Kukla's Korner

The Malik Report

Red Wings overnight report: on the blueline and Howard, a Top 24 and even more Swedish news

The Detroit News's Ted Kulfan continues his three-part look at the Red Wings' 2013-2014 season roster this morning, following up yesterday's look at the Wings' forwards with an article about the Red Wings' defense. His spotlight shines most squarely upon the free agent signing that allowed the Wings to pursue more balanced offensive output in July instead of overpaying for another defenseman--one Danny DeKeyser:

“The sky’s the limit,” goalie Jimmy Howard said. “He has so much potential. He stepped right into the lineup and played so well.”

The further development of DeKeyser, 23, will likely only strengthen a Red Wings defensive corps that performed well above expectations last season.

The Red Wings bought out the final year of Carlo Colaiacovo’s contract this offseason, creating salary cap space but also showing confidence in the young defenseman already on the roster.

And, in case you haven’t checked the Red Wings’ defensemen’s ages lately, this unit is young.

Niklas Kronwall is the elder statesman at 32. Nobody else is 30. Jonathan Ericsson is 29. Kyle Quincey, 28. Jakub Kindl, 26. Brendan Smith is 24, while DeKeyser and Brian Lashoff are 23.

The Wings have a shortage of top-four defensemen after Kronwall and Ericsson as one could very well argue that Quincey, Kindl, Smith, DeKeyser and Lashoff are all best-suited to third-pair jobs at present, but the team simply couldn't afford to over-pay in price or term for the gobbled-up-via-trade Mark Streit or Sergei Gonchar, or any of the other free agents out there.

Kulfan suggests that the Wings will be hoping that Brendan Smith manages to stifle some of his defensive gaffes along the way to becoming more of an asset as opposed to a liability...

“This is kind of the way I look at it. Smitty has played 48 (regular season) games in the NHL and playing the third or fourth pair (on defense),” said coach Mike Babcock of Smith during the playoffs. “I look at Big E (Jonathan Ericsson) and he played the five hole (third pair) for the Red Wings for six years.”

And Jakub Kindl's going to have to step up, too:

Kindl is another defenseman who took a step forward last season and could become a bigger factor. In 41 games, Kindl had four goals with nine assists and a plus-15 rating while playing with more confidence and poise.

The Wings plain old need to ensure that Kronwall and Ericsson end up playing 22-24 minutes a night instead of 24-27 or more on a regular basis, and it's going to take a team effort from DeKeyser, Smith, Kindl, and yes, even Kyle Quincey to give Kronwall and Ericsson some relief from what were clearly burnout-inducing minutes.

Kulfan's going to wrap up his survey of the Wings' roster with a glance at the team's goaltending on Friday morning, but the Free Press's Helene St. James somewhat serendipitously profiled Jimmy Howard this morning:

Looking back: Howard rose from the depth of an ignoble opener in St. Louis that saw him relieved after five goals on 28 shots to a team MVP-worthy regular season followed by a stellar playoff performance. When coach Mike Babcock lost faith in backup Jonas Gustavsson by late March, Howard started — and finished — every game in April and through the playoffs. When the Wings needed a winning streak the last week of the season to secure a 22nd straight appearance in the playoffs, Howard delivered two shutouts over the last four games. He had a save percentage in the .900s in all but one game of the Chicago series.

Looking ahead: In mid-April, the Wings committed to Howard as their starter for the next half-dozen years, signing him to a deal that pegs him, monetarily, just below first-tier guys like Jonathan Quick and Pekka Rinne. Howard, 29, has been a workhorse the past few years, shoring up the Wings even as they’ve struggled through one under-performing backup after another. The lockout-shortened 2013 season stood as a test for Howard — his first without defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom and with a different-looking defense overall — and Howard aced the exam.

At a $5.29 million cap hit for the next five years, Howard's got to prove that he's worth the money over the long haul, but he's held up remarkably well given that he really has't had a solid back-up since his rookie year (Chris Osgood's groin was a bit of a mess during his final season, Ty Conklin was a disaster [though Joey MacDonald was not] and Jonas Gustavsson had a rough first go with the Wings, though he should improve this year)

Howard’s assets are numerous: He is confident and calm, much like his mentor, Chris Osgood. Teammates are comfortable playing in front of Howard, trusting him to make the save. His $5.3-million cap hit is reasonable, especially in what for next season is a shrinking salary cap. Howard isn’t yet 30 and already has appeared in 40-plus playoff games. He is, on many levels, ideal for the Red Wings.

Petr Mrazek's going to push Howard sooner than later, but "sooner" means in a year or three, not come October, and Howard isn't going to surrender his status as the Wings' go-to goalie easily.

 

 

 

 

In competitive news of a different kind, several of you suggested that Ferris State University's unseating of the Red Wings in the Detroit Free Press's "best sports logo in Michigan contest" (sorry, Bulldogs, you're gonna get hammered by the Tigers' "Olde English D"), but the Red Wings are holding a contest of their own, asking fans to pick the best Red Wings play of the 2013 season, and out of the twenty-four contenders (you can watch them all on YouTube), I think that this is by far the best individual play...

