Former Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock leaned heavily on the pairing of Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson the last couple of years. Despite what seemed to be a screamingly obvious mismatch in ability to handle top competition, the Super Swede duo saw the ice together for 80 of 82 regular season games and didn't look at all like a 1-2 punch should. It's been known for the last three seasons that the Red Wings lost their only true #1 defenseman in Nicklas Lidstrom, but last year gave us more evidence that the team is still lacking a true top pair. As of now, it looks like Blashill will be keeping the noted BFFs together, and while the potential of a DeKeyser/Green pairing has some fans thinking they could lead the defensive corps, we should expect Kronwall/Ericsson to once again be relied on the most.
#55 / Defenseman / Detroit Red Wings
Jan 12, 1981
Kronwall led the team in TOI last year at just a shade over 23 minutes. As part of that, he saw a lot of time on special teams, quarterbacking the first power play unit for an average of 3:08 per game, and acting as a mainstay for the top penalty killing unit along with Ericsson, who averaged 2:40 shorthanded per game to Kronwall's 2:51. He led the defense in points last year with nine goals and 44 points, which speaks to how little offensive contribution the Wings actually get from their blueliners. We didn't see too many KRONWALLED-level hits last year, and with the banhammer finally coming down on Kronwall in the playoffs, we may have witnessed the last attempts at making highlight reels with his well-known devastating hits.
Strengths: Versatility is the first word that comes to mind. Kronwall was trusted last year in every situation, as evidenced by his usage outlined above. In fact, now that Datsyuk and Zetterberg have been all but completely relieved of their PK duties, Kronwall is the player that sees the ice the most outside of 5-on-5 play. He also has good offensive capabilities and a pretty good shot, which I honestly wish we saw more of. Finally, Kronwall has been a constant, leading presence for the team, missing only 10 games over the last five seasons and serving as one of the alternate captains for the last three.
Weaknesses: The grind of long seasons has been noticeably wearing on Kronwall, and since the Wings have struggled the last three years or so to scrape out points and a playoff spot late, this has the potential to bite them hard when they're in most need of consistency. He's also the Wings' smallest defenseman (and if you ever watch Jakub Kindl, this is a surprise), which can be a bit of an issue going up against the bigger forwards in the league.
Expectations: Depending on what happens with the DeKeyser/Green pairing, it is possible that Kronwall sees his minutes reduced, which would definitely be beneficial in the long run. For now, though, we should expect that Kronwall probably won't see a lot change in his usage time this year, even under new coach Jeff Blashill. However, with the possible systemic changes to the deployment of the defensemen, we might see Kronwall taking more chances in the offensive zone. Ideally, the Red Wings are able to rest Kronwall at the end of the season for a long playoff run.
#52 / Defenseman / Detroit Red Wings
Mar 02, 1984
The other half to this duo has become one of the most frustrating players on the Red Wings. Ericsson was the only defenseman to play in all 82 games last season, despite off-season reports of debilitating hip pain that rendered him nearly incapable of walking after games. He was utilized heavily on the penalty kill with Kronwall and clocked in at third on the team in total TOI/game. Most of his memorable moments ini 2014-15 were not for good reasons, save his Halloween takedown of Jordan Nolan.
Strengths: He's a big body at 6'4" and has a bit of a mean streak in him. Despite one of them coming against Nathan McKinnon, he had two fights last year on a Wings team that had a total of eight all season, and he had the aforementioned wrestling match against Nolan when teammate Darren Helm was hit from behind. He also has a good first pass that often gets overlooked and in the past has shown he can be very effective on the penalty kill.
Weaknesses: For being one of the bigger guys on the team, he doesn't use his size effectively. Clearing opposing players out of the net front area theoretically should be easier for Ericsson, but it doesn't happen often enough or effectively when he tries. Despite playing more than 30 games more than each of the prior two seasons, his offensive output in 2014-15 was almost identical, matching a career high of 15 points. He was also penalty-prone and wildly inconsistent last year and was unable to cover for Kronwall when he faltered, to the point that it drew the attention and criticism of even the Detroit diggers.
Expectations: Unless something drastic happens, Ericsson will still be partnered with Kronwall. While the initial reaction to this is a general feeling of cold dread, I'm really interested to see if Ericsson's hip issues will continue to plague him now that he's apparently found an effective treatment. I'm more of an optimist, so if he defeats the bugaboo of a painful joint, I think we may see him return to more of the dependable Riggy we saw in the limited games we had him in 2013-14. If this happens, we could see a bit of an increase in his offense as well. If not, well, we can really only hope for more consistency and no further decline.