It was understood that this season was going to be a difficult one for the Red Wings. The retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom and loss of Brad Stuart were two hits to a blueline that suddenly looked very thin compared to Wing teams of the past.
Carlo Colaiacovo was signed in the offseason to provide some veteran depth, and Brendan Smith looked ready to take the jump from the AHL and finally become a permanent fixture on the Wings' defense.
Unfortunately, injuries have been a major factor so far this season. Bad shoulders have limited Colaiacovo and Smith to two and eight games, respectively, and earlier injuries to Jonathan Ericsson and Jakub Kindl forced the Wings to look to Grand Rapids just to ice a full team.
Enter Brian Lashoff, a guy who has never been projected to be a top-pairing defenseman but was an undrafted free agent signed by the Wings. He has spent the last 2-plus seasons in Grand Rapids and been a good player for them, but injuries necessitated his call-up to Detroit. Lashoff was immediately paired with Niklas Kronwall, and so far has not looked completely out of place. In 12 games, he's notched his first NHL goal and assist, has seen time on the penalty kill, and generally has played well despite his lack of experience.
The Wings are getting good news as it appears that Smith is close to returning to the lineup with Colaiacovo not far away. Once the entire defense corps is healthy, the Wings will have to make some decisions on who plays and who doesn't.
It would be nice to see what this team is when fully healthy, but one thing that I'm curious to see is whether Lashoff will remain with the Wings or be sent back to Grand Rapids. He won't have to clear waivers to get sent back down, and once everyone is back he would likely be the odd-man out.
However, I can't help but wonder if Mike Babcock has really liked what he's seen from Lashoff and will give him an opportunity to stick with the Wings. Despite the fact that he still needs seasoning, what better place is there to gain valuable experience than in the NHL playing against the best players in the world?
If you're asking me (and why wouldn't you since I'm a fan who clearly knows more than an entire NHL coaching staff), I would like to see what Smith and Lashoff could accomplish as a pairing. As I watch the two of them as individuals, I can't help but think we might see a new version of Niklas Kronwall-Brad Stuart, one of the best second-pairings in the NHL the past few years.
Smith would fill the role of Kronwall. He's flashier than Lashoff, plays with more of an "in-your-face" physicality compared to Lashoff, and is better offensively. Pairing him with a solid, dependable guy like Lashoff could translate into immediate dividends now and be a fixture on the blueline for years.
The key would be to allow them to act as the third pairing, and not put too much pressure on them early. The role of a third-pairing is to eat up minutes and not be terrible. What better place to put two rookies than there?
I know, I know: it's scary to have two rookies on the same defensive pairing. But consider that this would be a move not just for this year but also next year and the year after that. If the idea is for this to be a transition year (there's that word again), then having a rookie pairing as the depth defensemen is not a bad idea.
Plus, it's not like it's the worst option. If every defensemen is healthy, then that means that the top-4 would be filled out with veterans. In an ideal world, I'd like to see Ericsson and Kronwall together on the top pair, and then Ian White and Colaiacovo on the second pairing. Jakub Kindl has been too inconsistent and although Kyle Quincey has gotten better, he's still struggling at times. Kent Huskins was signed to have a warm body on defense and is expendable.
I know that there's no way this happens. You don't sign Quincey to a contract extension and not play him, and Lashoff's contract allows him to be sent back to Grand Rapids without having to clear waivers. However, if the situation calls for it, a Smith-Lashoff pairing could be fun to watch. Let's hope that Babcock makes it happen.