The Red Wings entered this off-season determined to be aggressive in their attempts to improve a team coming off a disappoonting first round playoff exit.
Ken Holland delivered on his promise to pursue the high-profile free agents that were available while inquiring about the possibility of acquiring other players via trade. Ultimately, the only players that he was able to lure to Detroit were depth forwards, meaning a defense corps that lost Nicklas Lidstrom and Brad Stuart was not bolstered with any new acquisitions.
I believe that a strong defense is key to winning a Stanley Cup. The Wing teams in the past who climbed the mountain were not Lidstrom and a bunch of scrubs on the blueline; Detroit could put out at least two defense pairs that would be effective against anyone the opposition threw at them.
Looking at the current roster, the Wings will enter the season with 5 defensemen who have at least 50 games of NHL experience and Brendan Smith, a rookie who will likely have a full time spot this year.
I don't think this defense strikes a ton of fear in the hearts of opposing forwards (save Niklas Kronwall, who is a threat to hurt anyone who doesn't have their head up on his side of the ice), but I also don't think it's as bad as some experts are bound to believe once we start seeing season previews. Between the forwards, defense and goaltending, it's clear that the defense is the biggest question mark heading into the 2012-13 season. Every single player on the blueline for the Red Wings has something to prove this year, but there are 2 players I will be paying very particular attention to next season. One of them is a rookie who has been the future of the Wings' defense since being drafted in 2007. The other is a player brought back to the Wings after 4 years in hockey Purgatory.
Brendan Smith: The Wings' first-round pick in 2007 has been on the Red Wings Development Plan. After being drafted, he spent 2 more years with the University of Wisconsin before playing in the AHL with the Griffins in 2011-12. Smith saw limited action last year with the Wings, getting into 14 games as an injury call up, and he did not look out of place. This year, he is expected to earn a full-time spot on the roster and begin his career at the NHL level.
Despite having the hype of being a first-round pick and the team's best defensive prospect, the pressure on Smith will be fairly minimal. Being a rookie means that mistakes are going to be made, and young players tend to have problems adjusting to the rigors of an 82-game NHL season. It is not yet known who Smith will be paired with or what kind of role he will have on the team, but as a Wing fan I am excited to see a key member of the future of this franchise finally get a chance to show us all what he can do.
Personally, I would like to see Smith moved along a slowly at first with increased responsibility as the season wears on. I'm a firm believer in experience being the best teacher, and there's no better way to see what Smith is capable of without putting him on the ice in more critical situations. I'm not suggesting he should be put on the top-pairing with Niklas Kronwall, but the occasional second-pairing duties would not be out of the question. There's bound to be a learning curve, and I'm sure we will mutter under our breath at some of his mistakes, but if this team truly is in a state of transition to the younger players, I feel it's important for Smith to establish himself as one of the new leaders on a defense that doesn't have a lot of them.
I'm not exaggerating when I say that Smith has the potential to be in the mix for a Calder depending on what kind of role he's given. What concerns me is Mike Babcock's preference for limiting the minutes and exposure of the younger players and how that may translate to Smith's season. However, on a defense that has no additional options, seeing what Smith can do may be the best course of action.
Kyle Quincey: When Quincey was re-acquired from the Avalanche through the Lightning for Mike Commodore and the Wings' 2012 1st round draft pick, a lot of Wing fans (myself included) were excited. Quincey's departure from the team was strictly a numbers issue, when he got caught up among the many veterans and established players already in Detroit and had to be exposed on waivers to be sent to the minors. It thought by a few people that Quincey was "the one that got away" as he played well in Los Angeles and Colorado (no small feat considering how terrible the Avalanche were. Did I say "were"? I meant "always will be").
Quincey's return at the expense of a guy who spent most of the season telling us how awesome malls are was seen as a boost to the defense, and in his first game as a Wing he scored a goal and took 2 penalties, showing us there is a definite risk/reward to his game. His acquisition was meant to not only give the Wings some much needed defensive depth but serve as Brad Stuart's eventual replacement after he inevitably moved to the West Coast.
Unfortunately, Quincey didn't exactly flourish in Detroit. Whether that was due to being in a new system, adjusting to a revolving door of defense partners, or the fact the Avalanche made him bad at hockey, Quincey struggled to find any consistency in his game. In the playoffs against Nashville, Quincey found himself with less ice time than he normally saw in the regular season. Whether that was due to matchups or a lack of confidence in him by the coaching staff, his role seemed to be reduced. However, with the loss of Stuart and a rookie joining the lineup, Quincey is going to have to be the guy that we thought he was when he was picked up on waivers by LA.
If Smith can step up and not play like a rookie and Quincey can settle into his role as a solid second-pairing guy, the defense of the Wings could surprise a lot of people next year. If not, one can't help but wonder how long it will before Ken Holland does something.