Red Wings Defensive Considerations: Wherein I Say Something Wildly Unpopular

TRAVERSE CITY MI - SEPTEMBER 11: Brendan Smith #2 of the Detroit Red Wings turns up ice during NHL Prospects Tournament on Saturday September 11 2010 at Centre Ice Arena in Traverse City Michigan. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images)

Let's get this out of the way early so you can already think of the nasty things you want to say in the comments while I try to explain myself:

Jonathan Ericsson is right now a better defenseman than Brendan Smith.

There, I said it.  I said it and I'm not taking it back. It's something that the boys over at The Production Line got me thinking about in their recap of last night's game. There's a lot of great discussion in the comments over there right now about what the Wings will do when Ian White comes back from his injury and where everybody below Brad Stuart on the depth chart stands right now. I'll let Michael Petrella's words sum up the conundrum for you:

The first game was a bit testy, the second game was a marked improvement, and he looked downright good tonight. There are still a lot of things he has yet to learn, and I can’t help but think he’d be better served in Grand Rapids (not quite NHL-ready yet). However, it’s clear that he’s more trusted than Mike Commodore — Smith has gotten into as many games, has played significantly more minutes, and has been entrusted with special teams time and better pairings. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Mike Commodore waived (when Ian White is ready to return to the lineup), but that’s ONLY if the Wings intend to play Smith every night. If that’s the case, who sits? Smith is better than Ericsson right now, but there are 3,250,000 reasons why Shitbox won’t get sent to the Lounge. Kindl? He looks fantastic, too. Tough decisions coming up for Ken Holland. What would you do?

The big point there about which Petrella and I agree is that Smith needs more seasoning in Grand Rapids yet and that the only possible reason to keep him up when Ian White is back is if he's going to get playing time with the big club. There's no point in keeping him up with the club and delaying his progress towards his seemingly stellar promise if he's taking Mike Commodore's seat in the pressbox for 80% of the season.

If that happens, the Wings will need to move somebody else to the pressbox and make room on the roster. It doesn't make sense for Detroit to carry eight defensemen most of the season, so somebody is going bye-bye either to Grand Rapids, to the trade table, or lost on the waiver wire to keep the Wings at seven D-men. I'm not getting into trade scenarios, but the easiest piece to jettison is Mike Commodore if this whole unlikely scenario plays out that Babcock and Holland want Brendan Smith playing every night.

The easy cry is to move Jonathan Ericsson either to the press-box or the wood-chipper and that it doesn't really matter to fans one way or another as long as he's gone.  I think that would be a mistake.

I'll level here. I don't think Jonathan Ericsson is by any means playing up to the $3.25M reasons he's not going to the press box. I also don't think that Jonathan Ericsson will still be a better defenseman than Brendan Smith right now when right now becomes summer of 2012. The guy may have a decent +4 rating in his 19 games, but two points is exactly as many as Brendan Smith has and that's in SEVENTEEN MORE GAMES.

However, there's a lot of talk out there about how Smith has already surpassed Ericsson and that he's currently the better option. I want to compare the two over the weekend to really explore this in better detail.

Ice Time:

over the last two games, Brendan Smith has played 25:24 of ice time total.

  • 3:04 of that has been on the power play (which has run 0-fer in that time)
  • 00:37 was on penalty kill against the Ducks (where Anaheim scored, while running their power play unit to Smith's side of the ice)

Meanwhile, Ericsson surpassed Smith's ice time total in his 8th of 25 total shifts against the Ducks where he played 17:16 the night after playing more than 20.

  • 00:12 was on the power play (during which time the Wings did not score)
  • 04:55 was spent short-handed, including the last 45 seconds of a Kings 5-on-3 advantage (during which time the Wings PK gave up no goals).

Ericsson played 11:52 more than Brendan Smith over the last two games.

Advantage: Ericsson

Linemates:

Smith holds the advantage here (in that he wasn't given as much help). In those two games, Brendan Smith played the Badger's share of that time with Niklas Kronwall, who despite being in the beginning of what could be a very good season, he's no Nick Lidstrom. Ericsson spent about 72% of his even-strength ice time next to TPH.

