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Red Wings Season Preview: Ericsson/Salei

Continuing on the Red Wings season previews from Casey's piece on goaltending Monday, we now switch focus up to their defensive pairings.  Today we cover Jonathan Ericsson and Ruslan Salei, who are likely to get heavy minutes on the third defensive pairing, decent time on the penalty kill and sparing time on the power play.  Jonathan Ericsson, the 26-year old, 6'4", 218-pound box of assorted leftovers from an Ikea store enters his third season as a Red Wing and the last year in his current contract, which will pay him $900,000 against the salary cap. He was drafted last overall in the 2002 NHL as a natural centerman converted to defenseman at Håkan Andersson's request after the king of European scouting watched him play the blue line on an emergency basis for one game with his then-junior Swedish team.  His pairing partner, Ruslan Salei is a 35-year old 6'1", 212-pound Belarusian entering his 15th year of NHL service and his first with Detroit.  Originally drafted 9th overall in 1996 by the then-Mighty Ducks of Anaheim who still had Adam Banks' number in the rafters, Salei has played for Anaheim (including both years that Babcock coached there), Florida, and most recently the Colorado Avalanche.  He's coming off the end of a four-year contract which paid him $3.275 million last season to a pretty severe pay cut of $750,000 by the Wings with an additional $350,000 possible in bonuses.  His last of three 82-game seasons came in 2006-07 where he also had his career-high of 32 points with the Florida Panthers.  He missed significant time last year with a back injury, recording just six points in 14 games.  Together, I expect these two will play more than half of Detroit's games this year on the third pairing.

 Last Year's Benchmark: Last year's platoon of Red Wings 3rd-pairing guys consisting of returning Wings Jonathan Ericsson, Doug Janik, Jakub Kindl, and the soon-to-be-traded Derek Meech, as well as free agent Andreas Lilja and Maple Leafs' novelty joke-signing Brett Lebda combined for a total of 212 games played thanks to injuries to higher-tier defensemen Niklas Kronwall (48 GP) and Brian Rafalski (78 GP).  I've corrected their stats to give totals for a 164-game average (two players playing 82 games each).  It's not perfect, but it's close enough.  Last year, our third line gave us 6 goals and 18 assists, had a plus/minus rating of -28 and sat in the box for 84 minutes over the course of the season.  All of this while averaging 13:08 in ice time with 23-seconds of power play time and 52 seconds on the PK.  Stats aside, I don't have to tell a Wings fan who watched a majority of the team's games that having our third pair on the ice was for large stretches last year more terrifying than hearing your girlfriend say "we need to talk... it's about your best friend."  While not many expect their third pairing to be shining beacons of hope, we expect more.  Ericsson and Salei will be expected to increase those numbers.  Let's break them down individually.

Jonathan Ericsson

#52 / Defenseman / Detroit Red Wings



Mar 02, 1984




2009-2010 Stats










Last year, Jonathan Ericsson defined sophomore slump.  Following a very impressive showing in the 2008-09 playoffs where he looked poised and hungry, he spent 62 games last year looking mostly lost and overwhelmed.  His four goals and nine assists was the highest on average point pace per-game of anybody else who played regular third line minutes and belied his offensive ability, but his 44 penalty minutes, nearly double the per-game average of his competitors, also showed he was having trouble adapting.  The majority of the games he missed were due to a knee-on-knee collision with Coyotes Captain Shane Doan in December, during the darkest time of last season when Red Wings were dropping like flies.  Fans' faith in him wavered strongly as his nickname went from "Big Rig" to "Big E" and plenty of people were calling for him to be traded while his value was still above the price of the plane ticket out of town.  His confidence may not be high, but his attitude has remained good.

Strengths: Ericsson is a big-bodied defenseman with good hockey instincts in the offensive zone and an absolutely booming slapshot.  As he develops, his outlet pass will continue to strengthen and, as his confidence grows, he should stop deferring many of his shooting opportunities in the zone.  He's also willing to get chippy when necessary, having done in the 2009 Western Conference Final against the Anaheim Ducks what every Red Wings fan wants to do: he beat up Corey Perry 

Weaknesses: For how big Ericsson is, he doesn't use his body much, failing to make players coming up ice back off or slow down.  He also has trouble losing his marks when the puck is behind the net and, while his outlet pass is developing, he still panics too often and throws the puck away instead of eating it along the boards and letting his teammates help out.  It seems as though his instincts as a forward get in the way too often and while he's in his own zone, he still sees everything through the eyes of what he'd be doing as an attacking forward and spending too much time translating that into what he should be doing on defense to stop that move.  He needs more seasoning at NHL speed to get used to what he should be doing.

Expectations: I think Ericsson will have a bounce-back year.  Most games, he'll have the experienced Salei backstopping him and guiding him along (something he missed with Lilja most of his sophomore season thanks to Lilja's bleeding brain problem).  Others will give him a chance to pair with Kindl and play the role of the de facto mentor, which should help hammer home Salei's lessons.  I want him showing his offensive growth here by potting 6-7 goals and 14-15 assists, maybe even earning himself semi-regular time on the 2nd PP unit. His worst-among-defenseman -15 rating will improve dramatically, as the talent next to and in front of him will be markedly improved. However, I still think taking penalties will be a problem for him as he grows.  When big defenseman have to fix their mistakes from getting out of position, it's more noticeable to refs.

Ruslan Salei

Defenseman / Detroit Red Wings



Nov 02, 1974

2009-2010 Stats









Last year, Salei played only 14 games for the Colorado Avalanche after suffering a back injury early in the season and then again an unspecified "torso injury" after the Olympics where he played for his native Belarus squad.  He is a very large question mark as far as what he can provide, but his career stats show that he should be a capable replacement for Andreas Lilja.  MLive blogger George Malik described him as Danny Markov with a higher IQ after the signing. 

Strengths:  Salei's strengths come from his experience.  He played back in the clutching-and-grabbing era before the lockout and had two good years under Mike Babcock.  Next to Ericsson, he's a guy who may eat the puck more often than you'd like, but knows what to do with it.  He's a big body who knows how to clear the front of the net and block shots on the PK.

Weaknesses: Salei's back will not hold up to the rigors of an 82-game season.  He's also down at least a full step from just about every forward that will be coming his way this season, so time in the box may become quite an issue for him if he falls back on the clutching-and-grabbing.  He doesn't really have much in the way of offensive instinct, but playing with Ericsson, he shouldn't need that.

Expectations:  I want Salei in at least 50 games, but probably no more than 65, whether he's healthy or not.  Kindl needs time to play with the big club and Salei's big-bodied style is much more suited to the postseason where interference gets called much less often.  I'd be absolutely thrilled if he could put up 20 points, but extremely disappointed if it's below 10.  Basically, I expect him to be a carbon copy of Andreas Lilja.  True story: when I was bringing my brother-in-law into the fold of Wings fandom, I told him to watch Lilja, because that big guy was guaranteed to be responsible for one play a game that led directly to an opponents' scoring chance.  I expect the same from Salei.  Also, I'm hoping that at some point, he scores an empty-net goal, so I can say he scored on a Salei-up.  No, YOU shut up!  I was already leaving.

Up next: Casey tackles Doug Janik and Jakub Kindl.  Stay tuned!