Editor’s note: This is part of a three-day series, as The Detroit News takes a closer look at each position group in the Red Wings’ organization. Today: Defense.
Detroit — There are two things that stand out when looking over the defense in the Red Wings’ organization.
At the NHL level, there’s a crying need for a left-side defenseman. After trading away Jon Merrill and Patrik Nemeth at the deadline, and with Marc Staal a potential unrestricted free agent, only Danny DeKeyser and Dennis Cholowski (who has split time between the Wings and Grand Rapids) are on the depth chart.
One other item of interest also jumps out when looking over this unit.
There’s a lot of youth here, with a lot of potential, and the Wings are correct to feel good about the depth and future at the position.
You start with defenseman Mortiz Seider, who is generally regarded among the top three prospects in the game. Seider is the big, mobile, all-around top-pairing defenseman every organization craves to have in its lineup.
There are multiple prospects in Grand Rapids who have shown enough to be intriguing possibilities at the NHL level.
And for this exercise, junior players and recent draft picks, who have yet to arrive even in Grand Rapids, aren’t included. But defensemen such as Albert Johansson, Antti Tuomisto, Eemil Viro, and William Wallinder are all exciting prospects who could someday arrive in the NHL.
And the NHL roster hasn’t even been mentioned, where players such as Filip Hronek, Cholowski and Gustav Lindstrom all are at varying stages of their young careers, with Hronek having quickly established himself as a top-pair defenseman.
The Wings were a horrid defensive team two seasons ago. With the help of veterans, both on defense and forward, but specifically some poised free-agent defensemen who joined the Wings, this was a vastly better Wings’ defensive team.
“Clearly a better defensive team,” coach Jeff Blashill said late in the season. “I don’t necessarily believe in a whole bunch of stats that you can make an argument for one way or another. But we’ve got stats we trust, like Grade A (scoring chances) against in different situations, Grade A’s against for the season, and (the Wings gave) our goalies a chance to make saves on a more consistent basis.”
Expect general manager Steve Yzerman to address that left-side hole with a free-agent signing or two, including bringing back either Staal, Merrill (Grand Blanc/Michigan), or even both.
“We have one player under contract, Danny DeKeyser, and restricted free agent Dennis Cholowski who I anticipate getting signed, so we have holes on the left side of our defense that we will need to address,” Yzerman said at his season-ending media press conference.
But when talking position groups, the defense offers the most hope, be it for now or in the future. There are a lot of pieces who might be available to contribute, and do it fairly soon.
Here is a look at the current players at the NHL/AHL level:
► Cholowski: The former first-round draft pick is out of minor-league options, but it would be somewhat surprising if the Wings leave Cholowski unprotected and give Seattle a chance to pluck him in the expansion draft. Cholowski twice has opened the season in the NHL, only to be eventually sent down to Grand Rapids, mainly for defensive issues. In a late-season look-see last season, Cholowski appeared to be progressing defensively.
► DeKeyser: DeKeyser returned from back surgery and got stronger as last season progressed. DeKeyser is 31, has one more season left on his contract ($5 million cap hit) and could be valuable trade bait at the deadline. He’s also a veteran presence on this roster.
► Hronek: Only Hornek and Staal played all 56 games, and Hronek led the Wings with 26 points (24 assists, two empty-net goals). What appeals to the coaching staff possibly the most is Hronek’s competitiveness and intensity, and willingness to battle for everything on the ice. Hronek plays with an edge.
► Lindstrom: It’s a close call as to whether Lindstrom could be protected for the expansion draft (the Wings are likely to protect three defensemen). Lindstrom isn’t a flashy player, but he’s a safe player on the ice who doesn’t make the big mistake and is quietly effective. Given the opportunity, Lindstrom could play in the NHL for a while.
► Troy Stecher: Quietly, Stecher became a fan favorite for his determined play on the ice, throwing himself into whatever situation in order to make a play or prevent a scoring chance for the opposing team. Stecher was an alternate captain for Canada’s recent world championship tournament victory, and played well. Could be tempting for Seattle in the expansion draft, if Stecher is left exposed.
► Seider: Spent last season in Sweden to play regularly, given the pandemic issues in North America. In some circles, Seider is considered the No. 1 prospect outside of the NHL. Fans are excited to see him finally wear an NHL jersey.
► Donovan Sebrango: At the tender age of 19, Sebrango was a revelation for the Griffins, not looking out of place at all. The 2020 third-round draft pick established himself as a prospect, playing sound defensively and with a physical style.
► Jared McIsaac: The key has been keeping McIsaac healthy, which hasn’t been easy. The 2018 second-round pick turned pro and played in 10 games in Grand Rapids — then, got hurt. He can be used in a variety of roles and has bite to his game, but McIsaac has to stay on the ice.
► Seth Barton: The 2018 third-round pick quietly has been an intriguing prospect for his skating and size (6-foot-3, 185 pounds). Barton starred at Massachusetts-Lowell and looked good in four games with the Griffins. Barton has put himself in the mix.
► Wyatt Newpower: Keep an eye on Newpower, who played in the Columbus system last season. Newpower, 23, is 6-foot-3, 195 pounds, and had an impressive rookie pro debut, a defensive defenseman who contributed 10 points in 24 games with Cleveland. Newpower will be in the hunt for an NHL job in training camp, and could win one with a good showing.