There were times this season when I thought Mike Babcock, coach of the Detroit Red Wings, had lost his marbles. Watching him put Daniel Cleary and Justin Abdelkader on a line with Pavel Datsyuk for something like ten games as the offense completely dried up was enough to make me want to throw the remote at the TV. I’m sure I’m not alone, either.
The 2012-13 season was weird for a lot of reasons. It was short, some players were out of shape, others, like Henrik Zetterberg and Damien Brunner, played more games than usual because they started the year in Europe. Most of the Wings summer signings were injured for most of the season, and Darren Helm only played one game. Not to mention Nick Lidstrom’s absence on the blue line.
That last point, along with injuries to other defensemen, set in motion a chain of events that saw the Wings ice a ridiculously inexperienced blue line and nearly miss the playoffs. Babcock decided that the team had to sacrifice offense in order to avoid getting eaten alive on defense. Since only Kronwall was a respected quality defenseman to start the year, Babcock developed a style he called “defense by committee.” Essentially, everyone had to work together and focus on defense first, since there were no superstars to stop the other team from tearing into the Wings’ zone.
At times, “defense by committee” got ugly. Real ugly. Most games saw the young defense corps give up multiple odd-man rushes and breakaways. But early on call-up Brian Lashoff impressed with overall steady play that earned him a new one-way contract with the team. That calm all but disappeared come playoffs, and his future looks bleak.
Brendan Smith, at the time the Wings most highly touted prospect, looked lost most of the year, finding himself out of position and causing a lot of those odd-men rushes. Smith also didn’t contribute much offensively, which is what he will be expected to do in the coming years. But he has time to grow and he has the hard-working attitude needed to grow into his role.
Even Nicklas Kronwall looked out of sorts for much of the season. He was briefly considered as a candidate for the Norris trophy mid-season, but to be honest probably didn’t deserve it at that point. He looked shaky, like most of the team. And then there’s Ian White, who sat in the press box for most of the last part of the season. Somehow he got in Babcock’s doghouse. Rumors say he’s a bad teammate and doesn’t work hard. Fans saw him struggle the majority of the time. He was a total non-factor this year, and won’t be returning to the team.
There’s no doubt about it, Babcock’s strategy–which admittedly was forced upon him by circumstance–looked bad at first. But he had the patience most fans lacked and the willingness to risk losing games in order to force team defense to happen.
The (Surprisingly Hopeful) Evolution of Team Defense
Before game 44, things didn’t look good. The team was on the outside of the playoff race looking in. Babcock had removed Cleary from the top line, but left Abdelkader up there. Not surprisingly they continued to struggle in scoring. Phoenix captain Shane Doan said it best when he heckled Justin Abdelkader on the bench: “How do you only have 12 points playing with Datsyuk?”
But the defense was coming around. Jonathan Ericsson put together a solid year and was “real good” in the preferred phrase of his coach. Jakub Kindl, after a shaky start, also evolved into a solid defenseman. Kyle Quincey, who also struggled at times, got better as the year went on, and was able to shut down quite a few scoring chances with smart moves. The addition of Danny DeKeyser was huge, and with four games to go the team needed all the help it could get.
DeKeyser is projected to be a shut-down defenseman. Not an offensive dynamo. His skill impressed even his old coach Jim Blashill, who now coaches the Grand Rapids Griffins. He looked totally comfortable playing in his first NHL games, and immediately became one of the best players on the team. His calm demeanor and smart positioning settled down the youthful defense, and suddenly the Wings were looking downright good. They would go on to win those four games and slip into the playoffs for the 22nd straight season, and Babcock gave the credit to DeKeyser, who was the missing piece in his “defense by committee” strategy.
Brendan Smith was terrible in the playoffs. So was Brian Lashoff. There’s no getting around that unfortunate reality. They need to be better. Lashoff was never projected to be in the lineup at all, so he has less pressure to improve, but Smith was a highly touted prospect and needs to fill an important offensive role on the back-end.
I think we’re all excited to see a full season of DeKeyser, who I think will become the team’s number three defenseman unless Ericsson stumbles. The he could be a great number two. With the addition of Stephen Weiss and Daniel Alfredsson into the top six forward corps, Kronwall should finally have someone to feed the puck to, and I expect “defense by committee” will die off. Expect Kronwall to have a big year offensively, and Kindl, too. Kindl proved he can shoot the puck, which should earn him valuable power play time. Kindl was probably the biggest surprise on defense this year, and the pressure is on him to prove it wasn’t a fluke.
Development happens slowly, but these kids showed they have real talent, and with a full season and a “real good” roster in front of them, they should be able to focus on their individual games. Smith, Kindl and Kronwall can re-focus on their offensive game, DeKeyser, Ericsson and Lashoff should be able to improve their defensive games.
“Defense by committee” was forced on the team by necessity, and hopefully an offseason of hard training and the re-calibration of the roster through free agent signings and departures should allow the team to be faster and open up more offensive opportunities. Defense is essential to championships, but I don’t think even Babcock wants this team playing boring New Jersey or Minnesota style hockey.