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Detroit Red Wings Season Preview, Part Two: Defense/Goaltending

For much more Red Wings analysis, check out Winging It In Motown.

Previously: Part One

During the 2008-09 season, an interesting transformation took place in the style of the Detroit Red Wings' play: the Wings virtually abandoned the two-way, defense-first system that had been a trademark of the Scotty Bowman coached teams of the 1990s.

This was primarily due to Marian Hossa joining the squad. His elite offensive skills, coupled with a terrible regular season from goaltender Chris Osgood, made the team much more offensive minded. The Red Wings allowed a league-low 179 goals in 2007-08; in 2008-09 that jumped to 240. Meanwhile, the offensive production went from 257 goals forced in 2007-08 (third in the league) to 282 in 2008-09 (first).

While Detroit has always been a goal-scoring juggernaut, their defense never suffered at the expense of the offense. That changed dramatically last season. As key offensive pieces went down with injuries, Detroit couldn't rely on its offense to win games. They needed better defense, and they got it. The Red Wings allowed 207 goals last season, a huge reduction from the free-wheeling team the previous year. With the improved defensive play, the Red Wings stormed back from the bottom of the Western Conference to make the playoffs for the 19th straight year.

Detroit has improved its offense from a year ago, but they will still need a solid 'D' to obtain the ultimate prize of a Stanley Cup. In part two of our season preview, we'll look at the Red Wings' lines of defense.

Defensive pair 1: Nicklas Lidstrom and Niklas Kronwall

Head coach Mike Babcock announced before the start of training camp that he intends to split up Brian Rafalski and Lidstrom to spread out the heavy load of minutes the two log on a nightly basis. This should ease the workload of the 40-year-old Lidstrom, who was tops on the team last year at over 25 minutes a game. By splitting up Rafalski and Lidstrom, Babcock has created a more balanced top four than Detroit has fielded in the past. Each now has a proven goal-scoring threat, but also a physical presence.

Hopefully, this will translate into a better offensive season for Lidstrom. At one point he went 42 games without a goal last year, but he was able to bounce back in the second half of the season. He was still productive in potting 9 goals and 49 points, but those numbers were way off by his standards. A more balanced season by the captain will make everyone around him better.

His age is also an area of concern, as he'll be 41 in April. Early on, it looked like Lidstrom's age had finally caught up with him; he didn't look sharp in his own end and there was the obvious offensive struggles. But when players started returning from injury, he picked up his game. That was the result of not having as much pressure on him, and Lidstrom was able to play at his own pace again. 

Kronwall on the other hand just needs to stay healthy. He's only played 80 games once in his career, and he missed 34 games last year after taking a knee-on-knee hit. When's he's healthy, he's a top four defenseman in the NHL. His devastating open ice hits make players think twice about putting their heads down and he's an excellent puck-mover like his new partner. Detroit needs him on the ice for the whole season.

Defensive pair 2: Brian Rafalski and Brad Stuart

Like many of the Red Wings, Rafalski experienced a significant offensive drop last season. After compiling over 50 points in each of his first two seasons in Detroit, Rafalski dropped to 42 points last year as the team focused more on protecting their rookie goaltender. Rafalski should see increased opportunities in the offensive zone now that he doesn't have to share the spotlight with Lidstrom.

Stuart will be handling the physical portion of this pairing, like he's done through most of his career. Offense is not the most effective part of his game; he's never scored more than 39 points in his career, but playing with Rafalski should increase his offensive production a little. His plus/minus rating should also improve over last year; he was a minus-12 playing with Jonathan Ericsson. In contrast, Rafalski was a plus-23, so hopefully that translates into better numbers for Stuart, too.

Defensive pair 3: Ruslan Salei and Jonathan Ericsson

Detroit wanted to re-sign Andreas Lilja this offseason to bolster this pairing, but Lilja had other ideas. He wanted more money than the Wings could offer and decided to test the free agent market. It turned out to be a colossal mistake; Lilja received no offers that were better than Detroit's, leaving him team-less for the upcoming season.