But these Zetterberg goals strike me as the most important...

And this save was the best of the year in my opinion:

 

 

 

Also in the multimedia vein, RedWingsFeed both found an 8-minute, English-language interview that Jan Mursak gave to the KHL's YouTube channel...

And both RedWingsFeed and my RSS-feed-searching minions found yet another interview with an economist about the pluses and minuses regarding the public funding of the Red Wings' follow-on rink, given by Marvin Surkin to Michigan Radio's Stateside program. I'll say that Surkin at least doesn't yell and is honest about the "job creation" numbers (50% of the jobs have to be given to City of Detroit employees):

 

 

 

If you missed it, in the alumni department, one Damien Brunner's agent, Neil Sheehy, told the Nordwestschweiz Zeitung's Marcel Kuchta that his client will continue seeking NHL employment...

And the Gothenburg Times' Martin Hardenberger reports that Andreas Lilja had to leave his first exhibition game with Rogle BK of the Swedish Allsvenskan because he suffered a skate cutt to his...rear end. He should be able to return to working out today.

 

 

 

And in the incoming player category, Daniel Alfredsson will be holding a press conference at least partially addressing his departure from the Senators at 11 AM today. TSN and Sportsnet will stream the event, and Ottawa's The Team 1200 will stream it, too:

 

 

 

I did find one more bit of Swedish-language news from the Swedes' Olympic orientation camp. Marie Hallman spoke with Niklas Kronwall about his experiences on the 2006 Swedish Olympic Team for HockeyLegends.se, and here's a rough translation thereof:

"I just had to give them the puck and then get away!" says Niklas Kornwall, with a broad smile.

Just being in Turin was a bonus. The Detroit defenseman had injured his knee five months before the Olympics, and was actually removed from the team's roster.

"And then everything went so damn fast! I didn't even think that I'd have a fighting chance to be there, but I was on the ice all the time, and played, well...it was three or five games before the Olympic break began. But knowing that I'd been rehabbing my knee for 4.5 months, I couldn't take two weeks completely off," says Niklas Kronwall.

His former coach of the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins offered to have the Swede practice with the Motor City Mechanics, a team that was in the ECHL and located just ouside Detroit for a few weeks.

Suddenly, his agent called, and said: "'I'd spoken to the Swedish Olympic Team, and they wanted a back-up in place in case something happened. Can you go?'"

"'Hell yeah,' I said. Jonte Hedstrom was in the same position. We both went there believing that nothing would happen. Then Mattias Ohlund suffered a broken leg, 15 minutes in. Broke down the bone if I'm not mistaken, and then it was just going out and playing. So the whole week went really quickly."

What do you remember from the Olympics?

"Not all that much! But Lidas (Nicklas Lidstrom) scored the crucial 3-2 goal, I do remember that after all. And I remember that Foppa (Forsberg) and I had a doping test after the game. So when everyone was celebrating, we sat with a beer in the doping room, waiting to pee, and it isn't always easy after a game, so we sat there for 15 or 20 minutes."

Why do you think you won?

"The qualities of the leaders during that time...It doesn't exist anymore! "Sudden," "Foppa," "Lidas"...

So who was the King of Kings, the Leader with a "big L?" Was it Mats (Sundin)?

"Yes, definitely."

Was Nicklas Lidstrom also a leader?

"Yes, but he's a different kind of leader. Mats was more authoritarian. Lidas is just the best...He's just perfect in everything that he does. And 'Sudden,' he talks more. Lidas is someone who speaks when it's time to say, 'Now we have to play sharper" while Mats was a driving force throughout. That's how they were different in their leadership styles."

What did Peter "Foppa" Forsberg do?

"A ton. He did whatever he wanted on the ice, after all. Having played with them was pretty cool," said Kronwall with joy in both his voice and his eyes. There's no mistaking that the three great legends made a huge impression upon him.

And it was--a gift of fate, perhaps--Forsberg, Sundin and Lidstrom who scored the decisive goal together. Kronwall was the fourth skater on the ice. Finland and Sweden both had four players on the ice when the game-winning goal happened just 10 seconds into the 3rd period.

Mats Sundin won the faceoff at center ice against Saku Koivu, who lost his stick in the faceoff circle. Peter Forsberg got the puck, slid down toward the goal on the side boards, dropped the puck back to Mats Sundin, and he slid the puck to Nicklas Lidstrom at the blueline. Lidstrom then fired the puck hard and sent it precisely past Antero Nittymaki.

Here's the goal, with Swedish commentary--and oh sure, Homer was in the penalty box!

"When it found the back of the net, I was like, 'What the *#$%@&?' It was incredible. When talking with friends afterwards, they thought that it was so awesome that I got to play with those three, but they're just regular people, too. The fact is that once you come up to this level, you get the opportunity to play with great players, and I'm glad that I got that chance."

