Step up or else for Red Wings' defensemen
PLYMOUTH, Mich. — Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock jokingly asked him to, but Nick Lidstrom isn't coming out of retirement.
Brad Stuart is also no longer in Detroit, having returned to the San Jose Sharks so he can be with his family.
So where does that leave the Wings' defense?
Many people around the league are predicting a hard fall for the Wings based on those losses. But Niklas Kronwall is not one of them.
"I think in here we truly believe that we have the right pieces, and hopefully, that's something we'll show you here in the next few games," Kronwall said.
Babcock has never been one to focus on what the Wings don't have. He's thinking there's an opportunity available for anyone who wants to take it.
"Nick played 23-4-5 minutes and Stuie played 23-4-5 minutes, so there's a ton of ice time right there for somebody to grab hold of," Babcock said. "I think there's going to be huge growth, obviously, in Kronwall and (Jonathan) Ericsson.
"But Q (Kyle Quincey) is a guy who can really take a step for us. Whitey (Ian White) had a pretty good year last year. (Jakub) Kindl, (Carlo) Colaiacovo, (Brendan) Smith, what are they going to grab?"
A lot of the load is going to fall on Kronwall, who turned 32 on Jan. 12. He's now the grizzled veteran on the blue line.
"Of course, now with Nick being gone and Stuie being gone, obviously, it's going to be maybe a little more responsibility," Kronwall said. "But at the same time, I have to try to go out there and play my game, not try to over exaggerate anything or try to do too much because that's how you end up in trouble."
Babcock has Kronwall and Ericsson installed as the top pair to start the season.
Ericsson, 28, is no longer the rookie. He's the third-oldest defenseman behind Kronwall and Colaiacovo, who turns 30 on Jan. 27.
"It absolutely gives me more responsibility and a bigger challenge," Ericsson said. "I think every player strives for a bigger challenge.
"For me to try and shut down the top lines, it's a great honor, of course, but a big challenge. And I'm looking forward to it, too."
Ericsson, who has played with Kronwall before, said he knows what his role will be.
"Of course, he's going to be more the offensive guy out there," Ericsson said. "He's probably going to be the first defenseman on the power play, so he's going to take a much bigger role in that part for us. And when he goes out on his adventures, I'm going to be there for him and cover for him.
"Probably, I can help him out in the defensive zone, too. We have good communication, too. We worked well together before."
Kronwall said he expects big things from Ericsson this season.
"I think he's going to have a great year," Kronwall said. "He's just calm. He knows that he's a good player.
"Hoping that his confidence carries over into the season. He's going to be one of our most important guys in here."
Henrik Zetterberg believes both Kronwall and Ericsson are ready to take the next step in their evolution as players.
"The good thing about this organization is, they never put players that are not ready out there," Zetterberg said. "You spend a few years, your role gets bigger and bigger, and when they think you're ready, you get the chance to play more.
"I went through that process, Kronner went through that process, now it's time for him to play more. Same thing for Big E. Just a natural step to take."
On some other teams, a player like Smith would have already been playing.
Smith, 23, played in 14 games last season when Lidstrom was injured. Smith had one goal, six assists and was plus-3. With the Grand Rapids Griffins this season, Smith had five goals, 20 assists and was a plus-9 in 32 games.
He now understands the reason the Wings wanted him to play a lot in Grand Rapids rather than sparingly with Detroit the last couple of years.
"You do have to bide your time, but I think the Red Wings organization is so great at it," Smith said. "They don’t move you too fast and actually hurt your productivity. You’re actually learning in the minors and getting better.
"Coming in as a young kid, I thought I was ready. I thought I could go right into the lineup. But there’s so much I learned in the last few years that I didn’t even know."
Smith will start the season paired with Quincey, whom he played with a bit last season.
The third pair will be White and either Colaiacovo or Kindl.
Kindl, 25, played in 55 games last season, when he had one goal and 12 assists.
"I’m getting older, too, and I’m more experienced than I was last year and the year before," Kindl said. "I know there’s going to be an opportunity, and whenever you get that opportunity, you’ve just got to be ready for it."
Ultimately, that's what Babcock is counting on — that his young defensemen are ready for their chance.
"When Steve Yzerman and (Brendan) Shanahan left, guys grabbed opportunity, and Zetterberg and (Pavel) Datsyuk up front took over," Babcock said. "So the bottom line is: Here’s more opportunity. Let’s see what guys do with it."