with during his 15-year career. He took young guys under his wing and he led by example. Those are the kinds of players coaches and upper management love.

Kronwall won’t be able to help the Red Wings succeed on the ice anymore, but now he has an opportunity to help the team succeed off the ice in his new adviser role.

I’m still grappling with my emotions two days later, but writing down my thoughts and partaking in some self-reflection have allowed me to re-discover my love and respect for Kronwall.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take a trip down Kronwalled Lane.