The result of this ordeal was the signing of Salei. He missed nearly the entire season last year with a back injury, lowering his price tag right into the Red Wings' range. He signed a one-year deal for $750,000 (plus $250,000 in bonuses). The Detroit Free Press sums up Salei's style:

Salei, 35, is a better puck-handler, a guy who can make the tape-to-tape passes the Wings need to get their offense started, and he plays with the sort of nasty edge that can drive an opponent straight into the penalty box. 

The real reason Salei was brought in, though, was to babysit Ericsson. Ericsson impressed in the 2009 playoffs playing with Lidstrom, but in his first full season last year he was just downright awful. For a ninth-round pick there weren't lofty expectations for him right out of the gate, but nobody on a team with this much talent should have a minus-15 rating. With a veteran Salei by his side, hopefully Ericsson will be able to correct the bulk of his mental errors. Babcock has even said Ericsson could end up playing with Lidstrom occasionally, so we'll see how that works out.

Extra defenseman: Jakub Kindl

Heading into training camp, the overriding theory coming out of Hockeytown was Kindl would have to play himself off the team. The Red Wings intend to carry seven defensemen, and the main competition with Kindl for that spot is Derek Meech, who the Red Wings tried to pawn off on someone else by putting him on waivers earlier this month. Kindl was the last first-round pick (19th in 2005) the Red Wings had before they drafted Riley Sheahan this season, so Detroit definitely thought highly of him from the get-go.

If early returns are any indication, Kindl has done nothing to change that.

Kindl produced three goals and 30 assists last season in Grand Rapids and has improved his plus/minus rating every season he's been with the Griffins. He's impressed Babcock in camp with his skating and puck-handling ability, showing everyone why he was regarded by some as a top five draft pick. If Salei can't whip Ericsson into shape, it's entirely possibly Kindl could crack the lineup regularly on the third defensive pairing.

Goaltenders: Jimmy Howard and Chris Osgood

There's no question about who the two goaltenders on this squad will be. The question will be if Howard can follow up his rookie campaign and if Osgood has anything left in the tank.

Nobody quite knew what to expect out of Howard last season. He spent four years in the AHL honing his skills, and the Red Wings always claimed he was their goalie of the future. Yet, many still had doubts. He was unproven and Osgood was coming off a rocky season in which he had a career worst .887 save percentage.

Fortunately, Howard put those doubts to rest rather quickly.

Howard didn't impress right away. Frankly, many were still wondering if he was NHL-ready after a shaky start to his career, but when Osgood missed extended time with the flu, Howard was forced into taking on a larger role. Coupled with the mini-MASH unit the Red Wings locker room had become, Detroit needed solid goaltending from Howard, and they got it. The rookie posted a 2.26 goals against average and notched 37 wins en route to a nomination for the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie.

The big concern is that Howard will suffer a sophomore slump, much like Columbus goalie Steve Mason did his second year in the league. Mason recorded 33 wins and a 2.26 GAA in his rookie campaign, but won only 20 games the next year and saw his GAA balloon to 3.00. Howard seems like a calm guy who doesn't get rattled easily, and at 26-years-old he's not your typical NHL sophomore. With star-studded cast in front of him, Howard might not have to do much anyway.

For Osgood, it was another year of sub-par performance. With only a rookie to back him up, the hope was that Osgood could handle the bulk of the work last season, allowing Howard to ease his way into the game. But Osgood has never recovered from his fantastic 2007-08 season and, at 37, he may never get back there. I've been one of the staunchest Osgood defenders over the years, but Osgood's play of late has been indefensible.

I'm hoping he can recover and get to 400 wins so he can stick it to all his detractors, but I'm not expecting a miraculous turnaround. Skills decrease over time, and Osgood's may have run out.

Overall

The addition of Salei should help strengthen this department, which was already coming off a strong season. However, that could quickly turn if Kronwall gets injured again and Ericsson can't pick up his game. The Wings are high on Kindl as the seventh defenseman, but he's still an unproven rookie who's only played three games with the big boys.

The main issue, like the rest of the team, is health. Kronwall hasn't been healthy for most of his career, Rafalski already is having minor issues this preseason and Salei only played 14 games last year with back problems. If the defense stays healthy, the Red Wings shouldn't have any problems winning games.