Can you describe the chemistry in that set of players, when you're with them on the ice?

"No, it was those three and me. So it was just about giving them the puck and getting out of the way. Stay away! Don't wreck it!"

But you also scored a goal, the 2-1 goal in the second period of the semifinal game.

"Well, it was Homer (Tomas Holmstrom) who stood in front of the goalie and screened him as usual so the goalie didn't see anything. It was a real screen job."

After the gold medal game against Finland, the Tre Kronor flew home to Stockholm and celebrated in front of a vast, jubilant crowd at the Medborgarplatsen [in Stockholm]. That wasn't their intention from the beginning, and rumors spread that Mats Sundin paid both for that trip and everyone's trips back to North America himself, but he's denied it.

"Though he ruled it out right away, he was the one who pulled the strings and said that we had to go home. I don't think there was anything planned before, but Mats ran it. As I understood it, anyway, he said, 'We're going home! We need to celebrate this with people!'"

And it was packed with people even though it was freezing cold and the middle of winter?

"Yeah, it was absolutely incredible. I had some visa problems, too. My agent called and said, 'Now when you fly to Sweden, you have to go to the embassy and fix your visa, or you won't be able to re-enter the United States.' I thought, 'How the hell will I do that?' so at the airport, my agent made sure that one of his old buddies, who was a police officer, drove me and my agent to the embassy while the others were greeted at the airport with flowers and stuff before they went by bus to the 'Medis.' So I couldn't be there unless someone else picked me up just outside the Hard Rock Cafe. So it was a bit hectic."

The Olympic gold in Turin in 2006 was followed by a loss in the quarterfinals at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, though Sweden had a team full of NHL stars. That will be the case this time, too, and it's probably going to include Niklas Kronwall, though he denies it when you say so:

"A given? No, I don't think that's what you'd say I am. There are many younger players coming up now. It's great to see how they're improving--Erik Karlsson's been unbelievably good; Oliver Ekman-Larsson, I don't know if he gets enough credit here at hoe, but he's been absolutely amazing; and Jonas Brodin has done well in Minnesota, it's not easy to become a regular straight away when you're 18 or 18, and that's amazing."

But surely, you're a given?

"You can ask Pelle (Par Marts, the coach) about that, but please do tell him that you're the one who thinks so, ha ha. No, seriously, there are many who are knocking on the door, so I also need to play well, you either deliver or you don't get to go. It's that simple. But that's the challenge, too. So it's probably about pushing yourself forward all the time. But someone else determines the roster, though it would be a blast to go with them."

What are your thoughts on the initial roster [of orientation camp-invited players]?

"I think it looks good, actually. There's no "Lidas" or "Foppa," but "Zata" (Henrik Zetterberg) isn't far behind where they were (in 2006), if he isn't there already, honestly. There are many players who've had great years in the NHL, many who've reached high status and have made names for themselves by performing well. So I think that the team on paper looks great. And "Lunkan" (New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist) is with us, he won't hurt. But you have to put the pieces together. It's not enough to go there with a great team and believe that everything will take care of itself. There's much to be determined, just because someone's scored a hundred points in the NHL doesn't mean that he's going to win the scoring title at the Olympics."

But the Tre Kronor are one of the gold medal candidates?

"Yes, I think the Tre Kronor has proven year after year that we can win. We're always up there, and we've got a good structure, we're good at coming together as a team. That can already be seen on the World Junior team, they're always battling for the gold now, so I think it looks good."

There are three Swedes who've won two Olympic gold medals: Peter Forsberg, Kenny Jonsson and Jorgen Jonsson. Could you be the fourth? Have you ever thought about that?

"No, I try not ti think too much about it, the, "What if's" and stuff like that, I try to avoid it. It's all about getting as well-prepared as possible, hopefully being selected or the team and only going for it then."

 

 

 

Finally, many of you helped the cause via donations to the training camp fund, and I'm really, really grateful for your support! I am going to have to keep things rolling and keep requesting assistance in paying my way up to and staying in Traverse City during the Red Wings' prospect tournament--which starts three weeks from today, on September 5th--and main training camp.

I hate asking for money, but I plain old can't afford to go up on my own. I wish I could. But I will do my best to provide the best level of coverage possible, and as you know, I try to make things interactive and take your suggestions, ideas and critiques into account.

Any amount is appreciated. $5, $10, whatever you can afford, it's greatly appreciated.

I'm sticking with PayPal for the present moment as folks are familiar with it, and the email address that you use as my "recipient" ID is my personal email address, rtxg@yahoo.com (regardless of whether you send email to that address or my Kukla's Korner email, georgemalik@kuklaskorner.com, they end up in the same place).

Again, your support is plain old humbling. I wouldn't have been able to attend the summer development camp without you, and again, I'm plain old humbled by your readership and support.

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The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.