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Developing defensive competence: A Red Wings conundrum

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Death, taxes, and the Detroit Red Wings struggling to build a competent blue-line since Nick Lidstrom's retirement. The three things that are certain in life, sort of. This team's defense has become the front office's elephant in the room, but the problem is that the elephant keeps getting fatter, and fatter. How are they going to fix it? Free agency? Negative. Working the phones, and making a trade happen? Maybe. Upgrading internally? Risky, but believe it or not that might be the safest option.

Ken Holland has painted himself into a corner with the logjams that exist all over the team. Re-signing Kyle Quincey to a two-year contract, and Jonathan Ericsson to an albatross six-year extension are some examples of this. Unnecessary commitments to mediocre talent has damned the Wings ability to play defense at a competitive level. Listen, this article is not supposed to be a hack-job of Ken Holland and the work he's done here. While he's found success that most general managers in any sport can only dream of having, he's had a handful of blunders, like any GM would. The point of this article is to break down exactly what I think will Detroit's best course of action in terms of upgrading a dismal core of defensemen.

"Kyle, you're so negative. Why are you calling them dismal?"

You could look at the underlying numbers such as 5v5 high-danger scoring chances (scoring chances right on the doorstep of the goal crease) and see that the team is riding a razor-thin line of being in the negative when compared to the amount that they generate. You could also argue that looking at something like 5v5 score-adjusted FenwickFor per 60 minutes have been climbing in the wrong direction steadily this season:


Graph via corsica.hockey

Graph via Prashanth

Then you have the eye test. The defense is so easily caved by even the lightest of forechecking. You can pin that on systematics, but it happened under Babcock as well. Apply pressure, cause mistake, takeaway puck, rinse and repeat.

The offense is shellacked by fans a lot for not scoring enough, but I will always stand by the mantra that if you want to play offense faster than the other team, you need to play defense even faster. That means finding and creating clear lanes to get the puck up ice and onto your forward's stick. The Red Wings often like to do that D-to-D while slowly moving backwards in their own zone type of puck movement. There is very little "hop" in their step. That's causing a lot of problems. So how do we upgrade personnel?

Free Agency

Just to be clear, when I say free agency, I am speaking in terms of UFA. The Red Wings could take a shot at offer-sheeting an RFA defenseman, but as we've seen in the past, GMs just don't do that nowadays. Nevertheless, here are the top UFA defensemen this summer:

Brian Campbell, Keith Yandle, Alex Goligoski, Nikita Nikitin, Dan Hamhuis, Dan Boyle, John-Michael Liles, Luke Schenn, Kris Russell, Christian Ehrhoff, Yannick Weber, the list goes on...

A bunch of middling defensemen. Guys like Yandle, Liles, Ehrhoff, and Campbell are still useful, but the problem with free agency is that you could end up paying big money with term for these guys. When you look at Mike Green, our most recent UFA defenseman, his production doesn't really live up to what he's being paid so far. Is it worth taking a swing at one of these guys for $5-$6 million over three years? Not with the cap situation Holland has put himself in. I say that free agency is the wrong way to go.

Trade

In a vacuum, this is the easiest one to fantasize about. Before the trade deadline I had speculated on a trade that would bring Finnish defenseman Sami Vatanen to Detroit for a guy like Gustav Nyquist, and perhaps another piece. With the amount of young and promising defense Anaheim has at their fingertips, this could still be a viable option. Vatanen is a pending RFA, due for a payday and with his age the Red Wings could afford to invest in him. I could riff on this idea forever, but if it's going to happen then Holland will need to shed another contract on defense to make room for anyone.

I do think that trades are going to happen this summer. Ken Holland has a boatload of expiring contracts, most of which RFA status, that need to be committed to or moved. In all likelihood I have a feeling that Anaheim will deal with Tampa Bay, moving a guy like Vatanen for Jonathan Drouin but I digress. Realistically, Ken Holland should be trying to move defense around this summer, because even with Kyle Quincey and Jakub Kindl gone the logjam remains. Listen, if a cinder block like Rob Scuderi or David Clarkson can get traded, Ken Holland should be able to move some of his deadweight.

Rebuilding from within the organization

Assuming the Red Wings may take a defenseman in the first round this offseason (we'll talk more about that later), they're in a good spot to upgrade the blue line internally. Let's assume the Wings have two spots open for grabs because they managed to move someone on defense like, say, Jonathan Ericsson (lol). Alexey Marchenko will most likely end up with one of those spots, as he's earned it with exceptional defensive play this season, You give a guy like Xavier Ouellet the role of seventh defenseman, and give the last open spot to whoever battles it out between Robbie Russo and Ryan Sproul.

Could this be a risky gamble? Of course. These guys could step into the NHL and get waxed, but beauty of it is you didn't spend anything or commit to a big ugly contract to try. Sproul is essentially a right-shooting version of Brendan Smith, and Russo is emerging as a very promising player with NHL written all over him (30 points this season with a league-leading +41). Again, this is all contingent on if management can move a contract. Otherwise, the logjam lives to see another season.

Without trades this summer and electing to not re-sign Quincey, here is what the defense will ultimately look like:

Danny DeKeyser - Niklas Kronwall

Brendan Smith - Mike Green

Jonathan Ericsson - Alexey Marchenko

Seventh defenseman TBD

This is almost exactly what you've got right now. After the performance the defense has given us so far this season, do we really feel confident in something like this going into 2017? The answer for most is no, and since the only way we can breathe new life into this defense is by making a trade to relieve the logjam, it's doubtful that it changes anytime soon.