If there was one aspect of the Red Wings last year that caught us all off guard, it was how effective their defense turned out to be. The losses of Nicklas Lidstrom and Brad Stuart created gigantic holes that would be virtually impossible to fill, and it required that several guys had to step up and assume greater responsibilities.
Heading into last season, a top pairing of Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson didn't exactly inspire a ton of confidence in the hearts of Wing fans. After witnessing the nightly awesomeness that was Lidstrom, having to rely on a guy who had never really developed into the heir apparent and a guy who was prone to mental mistakes more often than we'd like was troubling.
Thankfully for us, Kronwall and Ericsson turned out to be a pretty good pair. Neither would likely be a number 1 guy on a lot of teams, but as a duo they just worked, creating stability on the top defensive unit. However, last year was only a half season, and these two will need to be equally as good this year.
Fun fact: Kronwall is the only defenseman on the Red Wings' roster over the age of 30. There's absolutely no question that he is the leader of the defense, since everyone else is either too young or too inconsistent to assume that role. Entering his 10th NHL season, he will once again be asked to be the rock while mentoring the younger guys.
Strengths: Kronwall has always been one of those guys who doesn't do any one thing exceptionally well, but has been dependable in most aspects of the game. For years, he was mostly known as a player who was willing to throw the massive bodycheck, but last year he got away from that and focused more on his defensive responsibilities. Kronwall isn't the biggest or fastest guy out there, but he's solid with the puck and has developed more defensive awareness. He's also a good power play quarterback, finishing tied for second on the Wings last season with 16 PP points.
Weaknesses: Sometimes those massive bodychecks he likes to throw can take him out of position, which wasn't as much of an issue when Stuart was there to back up. With all apologies to Ericsson, Kronwall is "the guy" on that pairing and if he falters, there isn't anyone ready to step up and assume his role and everything that goes along with it. He can also have mental lapses that can be costly since he's almost always going up against the opponent's best players.
Expectations: Last year was a good one for Kronwall, especially as the season wore on and he grew into his role as the number one guy. His 29 points in 48 games would translate to 50 points over an 82 game season, perfectly acceptable from a guy who plays as much as he does in all situations. It would be nice if he did not have to play 24 minutes a game this year, and I would expect that his ice time will decrease as others play better. Overall I'd expect to see about 40-50 points from Kronwall offensively to go with his continued good work defensively.
I can't help but feel that no matter what Ericsson does, it will never be good enough for a lot of Red Wing fans. Outside of literally never doing anything wrong, any mistake is going to be pounced on and scrutinized a million times over. However, Ericsson has developed into one of the Wings' better defensemen, and with Kronwall forms a good pairing.
Strengths: Big Rig took a major step forward in his progression last year by molding into a very dependable guy in his own end. While Kronwall was racking up the points, Ericsson was in his the Wings' zone, actually using his big body for positioning and being more of a hindrance to opposing forwards. He's got a decent shot and is a good skater, and his 13 points last year in half a season were only 2 off of his career total for a whole season. He has turned into arguably the Wings' best penalty-killing defenseman.
Weaknesses: I think it's time we came to grips with the fact that Ericsson is never going to be the physical guy we want him to be night in and night out, no matter how big he is. He gets in some fights, but he isn't going to be a punishing force in front of his own net. His offensive instincts seem to be as developed as they are going to get, and expecting more than 20 points seems like a stretch.
Expectations: Ericsson's job has become very simple: play a solid, consistent game. There doesn't need to be anything flashy about what he does, nor does he need to light up the scoreboard with points. He needs to build off his good season last year and maintain his good defensive play. He will likely lead the Wings in PK minutes by the end of the year, but I think 30 points may not be out of the question.