Say what you will about General Manager Kenneth Mark Holland, but the man will do things. Inaction has never been a criticism of a Detroit Red Wings front office that was once feared and revered by NHL general managers and players alike. There was a time when, with a fell swoop, the likes of Brett Hull, Chris Chelios, Brian Rafalski, and Marian Hossa would join the already-legendary Wings locker room. These days, Hockeytown’s faithful are happy when that activity just turns out to be neutral, scarred by (among other ill-fated transactions) a Stephen Weiss debacle that remains one of the great disasters in the history of Red Wings free agency.
Dealt a poor hand at this summer’s outset when my father, Pavel Datsyuk, announced his retirement, King Kenny sat upon his Westeros-style carbon fiber and aluminum stick throne and somehow maneuvered an escape from the awful cap recapture penalty that would have sapped millions of dollars in flexibility. He showed the world he still had some juju by way of that draft-day deal in which he traded back a few spots in the draft for an extra pick and the right not to have an empty cap-hit on the books. Not bad, but for some reason Wings fans used this as a springboard to prime themselves for a gilded entrance into “The Stamkos Race,” as if there wasn’t an enormous problem in the back end to address first.
Quickly missing out on one of the game’s elite players is forgivable considering nobody else got a sniff, either. The door was closed before Holland could get a foot in. However, the velocity with which it slammed shut begs the important question of why any “star” would want to join a team without a best defender in the first place. Having the space without the structure will never appeal to the mega-stars; ask Kevin Durant about that one.
Niklas Kronwall Is Not A First-Pairing NHL Defenseman
It’s somewhat surprising that the once-vaunted Red Wings defense has actually put up great numbers over the past few years. Since 2014, the Wings have the lowest defensive zone start percentage in the NHL, indicating that the puck just isn’t near the Wings’ goal all that much. Similarly, the Wings rank 9th in overall goals against in that span. That’s pretty solid!
Last year, however, the deeply ineffective power-play, with its affinity for allowing short-handed goals, shone light through a key crack in the wall: Niklas Kronwall is simply no longer equipped to be more than a second-pairing defender. His personal numbers are awful. He was minus-21 last year, and hasn’t had a plus-season since 2011. He scored 26 points in 64 games, looked sluggish and more than a step behind, and almost never deployed the once-beloved bone-crushing hits that used to be a trademark. The advanced numbers are astonishingly bad:
Kronwall has become a possession liability on a team that has dominated possession numbers in the NHL for years. His Corsi For%, a metric that aims to measure a player’s impact upon how many shots are directed towards the opponent’s net, has fallen dramatically for four years, to the point that Kronner’s numbers were net-negative last year. He’s not effective on the power play, and it could be argued that the yearly wear-and-tear of being asked to embody the twin-archetypes of the Red Wings Ideal Defenseman has taken its toll. He never possessed the composed offensive genius of Nicklas Lidstrom, nor the terrifying physical presence of Vladimir Konstantinov.
The Wings Don’t Have A Best Defenseman
Detroit is a long ways away from the time when its defense was a certainty. Arguably the greatest modern defenseman there ever was, Lidstrom’s soothing, angelic aura guaranteed stability even when he wasn’t on the ice. The Red Wings have never hurt for talent, but I was surprised while scanning rosters from the Red Wings dominant era from ‘97-09 to find that the defense wasn’t actually all that impressive in 2002, Scotty Bowman’s final, Stanley Cup-winning year:
Despite that core’s limitations (it probably didn’t hurt to have Dominik Hasek between the pipes), the presence of competent puck-moving defensemen to complement Lidstrom’s perfection, with Chelios’ experience and Dandenault’s speed, served as an invaluable way to ensure that there was talent on more than one line to get the puck out of the zone and into productive areas. This stood out even more so in other championship years:
1997-98: Lidstrom, Larry Murphy, Slava Fetisov, Vladimir Konstantinov
2002: Lidstrom, Chris Chelios, Matthieu Dandenault
2009: Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Kronwall, DEREK MEECH*
*May not have served an important role in any way
One thing that we know for sure is that The God Lidstrom is not lacing up those skates again. Looking to the Red Wings current roster, just a bit past the heinous bog vapors of Kronwall and frequent line-mate Jonathan Ericsson, Brendan Smith actually posts some very good Corsi numbers, and has been a fan favorite for his grit, bravery, and willingness to not try and fight Zdeno Chara and embarrass us all. His improved ability to forcefully carry the puck out of the zone, and the reduction of his abysmal turnover habit, might make him a neat fit for that 1-B defender role, which is a sign of hope on a roster stocked with capable but flawed 2nd and 3rd-liners like Mike Green, Danny Dekeyser, and Alexey Marchenko. But there’s nothing to indicate that anyone on the Red Wings as they are currently composed can fulfill the role of a number-one defenseman.
The market remains foggy as to what it will take to get that rare, competent first-pairing defender. Showing a bit more swag, Holland made it clear that he wouldn’t be fleeced for teenage star Dylan Larkin in trade discussions with the St. Louis Blues for standout Kevin Shattenkirk, as was the case when Edmonton GM Peter Chiarelli recently traded 24 year-old human bullet Taylor Hall for pretty okay guy Adam Larsson. At this point, if they want a real lead defender, Wings fans might have to steel themselves for an “anyone but Larkin” package and count on saying goodbye to a favorite like Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, a youngster like Anthony Mantha or Andreas Athanasiou, or even more.
Stats Courtesy of Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com and hockey-reference.com