Today we finish up our previews of the Red Wings' defensive corps with a look at three youngsters who should round out the group. Of the three, we have one guy who was expected to be the 7th man in the roster, one near-unknown who wasn't expected to get playing time, and a newcomer local kid that had many teams salivating over on the free agent market once he finished his college season.
When all was said and done, the Wings ended up with three players who outperformed expectations and gave fans plenty of reasons to be hopeful coming into this season. Jakub Kindl seemed to have finally taken that last step to becoming a confident puck-mover while Lashoff surprised people with fair amounts of both snarl and vision; Danny DeKeyser stepped off college ice and straight onto NHL ice without looking like he missed a beat.
The undrafted Macomb native was already a sought-after prospect last year when he decided to play one more season at Western Michigan where he had made a name for himself. When his season ended with the Broncos, teams lined up to woo the free agent into his entry-level contract. The Red Wings won out, bringing DK on board with a two-year deal with a cap hit of $1.35M. DeKeyser will be an RFA at the end of this season with the potential to seriously up his asking price if he plays as well for the team during the next 82+ games as he did in his first 11 NHL contests before suffering a broken thumb.
Strengths: DeKeyser is a bigger-than-average defenseman who is still growing into his frame and is already very effective at using both the body and stick to separate forwards from the plays they'd like to make. He sees the ice very well and has good instincts for when to make a simple clear and when to work the puck on transition.
Weaknesses: While DeKeyser is capable of creating outlet passes, he's not an offensive defenseman by any stretch of the term. Also, his youth is going to work against him at times, as his sometimes aggressive nature will push him out of position.
Expectations: While DeKeyser is the easiest player to send down because of his waiver status, I think he'll be on the roster for most of the year and in the lineup for a great portion of it, taking occasional rests to watch from above and take stock of the game from a different angle. He'll likely get easier assignments and he'll be expected to take advantage of those, but will also find time on the penalty kill.
Jakub Kindl is the 26-year old first round pick who was supposed to have blossomed into a Niklas Kronwall clone, except bigger. After a slow start to his Red Wings career characterized by long stints in the Leino Lounge, Kindl got a chance to play most of last season and took advantage of it by doubling his career high for goals while matching his best ever point total (in 14 fewer games).
The leaps-and-bounds improvements to Kindl's game earned him a new four-year contract with an AAV of $2.4M, which will take him to age 30 when he'll be an unrestricted free agent.
Strengths: Kindl skates smoothly and efficiently with good range. He's pretty good on the outlet pass and has above-average offensive instincts in the zone, knowing when and how to join the rush or jump into the slot for a scoring opportunity. His shot doesn't boom, but he's very good at getting it through the high traffic to create rebound opportunities.
Weaknesses: I have to keep reminding myself that Jakub Kindl is bigger than Niklas Kronwall because he doesn't play like a big defender. Offensive defensemen aren't commonly known to bruise people in front of their own net, but Kindl seems to get consistently pushed around in his own zone and is often a bit slow to claim his spot on the ice before a forward can get there. He's also maybe not so good with loose pucks in front of his own net.
Expectations: Kindl should get low 2nd/high 3rd-pair minutes this season and will likely help alongside Danny DeKeyser. He likely won't play much penalty kill, but will find himself as the QB of the 2nd power play unit where he'll have more than enough forward skill in front of him to make a difference. He should be able to set career highs in both goals and points this season.
Lashoff went undrafted and had to work his way up to earn playing time with the Grand Rapids Griffins. He got into 76 games with them during the 2011-12 season and showed a lot of poise at the AHL level, but the team wasn't sure it would translate to the NHL. Injury problems gave Lashoff his chance and he took advantage by scoring a goal in his first NHL game. Over the season, Lashoff got into 31 games and earned himself a new three-year deal heading into this season.
Strengths: Lashoff has a fair amount of snarl in his own zone, especially when playing the net-front. He's a big-bodied defenseman who plays consistently like one, but has enough self control to keep from getting caught chasing big hits while abandoning his positioning. He's not a fantastic skater, but he can get from one end to the other in good time.
Weaknesses: Despite the strong start, the amount Lashoff still has to adjust to the faster game became more and more evident as the season wore on. He'll often get caught looking around to make sure he's still acting within his programming and miss how quickly passes can get through his area. He's almost the opposite of "reads the play well", which just takes time to adjust to.
Expectations: I expect Lashoff will often be the odd-man out on the defense this season in favor of the six guys above him on the depth chart. When he does get on, he'll likely get somewhat more-sheltered minutes, but he'll also fill in on the penalty kill to provide that big-bodied grit and snarl he's good at.
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That's it for the Defense. Join us on Monday as we switch our focus to the forwards.