Well folks, it's that time again. August is coming to an end, training camps are going to start soon, and before you know it, the puck will drop on the 2011-12 NHL season. Kicking off our player previews for the year, we've got a trio of Red Wings defensemen with something to prove. Whether it be a 6'3" youngster with some big expectations, a 6'4" veteran looking to re-prove himself, or a 6'5" guy trying to show that he's worth his new contract, we've got three guys and only two spots in the starting lineup for them.
Last Year's Benchmark: The bottom three d-men for the Red Wings in ice time per game(not counting Doug Janik) were Ruslan Salei, Jonathan Ericsson, and Jakub Kindl. The trio combined for seven goals and 22 assists from the blue line. Kindl in his first full year brought down the average ice time, but they played about 16:75 each. Despite a combined +2 rating, the three bottom Wings defenders combined for a -41 in adjusted CSSI plus/minus ratings. The Wings' defensive depth didn't see a great change in production from the previous season, but there's reason to believe this year that the minutes among the pairings are going to be more evenly-spread. With the greater responsibility, there's going to be more chances for improvement. Let's break each player down individually
#52 / Defenseman / Detroit Red Wings
Mar 02, 1984
|2010 - Jonathan Ericsson||74||3||12||15||8||87||1||0||0||89||3.4|
Don't let the plus/minus fool you, folks, Jonathan Ericsson struggled with consistency again last season. There were stretches he looked positively dominant interspersed among long stretches of taking too many penalties, not blocking enough shots, and otherwise playing without the confidence that seems to be the difference between the player we all want to shoot out of a cannon and the guy whose shot could be compared to one. This offseason, his RFA status expired and he signed a three year extension worth a total of $9.75M. While we were all left to choke back the bile on that signing, Chris Chelios was busy telling WDFN that the Wings have "big plans" for the former forward.
Strengths: Ericsson is a big-size defenseman with decent hands and good offensive instincts. His offensive zone passing is crisp and confident and he can bring it from the point when he gets a windup going. Aside from that, he's one of the guys on the team who will drop 'em for his teammates. He's not a good fighter, but he's a competent deterrent. And, hey, you have to love a guy who will beat up Steve Ott for you.
Weaknesses: I could just about copy-and-paste last year's analysis here and call it good. Ericsson does not use his size consistently enough, gets caught out of position too often and takes penalties as a result, and he's got a bad habit of turning the puck over in his own end. For his size, he only blocked 37 shots all of last year. For comparison's sake, Rafalski blocked 54. Justin Abdelkader blocked two more shots than Ericsson in 400 fewer minutes.
Expectations: Ericsson has a lot to live up to with his new salary. As a result, he's all but guaranteed a roster spot. He should play a large bulk of games and spend somewhere in the realm of 18 minutes per game on the ice; two or more of those minutes-per-game will likely be of the shorthanded variety with only sparing PP minutes. It's hard to pin down how much higher I want his points total to climb from 15 to earn his salary (between 20-25), but I'm more worried about him cutting five or more minor penalties from his Det defense-high 30 on the year last season.
#22 / Defenseman / Detroit Red Wings
Nov 07, 1979
|2010 - Mike Commodore||20
Mike Commodore joins the Red Wings just shy of 32 years old. The stay-at-home defenseman will earn $1 million this season as he tries to prove his value following a Columbus buyout of a contract which still had nearly $7M and two years remaining. The man known as Commie found a poor fit in Columbus and spent the latter part of last season with the BJs AHL-affiliate Springfield Falcons, where he spent time trying to help their young defensemen improve. Questions about his ability to stay healthy and his conditioning level have hampered his career, but he's said all of the right things since coming to Detroit about wanting to take this chance seriously and working hard to prove himself.
Strengths: Commodore has the kind of size to be the prototypical stay-at-home guy and he knows how to use it. He's very tough on the boards and can clear traffic out from in front of the net. He's got the kind of snarl to his game that people have been hoping would show up in Ericsson. Also, if his Twitter feed is any indication, he seems like he's very easy to get along with.
Weaknesses: The previously mentioned injury concerns remain for a big player who has a physical style. He has limited offensive upside and is not exactly the most fleet-of-foot guy in the league. Racking up 44 PIM in only 20 games is no small feat (12 minor penalties). While playing behind what will be a much better squad than he had in Columbus last year will help, he'll need to drop his penalty rates.
Expectations: Right now, Commodore is #7 on the defensive depth chart for the Wings. I don't believe he'll be a common part of any rotation unless something drastic happens on the Kindl front or the trade wire. Along with odd games here and there, he'll probably get some stretches of games to fill in for injuries as needed and, as such, I'd expect him to play around 30-40 games.
#4 / Defenseman / Detroit Red Wings
Feb 10, 1987
|2010 - Jakub Kindl||48||2||2||4||-6||36||0||0||0||62||3.2|
Kindl's over-ripening in the minors finished before last season and he finally got his rookie shot with the Wings all of last year. He seemed to struggle early with the pace of the game, but got more comfortable with it as the year goes on. The end-of-year CSSI analysis showed that his rate for mistakes leading to goals-against (blown coverages and turnovers) was slightly higher than Ruslan Salei's (0.22 per game to 0.18), but significantly fewer of them were from turnovers. This season, he should have more to build on for positioning. The extra year's experience should lower his coverage errors and his penalties taken.
Strengths: Kindl has good skills at both ends of the ice, being able to carry, protect, and pass the puck well. He's big and can use his body, but prefers to play more of the Lidstromesque thinking-man's defensive game. He's very good at the sweep/poke/stick check and capable of deftly angling players off at the boards in such a way as to steal the puck without getting caught in a position-battle, a skill which is very handy for starting the counterattack.
Weaknesses: The youngster still doesn't put his whole gamut of skills to proper use consistently enough. At times, he's leading the rush and creating good shots on goals. Other times, he's getting caught up ice and in bad changes. The problem with describing a guy's defensive style as "Lidstromesque" is that nobody else is Lidstrom, so more of his sweep/poke/stick checks are going to lead to trips, hooks, and holds.
Expectations: Kindl's spot on the roster is his to cement or to lose right now. He will be expected to put in a full season at a more consistent level than last year. 2 goals and 2 assists in 48 games for a guy touted as a puck mover will not be acceptable this season. He doesn't necessarily have to "break out" just yet from his third-pairing duties, but he's going to have to work to stay above Brendan Smith on the future-potential depth chart or he may find himself as deadline trade bait.
* * *
There we have it, folks. Three guys with something to prove playing on the Red Wings' blue line this season. The Wings have one of the better defensive corps in the league right now, but I'd like to see them challenging for the unanimous title by the season's end. Much of that responsibility is going to fall on these shoulders.
Stay tuned, as our next installment moves up the depth chart to Brad Stuart and Niklas Kronwall.