Considering how stable the Detroit Red Wings have been over the last 20-plus seasons, this season has brought a seismic change to the league’s model franchise.
The biggest changes have come along the blue line, as the Detroit defense is in the process of a major transition. First and foremost was the retirement of the “Perfect Human,” Nicklas Lidstrom. The calming presence of the silky-smooth Lidstrom was a staple for the Red Wings’ defense for over two decades and his skates are impossible to fill.
Overshadowed by the retirement of Lidstrom was the loss of Brad Stuart to a self-imposed trade. Stuart was a blue-collar, rugged defenseman who was integral in the Wings’ success over his four-plus seasons in Detroit. Stuart wanted to stay in Detroit, but his stepdaughter is a minor and was not legally able to leave their home state of California. Thus, after playing four seasons away from his family, he decided to return to his family in California and his rights were traded to the San Jose Sharks, where he signed a three-year deal soon thereafter.
In addition to the losses of Lidstrom and Stuart was the loss of Brian Rafalski two seasons ago as he suddenly retired. Rafalski was one of the few right-handed defensemen the Wings have had in recent years and was a three-time champion. Thus, after losing three of their top four defensemen in two seasons, someone had to step up along the blue line to steady the defensive corp.
Enter Niklas Kronwall. Much of the weight from the losses of the aforementioned defensemen fell on the shoulders of the hard-hitting Swede currently in his eighth season. Kronwall, an alternate captain, has not disappointed and has been a rock for the Red Wings.
Kronwall has six points in his last two games and now leads all NHL defensemen with 16 points. He has become the quarterback of the power play and has helped turn around a unit that was one of the worst in the league until last week. The way Kronwall has laterally skated along the blue line on the power play to find shooting and passing routes has been downright Lidstrom-esque and the power play is finally starting to click.
Kronwall has been paired with undrafted rookie Brian Lashoff for the majority of the season, so his impact goes beyond points. With a very green defensive unit including Lashoff, Jakub Kindl and Brendan Smith, his experience and leadership have been paramount in stabilizing the Detroit defense.
Admittedly, Kronwall’s plus/minus could be better because he is just a minus-4. However, considering that he has been playing with an unheralded rookie and taking on other teams’ top lines, a return to the plus side seems to be in order as time goes on. The Wings have also been decimated by injury, so his plus/minus should see a jump up as the team gets healthy and gets all their regulars back in the lineup.
Along with the other pillars of the team, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, Kronwall has been a steadying force for a team that rarely goes through a transition phase. Without the efforts from him, the Red Wings’ defense would be in utter disarray.
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