I tried to watch the Detroit Red Wings’ defense but couldn’t take my eyes off this player

Detroit Free Press

When your top defenseman who’s the reigning rookie of the year is involved in a weird play that leads to giving up the first goal of the game after just 11 seconds, well, maybe it’s not going to be your night on defense.

But credit the Detroit Red Wings for bouncing back from Moritz Seider’s misfortune on a clearing pass that led to Dylan Sikura’s pinball-style goal that’s more commonly found in EA Sports’ NHL video game.

Seider and the rest of the defense settled down and didn’t let a little early adversity rattle them in the Wings’ 4-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday night in their preseason home opener at Little Caesars Arena.

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The Wings’ defense, and how much it improves, will be the story of the season. It was far from perfect against Chicago, which had one of the NHL’s worst offenses last season. Speedy Lukas Reichel put the Hawks up, 2-1, in the first period when he split the defense on a great outlet pass and beat Alex Nedeljkovic one-on-one.

I was impressed by free-agent addition Ben Chiarot, Seider’s new blue-line partner who brings a strong intensity when he’s on the ice and delivers hard, crisp passes. A few days ago in training camp, coach Derek Lalonde called Chiarot a “tone setter” after he knocked Michael Rasmussen into the bench. Rasmussen is 6 feet 6 and 229 pounds.

“I like it,” Lalonde said Wednesday of the Chiarot-Seider pairing. “I think they count on each other. And if you played that game back, our analytics team would tell us that they did well tonight as a pair.”

As important as it is to be fundamentally sound and careful with the puck and look at analytics, the Wings have sorely lacked Chiarot’s intense style and nastiness on defense since the days of Niklas Kronwall.

I had planned to focus on the defense Wednesday, but there was one player I couldn’t stop watching: Elmer Soderblom, a 6-8, 246-pound left wing.

Soderblom gets your attention immediately with his size. He’s such a large human that when he takes the ice it looks like every other player is his kid. Pius Suter centered the second line with Soderblom and Adam Erne and it wasn’t hard to come up with his first impression of the big Swede.

“Besides his size?” Suter said with a smile. “I mean, he’s obviously a big body and he protects the puck well and he has a long reach and got some pucks to poke around and gets some extra pucks back.”

The fascinating part about Soderblom’s journey is that he was a sixth-round pick in 2019, making him part of Steve Yzerman’s first draft class as the Wings’ general manager. And it was Yzerman who requested that Soderblom get playing time with the top-six forwards Wednesday, a day after he was a late addition to the lineup and scored a goal in a 6-2 win at Pittsburgh.

Soderblom matches skill with his size. He has nimble hands and moves like a much smaller player. You know, one of those 6-foot-5 squirts. It’s actually pretty improbable that he’s able to stickhandle, spin, cut and attack the way he does. He’s also a heck of a net presence on the power play, screening the goaltender from just about everything in the arena.

For the second straight night, Soderblom was also productive. He picked up an assist on Erne’s first-period goal that tied it, 1-1, when he streaked down the left side and took a shot from a sharp angle that allowed Erne to clean up the rebound.

Then something more impressive happened.

With about five minutes left in the first, the first “oohs” of the year were heard at LCA when Soderblom entered Chicago’s zone and executive a beautiful deke on defenseman Riley Stillman. He pulled the puck one way, then snatched it back another, turning Stillman around and thrilling the crowd.

The play was broken up before Soderblom could turn it into something more. But you have to wonder about that kind of flashy potential, that kind of exciting play-making from a player Soderblom’s size.

I asked Lalonde after the game where Soderblom needs to improve and it wasn’t surprising to hear him talk about reducing risk, which seems to be an emphasis for many of his players.

“I still think you see some young habits,” Lalonde said. “He exposes the puck a ton, which is an easily correctable skill, part of a young-guy development. He has some of those open-ice turnovers because he exposes the puck. I think that’s something that can be learned and taught and he’ll figure out. But just his play away from the puck, a little more puck protection for him being such a big guy.”

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Lalonde highlighted one sequence in the offensive zone when Soderblom threw a blind pass to the slot. The coach would have preferred more patience.

“That’s a kid that could spend some time with it,” he said, “trust yourself with the puck. I think with a little teaching, a little more game reps that’s a play he’ll control in the O-zone.

“So probably stuff like that. But again, very good game from him tonight. And what’s exciting is we saw improvement from last night to tonight in this game.”

Soderblom turned 21 in July and he’s making the adjustment from Europe’s larger ice surface to the NHL’s smaller ice and tighter games. There’s room for improvement just about everywhere for the Wings, who are still a young, growing and learning team. But it’s hard to deny the team might have its next young, exciting forward waiting in the wings.

Contact Carlos Monarrez: cmonarrez@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter@cmonarrez.

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