One key to Detroit Red Wings’ success this season? A stable, talented defense corps

Detroit Free Press

SUNRISE, Fla. — Back when they were a playoff team, the Detroit Red Wings had a defense corps that contributed at both ends of the ice.

The impact of the current corps — beyond simply having a stable top four — is among the reasons the Wings have enjoyed an overall good start to their season.

Filip Hronek’s resurgence has been one of the best stories of the first two months; entering Thursday’s game against the Florida Panthers, the 25-year-old ranked was in the top 10 among NHL defensemen with 24 points in 25 games. Moritz Seider ranked second among team defensemen with 11 points, and Olli Määttä third with 10 points.

“Our D has been great,” forward Michael Rasmussen said. “Offensively, for sure, but just defensively, those guys work their butts off and play real hard and make plays when it’s time but also keep is simple and predictable.”

Määttä and Ben Chiarot were among the additions made last summer by general manager Steve Yzerman, and they’ve surpassed the expectation that they would improve the top four. Määttä has been a terrific partner for Hronek (who has a plus rating for the first time in his five-year NHL career) and Chiarot for Seider. Those two pairings have played every game, and the Wings haven’t had that kind of stability and skill in their top four in a decade.

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Gustav Lindstrom and Robert Hagg were on the third pairing when the season began, but Jake Walman entered the lineup Nov. 15 after being cleared from offseason surgery, and of late he has been paired with Jordan Oesterle. Walman is an excellent skater with a terrific shot, and both he and Oesterle have a goal to their name.

Having a stable back end, with quality options, has ameliorated dealing with multiple changes up front, where the current absent list includes top-six forwards Tyler Bertuzzi, Jakub Vrana, and Robby Fabbri.

Coach Derek Lalonde described the blue line corps as “NHL defensemen managing their game.”

“I know lots has been made of our injuries up front — we have Bertuzzi out, we have Fabbri out, we have (Elmer) Söderblom out. Three of our top six, top nine. But we’ve been healthy on the back end, and that’s been able to sustain those injuries up front. When they are managing their game, that’s a big part of it.”

Even with Seider’s arrival last season, Hronek struggled, posting 38 points and a minus-29 rating in 78 games. A second-round pick from 2016, he became a workhorse early in his career, as veterans Niklas Kronwall, Mike Green, Trevor Daley — three players names from the 2017-18 corps — slowed down because of injuries and/or age. Now Hronek looks like a bargain at a $4.4 million salary cap hit through next season. The one-year, $2.25 million Yzerman gave Määttä, 28, likewise looks like a great deal. Chiarot, 31, got four years at a $4.75 million cap hit, but veteran defensemen who hit free agency come with premiums. He’s physical and a part of both special teams, and plays well with Seider.

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Of all the areas that needed to be addressed when Yzerman was named in GM in April 2019, none were more dismal than the defense corps. When the pandemic cut short the 2019-20 season, the Wings had cycled through 14 defensemen; beyond Hronek, those who played at least 40 games included Green, Daley, Alex Biega and Madison Bowey. Even last season the corps lacked stability, and it wasn’t injury related — to take one example, Danny DeKeyser was at times paired with Seider, and at other times was a healthy scratch.

Drafting Seider in 2019 was the most important step, and making key additions this past summer has been key to the Wings’ revival.

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her latest book, “On the Clock: Behind the Scenes with the Detroit Red Wings at the NHL Draft,” is available from  Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.

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