On the forwards' side, the Smith/Kronwall pairing spent a bulk of their time behind Filppula-Zetterberg-Cleary while the Lidstrom/Ericsson duo helped out Bertuzzi-Datsyuk-Franzen

Advantage: Smith

Competition:

The other side of the shared time on ice coin is the opposition players with whom a guy had to share that time. Smith spent a majority of his time on Saturday against Loktionov, Brown, and Mike Richards. Meanwhile, Ericsson was tasked with helping defend Kopitar, Justin Williams, and Simon Gagne, while also spending as much 5-on-5 time against Loktionov as Smith did and just about 20 seconds fewer against Mike Richards. On Saturday, Smith was given his time against Cogliano, Selanne, and Koivu while Ericsson defended against Perry, Getzlaf, and Ryan.

The defense-against-defense matchups aren't nearly as important, but Ericsson also skated opposite bluelines against both the Ducks and Kings' top pairings while Smith played against second pairing guys.

Advantage: Ericsson

Mistakes:

Both defensemen had stretches of brilliant play and infuriating mental lapses over the last two games. The easiest to remember is Jonathan Ericsson's late penalty against the Ducks on Sunday night where he failed to play aggressively on a 50/50 puck and was forced to haul down Anaheim's Andrew Gordon to prevent a scoring chance in a 3-2 game.

It was absolutely a dumbass move caused by a dumbass decision.  If I wanted to cheat at this, I'd point out that those were Ericsson's only two penalty minutes on the weekend compared to Smith's four. however, I wrote on Saturday's CSSI that the penalty Smith took against the Kings was the result of a dive by Dustin Brown, so that one doesn't count. When you take it on its face, both men committed a penalty with the Ducks pressing to tie a 3-2 game. The difference in those penalties was that Brendan Smith was not under immediate threat of a scoring chance. Ericsson did make a mistake to put himself in that position and both penalties were worth minuses, but Smith's was somewhat less of a forced error.

Aside from penalties, my notes from both games indicate each player committed a total of three defensive zone turnovers (which weren't counted on the stat sheets BTW). The biggest difference in these is that none of Ericsson's wound up directly on an opponent's stick for a shooting lane in the slot while one of Smith's did.

Advantage: Ericsson

Offensive Production:

Smith had two assists on the weekend and Ericsson had one. Both of them got assists on the Justin Abelkader goal in Los Angeles on Saturday. That play was a result of a good PK clear by Ericsson that Smith stepped out of the box to set up for Abdelkader before joining him on a 2-on-1.

In Anaheim, the difference between Brendan Smith getting a secondary assist on a great play by Henrik Zetterberg and Jonathan Ericsson getting a primary assist on a great outlet pass to Todd Bertuzzi for a breakaway is that Bertuzzi didn't bury his chance.

Still, the eyeball test from both games indicate that Smith was significantly more involved and better involved in the offensive zone than Jonathan Ericsson was. The difference in official points may have been something of a flukey result, but I felt a lot better watching Smith join the rush than I've felt watching Ericsson join the rush since the 2009 playoffs.  There is no question in my mind that Smith could put up more points than Ericsson this season, even with a difference in ice time and linemates.

Advantage: Smith

So it looks like a 2-2 tie for these gentlemen as far as the weekend games go. That is, it would be if you're considering each of those to be worth an equal amount of points. In truth, the fact that they played about the same except that Ericsson played against tougher competition for almost 12 more minutes while effectively killing penalties makes Riggy the winner.

So what's it all for then?  In reality, I only think Ericsson played two games better than Brendan Smith. I think Smith will absolutely smoke him in head-to-head comparisons as the kid continues to mature and Ericsson continues to remain stuck in limbo between playing the occasional incredibly solid game (like against the Kings) and absolutely infuriatingly bad shit-shows.

Really, what it's about is that there are more than monetary reasons that Jonathan Ericsson will remain in the lineup over Brendan Smith as Ian White returns from injury. It's also worth mentioning that Jakub Kindl played worse than both of these guys, but also looks to have significantly more upside (both offensively and defensively) than Ericsson.

What both of these defensemen may have done this weekend though is make it juuuuust a little easier for Kenny Holland to move a guy in a trade for a forward, like so many fans have been calling for.  Of course, there is a limited no-trade clause at play here, but that's a discussion for the comments.

Flame away, Wings fans.

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