The 2013-14 Red Wings had plenty of question marks heading into the season, not the least of which was "can the defense improve upon their performance of the previous season?"
The Wings looked to the two defensemen on the team who had been with the team for longer than 3 seasons. Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson proved to be a better-than-expected top pairing for Detroit last year, although there was still some trepidation among certain segments of the fanbase that Kronwall was not a legitimate #1 guy and Ericsson was too prone to mental mistakes to belong on the first pairing.
So how did they fare? Here's a hint: they both were injured at some point in the season, although when you get right down to it you could include that sentence in virtually every review we do.
When the season began, Niklas "I Don't Have A C In My Name But I Could Wear One On My Jersey" Kronwall was the only Wing defenseman over the age of 30. The clear #1 guy, he was once again expected to lead the defense and play in all situations. Let's revisit what I expected of him back in September:
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.
Well, I'd say he performed exactly as expected, wouldn't you? Kronwall ended the year with 49 points, good enough to tie Daniel Alfredsson as the leading scorer on the Wings. Of his 8 goals, 5 came on the PP, and he led every Wing in SH TOI/60 at over 3 minutes a game. Injuries and incompetence from the bottom pairing meant that Kronwall was not able to play less than the 24 minutes a night he did last year, ending the year at 24:18 TOI. Among Wing defensemen, he was also one of two to get a positive adjustment in CSSI, thanks in large part to his offensive contributions throughout the year. However, he had the fewest turnover minuses and cleared the most on goals against.
Defensively, no one played against tougher competition than Kronwall except for Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, and he ended the regular season with a 5v5 Fenwick % of 51.9%* despite playing against the opposition's top forwards every night. Towards the middle of the season he slumped a little and started making noticeable mistakes, but it would be easy to chalk that up to playing a boatload of minutes (which doesn't include 5 games in the Olympics where he won a silver medal) and having to be "the guy" in Detroit, to the point that we even wondered if he had an outside shot at a Norris nomination (spoiler alert: no).
Ultimately I think Kronwall had a very good year and stood out among a group of defensemen who as a collective got worse this year. I don't know what else he could have done to be better outside of cloning himself.
I think this may have been the year that Ericsson finally shed the "Riggy Shitbox" label. For years, Ericsson was the whipping boy for Wing fans, admittedly partially earned due to his propensity to make big mental mistakes at the worst possible times. However, over the course of the season every Wing defenseman not named Kronwall or Danny DeKeyser faced the wrath of Wing fans, and Ericsson was able to quietly go about his business of being a dependable player on the blueline. What did I say about him before the season? Glad you asked:
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.
I don't know about you guys, but Ericsson's presence on the ice was comforting, especially when the alternatives were considered. The word "steady" could best be used to describe his play this year, as he was neither really good nor really bad, but he always seemed to be above average.
Of course, the other word that could describe his year would be "tumultuous". His fiancee gave birth to a daughter (Liv, after his late friend Stefan Liv who perished in the Lokomotiv plane crash) while he was nursing a shoulder injury. After returning, he signed a 6 year, $25.5M extension that will keep him in Detroit for a long time. He then sustained a few broken ribs around Christmas, but was able to return in time to win a silver medal in Sochi. Since he's a Wing, he suffered a broken finger that required surgery, forcing him to miss the last several weeks of the regular season and the playoffs.
Stats-wise, Ericsson fared comparably to Kronwall in limited action. He was just behind Kronwall in QoC, as you would expect playing on the top pair. He had a 51.7 5v5 Fenwick%, and played only 5 seconds less than Kronwall on the PK. The offense wasn't quite what I had predicted, as he had 1 goal and 11 points in 48 games, but that was probably wishful thinking on my part. Ultimately he didn't drive possession, but he wasn't a pylon out there either. In CSSI, he was an overall minus, but I believe that this is to be expected given that on most other teams Ericsson likely isn't a top-pairing guy and that he may struggle against better forwards when forced to play more minutes against them.
I'm happy that he signed the extension, and I'd normally grade him higher based on his overall numbers and the way I felt about him when he was on the ice, but I can't overlook the injuries. However, then I remember that he missed the entire playoff series against the Bruins and I can't help but think he would have made a difference, especially on the PK where the Wings were atrocious. I'm probably being generous, but I think his absence against Boston underscored how important Ericsson has become to this team.