Wings must upgrade defense

The Detroit Red Wings are at a crossroads. They’ve now gone five seasons without advancing past the second round of the playoffs.

At the beginning of that stretch, the team had plenty of talent, namely the top defenseman in the world, still ‘The Perfect Human’ into his later years as a player. They had depth in their defense in ever-reliable Chris Chelios and Brian Rafalski. They had two of the top forwards in the NHL in Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. That was a team where you could say an early exit was an aberration, not a trend.

The Red Wings are no longer that team. Lidstrom, Rafalski and Chelios have since retired and Datsyuk and Zetterberg are past their primes. Even top defenseman Nik Kronwall may be reaching the end of his prime. Another top forward Johan Franzen hasn’t been the player he was when he signed a massive 10-year contract.

The core of the team now includes young players like Gustav Nyquist, Danny DeKeyser, Brenden Smith, Riley Sheahan and Tomas Jurco. For the most part, those players were thrilling to watch last season. Nyquist and Jurco were reminiscent of the early days of Datsyuk and Zetterberg. They might as well be the new Euro Twins. DeKeyser and Smith had their share of miscues as young defensemen but each showed promise at times, and defense is harder to learn for a young player than a forward position.

Another young player, 19-year old Anthony Mantha could make the team out of training camp this coming season. Mantha, who will turn 20 in September, was recently named the CHL Player of the Year after scoring 57 goals and 120 points in 57 games. In the playoffs he scored 24 goals and 38 points in 24 games. Simply put, Mantha, a 6-5 204 pound forward, is a goal-scoring machine. General Manager Ken Holland is also high on him. Another hot prospect, 22-year-old Teemu Pulkkinen also appears ready for the show. He scored 31 goals and 59 points in 71 games with the Grand Rapids Griffins last season. Pulkkinen’s 5-10, 181 pound frame and quickness on the ice also has him drawing comparisons to Pavel Datsyuk.

So the Red Wings have no shortage of forward talent, that should be agreed upon. Where the Wings need help is on defense. Kronwall and DeKeyser and perhaps Smith are and will be solid defensemen, but neither are a top-flight player like Rafalski or Chelios was and no one is like Lidstrom or likely ever will be.

It does irk me a little however that goaltender Jimmy Howard receives a lot of the blame for Detroit’s decline. Of course, decline is a relative term for a team that has made the playoffs in 23 straight seasons.

Most of the top goaltenders in the world are such because they have competent and skilled defensemen and two-way forwards in front of them. Dominik Hasek may have been one of the few exceptions, the Barry Sanders of the NHL. Howard needs a top-pairing D-man. The Red Wings do not need another free agent forward. They don’t need Joe Thornton, they need Shea Weber, Duncan Keith, Ryan Suter, P.K Subban or Drew Doughty.

just one problem, none of them are free agents and may never be. But the Red Wings have the pieces to possibly be able to acquire one of them. It may involve hard choices, like dealing one of those young forwards or forward prospects packaged with veteran talent and or draft picks. However, the impact a top-flight defensemen could bring to the Red Wings can’t be underestimated. It would make the entire team better.

In many ways the Red Wings began their current postseason slump on the day they failed to lure in Ryan Suter, as he chose Minnesota as a free agent. The Wings were dealt another blow recently when the Sharks dealt Dan Boyle the New York Islanders for a fifth round pick, rather than the Red Wings, who were also rumored to be in contention for the free agent defensemen.

My suggestion? Package Jurco, Sheahan or Pulkkinen along with Johan Franzen and cash and a first round draft pick. It seems like a lopsided deal, but it’s one the Wings have to make if they want to contend for the Cup again.

There are free agent options available as well such as an aging Kimmo Timonen or Andrei Markov. They won’t bring the same impact, but either would be an improvement over current Wings defensemen such as Brian Lashoff or Jakub Kindl.

With the roster the way it is now, Detroit will likely make it 24 straight trips to the postseason next spring. Ken Holland and the Red Wings have to decide if they’ll be content with that, or if they want to return to the NHL’s upper echelon.