Red Wings banking on beefed-up defense to bolster turnaround

Detroit News

Ted Kulfan
| The Detroit News

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Detroit — The Red Wings had to revamp and refortify many areas after last season.

With a roster that put together the NHL’s worst record, that’s not surprising.

But no other position groups needed attention as the defense did.

Generally speaking, it was a group that simply didn’t match up to most NHL defenses.

Consider in the Wings’ final game before the pandemic essentially ended the NHL regular season, when the Wings played Carolina.

The Wings’ defense, that evening, consisted of Alex Biega, Trevor Daley, Madison Bowey, Jonathan Ericsson, Filip Hronek and Gustav Lindstrom.

Daley retired after the season, and Ericsson is essentially retired. Bowey is a restricted free agent who was not brought back.

Add to the fact another veteran defenseman, Mike Green, was traded at the deadline and also retired from Edmonton after its season, and the Wings badly needed a reconstruction defensively to take place.

In the first week of training camp, of this shortened NHL season, it appears general manager Steve Yzerman has made the defense position more competitive and trustworthy.

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It has helped that Danny DeKeyser has returned from a herniated disc, healthy, after only playing eight games last season.

DeKeyser is a top-four caliber defenseman the Wings greatly missed.

But the trade acquisition of Marc Staal, and unrestricted free agent signings of Troy Stetcher and Jon Merrill have strengthened the defense, adding to holdovers Filip Hronek and Patrik Nemeth.

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Then, there are Alex Biega, Gustav Lindstrom, Dennis Cholowski, and Christian Djoos, who was claimed off waivers Saturday, further adding to the Wings’ depth.

“We get a chance to prove whether we’re stronger, and until you prove it on a night-to- night basis, we’ll see,” said Blashill, of whether the defensive unit is stronger. “Ultimately we added a number of guys. We have a lot of players who I would say are good players.”

Blashill isn’t looking for anyone to make blockbuster plays on defense — just simply the correct, simple plays, on a consistent basis.

“I’m a big believer in guys going out and, especially at the defensive position, playing solid hockey,” Blashill said. “The best defenseman are the ones who are most efficient, make good, solid plays without making a whole lot of mistakes.”

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Too often last season the Wings would get bottled up in their end, unable to move the puck out or make the necessary pass to alleviate the trouble and find forwards on the move.

The defensemen on the current roster are better suited, it appears, to safely get the Wings out of trouble.

“We’re going to have to get out of our end,” Blashill said. “That’s a big key in today’s NHL against hard forechecks. The defense corps all has the ability to do that.

“Now, I don’t know if that’s their greatest strength. For me, probably their biggest strength as a group is that they all can go out and make good, solid decisions.”

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Here are the defensemen the Wings will be counting on this season.

Danny DeKeyser: Only playing eight games last season, DeKeyser has looked ready and able to contribute. Blashill has been pairing DeKeyser with Hronek, and if that duo stays together, they could potentially form a No. 1 pairing that is as formidable as any.

Filip Hronek:  One of the younger core pieces of the Red Wings’ future, Hronek played in the Czech Republic through the autumn and has looked sharp in this training camp, as a result. Hronek might see some of his ice time trimmed, just a bit, so as to increase his effectiveness.

Patrik Nemeth: The veteran did his job admirably last season, killing penalties and providing some size on the defensive end. Nemeth has been paired with Staal in camp, which size-wise, would be as big a pairing as the Wings have had in recent seasons.

Marc Staal: Staal isn’t the same player he was five or 10 years ago with the New York Rangers, but he has shown in camp to be an effective defensive defenseman. Could prove to be a valuable bargaining chip at the trade deadline.

Troy Stetcher: Anthony Mantha had an interesting comment about Stetcher, a free agent signing who could prove to be a shrewd acquisition. “(Stetcher) makes the right plays, he’s pretty physical for his size, and he’s super agile with or without the puck.”

Jon Merrill: Blashill talked about Merrill Saturday being a type of player who does a lot of things well, and could be a useful player for any team. Merrill doesn’t appear to be flustered in any situation he’s put in.

The Others:  And there are quite a few defensemen you could peg in here, a sign to the Wings’ depth. Alex Biega, who was a mild surprise last season, and Dennis Cholowski and Gustav Lindstrom, two young defensemen who appear ticketed for everyday game action in Grand Rapids. Djoos has NHL experience and impressed in spots. Brian Lashoff and Dylan McIlrath are both available in Grand Rapids and can be plugged in when necessary.

Twitter: @tkulfan

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