Detroit — How the Red Wings’ defense has evolved over the last 17 months is startling.
Simply comparing the two Wings’ lineups from then to now, you see you it plainly.
Here is how was playing on defense for the Wings on March 10, 2020, against Carolina, the last Wings’ game before the pandemic would temporarily shut sports down two days later: Alex Biega, Madison Bowey, Trevor Daley, Jonathan Ericsson, Filip Hronek and Gustav Lindstrom.
The healthy scratch was Cody Goloubef, who played sparingly for the Wings in the month he was with the team.
It’s a mix of young players learning on the job (Hronek, Lindstrom), journeymen defensemen clawing to stay in the NHL (Biega, Bowey), and two veterans past their prime (Daley, Ericsson).
In 17 months since, general manager Steve Yzerman has transformed the defense into an NHL-quality unit.
Barring injuries in training camp, the Wings have an extremely competitive defense unit heading into opening night of the 2021-22 season.
Nick Leddy, Dany DeKeyser (who essentially missed that entire 2019-20 season due to back surgery), Marc Staal, Jordan Oesterle, Hronek, Lindstrom, Troy Stecher and, likely, Moritz Seider, will comprise the Wings’ defense.
There’s little comparison between the two units.
On paper, this Wings’ defense is deeper, NHL-proven, and balanced (Leddy, DeKeyser, Staal, Oesterle are left-handed shots, the others all righties), and heads into next season as a potential strength.
“We have experience, we have some depth,” Yzerman said during a Zoom media conference after free agency concluded. “ I like to think with our D, we’re in a little bit better position than we were a year ago.”
There are several reasons why the Wings feel so much better these days about their defense.
Adding Leddy and Oesterle, re-signing Staal
Yzerman needed to rebuild the left side. Mission accomplished.
Staal, a positive veteran influence, wanted to remain with the Wings, and was re-signed before he hit the free-agent market.
Coach Jeff Blashill talked often late in the season about the positive impact Staal had, and Staal, for his part, didn’t seem to want to leave the Wings.
Staal also embraces the mentor role.
“I had some great veteran players when I was coming up in New York,” Staal said. “It definitely helps to lean on them and pick their brain of how you get through an 82-game schedule. It’s hard for a young player to gain that consistency early on his career, so that’s part of it where I’ll try to help.”
Leddy was a top-four defenseman for a New York Islanders team that reached the Final Four the last two seasons, and remains one of the more dangerous offensive defensemen in the league.
The Wings were better on defense during the shortened 2020-21 season than the season before, given Yzerman added Staal, Merrill, Stecher and Nemeth to the unit.
But the unit might have even more talent and flexibility heading into 2021-22.
“You’re not winning without a good D-core, and once you are a solid defensive hockey team, you’re going to be competitive, and you can win a lot of nights,” Yzerman said.
Leddy is in his prime, has been a potent offensive defenseman throughout his career, and is a significant addition to a team that is looking to be competitive in the standings.
Leddy provides veteran presence, skill, and should improve the power play.
“We’re excited, obviously, with Nick. It adds a player who’s been a legit top-four defenseman for a long time in this league,” Blashill said. “I’ve known Nick a long time as a player. Obviously an excellent skater. The people that I know in New York say he’s an excellent person.
“He’s been part of an organization that wins in a fashion that we’re going to have to win like. We’re excited about it. We believe we’re on the upswing and when you add players like Nick Leddy, it hopefully accelerates that a little bit.”
Here comes Seider?
Moritz Seider has been one of the top two or three prospects not in the NHL for the past two seasons.
Seider, 20, projects as a top-pairing defenseman who can anchor the Wings’ defense for a decade. Seider had a superb season playing in Sweden this past winter, and progressed steadily as a rookie pro in the AHL playing in Grand Rapids two seasons ago.
All indications are that Seider is ready for the NHL.
But, given the way the Wings’ defense looks, the Wings aren’t necessarily going to just hand Seider a lineup spot.
“If (Seider) is in the top six and he’s earned that spot, he’ll play,” Yzerman said. “I’m not sure if he’s not in the top six how much we’re going to want to sit him in the press box (and not play). We anticipate him making a really good push to play.”