Heading into the 2010-2011 season, seemingly one of the biggest remaining questions Mike Babcock and the Red Wings face is about who will be on the third defensive pairing. The common route at this point is that veteran but newbie Red Wing Ruslan Salei and Jonathan "Big Rig" Ericsson will constitute the third pairing. But is it safe, or fair, to assume that this will be the pairing that takes the ice on opening night in Detroit?
Detroit has a few potential candidates that could fill the third line pairings. Jakub Kindl has been groomed in Grand Rapids over the past three seasons and it seems like his game has finally matured enough to make the jump to the Red Wings (that, and he has run out of years in the AHL and must sign a NHL contract). Derek Meech has been with the team the past 3 seasons, averaging about 40 games per year. He recently signed a new contract (for league minimum) and has voiced that he would rather be traded than sit in the press box for the majority of the season. With the addition of Salei and the re-signing of Justin Abdelkader, most expect Meech will request a trade out of Motown. Doug Janik is another potential candidate but his production has declined greatly over the years and he is lower-tier NHL, higher-tier AHL talent at this point in his career.
Salei has the most experience by far of any of the candidates for the third pairing and although he has lost a bit of his edge over the years, he's still (at the very least) a serviceable defenseman that can play third line minutes. However, Salei suffered a back injury last season and only played in 14 games so his health might be a problem factor for him again this year. Ericsson should be a definite candidate to get a starting gig considering his youth and the flashes of good play he's shown in the past but he has also showed that he can be pretty awful. However, when considering Ericsson's poor play last year, you also have to look at the fact that he was playing alongside the always-out-of-position-because-he's-too-far-up-the-ice-trying-to-score-goals-like-he's-Bobby-Orr Brett Lebda or Andreas Lilja, who had the well chronicled bout with headaches following a concussion.
One of the guys who I think could get heavy consideration for the other spot is Jakub Kindl. I would imagine they want him to get as much playing time as possible in a sort of baptism by fire route and most likely there will be a heavy rotation of players for the third pairing. Kindl showed in the handful of games last year that he's capable of playing right now and that he will be second pairing material at the least in the future.
The darkhorse could be the young University of Wisconsin product Brendan Smith. Will he get to crack the top 6 this year for a long stretch? Not a chance in hell with the way the organization develops players in the AHL first but I would not be surprised at all if he did see a few games at the NHL level. He's an excellent puck mover in his own zone and in the offensive zone--scoring 15 goals and adding 37 assists in the 2009-2010 Badgers' season. However, I think the only way he sees the ice at Joe Louis Arena this year is if there is an injury to two players ahead of him. I think he might get the call ahead of Doug Janik because of the ability he has in the offensive zone, but then again who knows how Smith's skills will translate as he transitions to the AHL(also, this may not help things).
The pairing I would go with for the 2009-2010 season is Jakub Kindl and Jonathan Ericsson. It's a bit risky to put a pairing so young on the ice but I think it would allow both players to mature at a faster pace because of the necessity to play well to avoid hanging the other out to dry. I think there's a tendency for young players to rely on a veteran to cover his ass to an extent but with two younger guys they would be required to play more sound hockey. That being said, I would still expect to see a heavy dose of Ruslan Salei for either player throughout the season to allow for proper rest and to provide a change of pace/physicality for different nights.
So who would you put as the third pairing for the Red Wings? Tell us below who you would put on the ice and why.