Healthy DeKeyser might have helped Wings win Cup

June 25, 2013

Watching the Chicago Blackhawks lift the Stanley Cup Monday night, Red Wings fans were left wondering, "What if?"

What if the Wings had scored in overtime of Game 7 against the Blackhawks? What if they had played better in Game 5?

What if rookie defenseman Danny DeKeyser hadn't gotten hurt in Game 2 against the Anaheim Ducks? Could he have made the difference against the Blackhawks?

Could that have been them in the Finals beating the Boston Bruins instead?

Although those painful questions will remain unanswered, the more pleasant question of how good DeKeyser can become is something Wings fans can think about now that the season is officially over.

DeKeyser, 23, had one assist and was a plus-4 in 11 games at the end of the regular season, and his steady play on the blue line prompted coach Mike Babcock to say the Wings wouldn't have made the playoffs without him.

Although DeKeyser said he tries not to pay attention to the media hype, Babcock's comment didn't escape him.

"That was something I heard," DeKeyser said. "I got a lot of texts after that one especially. It was pretty cool."

DeKeyser's veteran teammates were just as effusive.

"I was so impressed," Daniel Cleary said. "Playing and coming into the NHL as a defenseman is not easy, and he came in and he played so well.

"He really gets it. He's going to be a great pro. He's going to be a great Red Wing.

Niklas Kronwall mentioned DeKeyser in the same sentence with a soon-to-be Hall of Famer.

"He never puts himself in trouble," Kronwall said. "He plays a little bit like (Nick) Lidstrom that way. He’s very smart. He just read situations and was able to find solutions out of the blue.

"Not a lot of guys can do that coming straight out of college. It’s really impressive."

Although DeKeyser has a long way to go to reach Lidstrom's status, DeKeyser does share a similar even-keel demeanor.

"I don’t know if people realize what he did this year, coming in from college and playing the way he did," Kronwall said. "I don’t know if you should be able to do that, come in and have that big of a presence.

"I’m very impressed with how he handles himself, both on and off the ice. He’s got great work ethic, a great attitude. The sky’s the limit for this guy. That’s how good he is."

Grand Rapids Griffins coach Jeff Blashill, who was a Wings assistant coach last season, was happy to welcome DeKeyser back for the Calder Cup Finals.

DeKeyser underwent surgery to repair his broken right thumb and returned to the ice a little over a month later.

"I didn't know if I was going to get another chance to play this year or not, but the way it worked out, I came down here and ended up playing for a championship," DeKeyser said. "So it's pretty cool how it all worked out. My thumb feels great, and I healed up quick."

DeKeyser, along with Gustav Nyquist and Joakim Andersson, helped the Griffins beat the Syracuse Crunch in six games.

Blashill is also the former head coach at Western Michigan and remembers the young defenseman when DeKeyser first got to Kalamazoo.

"I'll be honest, real similar," Blashill said. "He was way better than I realized he was when I got the job.

"He was similar in the sense that he stepped in right away as a freshman that I didn't know much about that was unheralded and did an outstanding job for us.

Another future Hall of Fame defenseman, Chris Chelios, has worked with many of the Wings' young defensemen, including DeKeyser.

"He's the kind of kid, he's got great hockey sense, whether it was good coaching or he's just a flat-out smart player," Chelios said. "From the first game to the third game, he improved every game.

"Does everything -- nothing especially great but everything really good. Hopefully, at some point, the offense will kick in, too."

DeKeyser said Chelios gave him some advice on special teams play.

"One day he was telling me a little bit about the penalty kill, just kind of staying free in front of the net when they have two guys in front because you've got to cover both guys," DeKeyser said. "It's awesome because you get a guy like Chelios out there, he definitely demands attention out there and you listen to what he has to say, that's for sure."

There's one thing, however, Chelios did as a player that DeKeyser doesn't plan to emulate -- riding the exercise bike in the sauna.

"I've seen some guys do that, but I'm not a big fan of that," DeKeyser said.

It's just as well because even though DeKeyser's 6 feet 2 inches tall, he's a very lean 190 pounds.

"He's not meaty enough yet," Chelios said. "Physically, obviously they want him to be stronger, just because the NHL is going to be bigger and stronger.

"That'll come. It's not like he doesn't play strong. You can't knock him off his feet. On skates he's really strong."

It will be fun to watch DeKeyser as he gets stronger and learns the NHL even more.

But fans still wonder what would have happened if DeKeyser hadn't gotten hurt and was there for the Wings against the Blackhawks and perhaps beyond.

"I think there's always that 'what if' question if you got the chance to play in the Finals, how awesome it would have been," DeKeyser said. "Some stuff works out, some stuff doesn't.

"Hopefully, down the road, I'll get another chance at it. Just wasn't meant to be this year."