Here’s something I didn’t think I would be saying: I’m glad Nicklas Lidstrom retired. It would have been painful to see him sign for one more year and have that season taken away by a lockout, like we’re potentially seeing happen with Teemu Selanne. As it is, Lidstrom was able to walk away from the game on his own terms, rather than spending months in limbo waiting to see if he would be able to take his victory lap.
Of course, if the lockout does end and we get a partial NHL season, the Red Wings are going to badly miss having Lidstrom in the lineup. I know, I know, breaking news. But I’ll be honest: I’m tired of talking and thinking about the lockout. I just want to write about hockey, particularly NHL hockey.
While most of the focus when talking about the Red Wings defence has revolved around Niklas Kronwall and whether he’ll be able to fill even a portion of Lidstrom’s shoes, I want to take a different tack. I think the focus on Kronwall is misguided and that the key to how the Red Wings will handle Lidstrom’s absence is actually Ian White.
Yes, I’m going to damn well talk about Ian White, because screw the lockout.
White was signed as a free agent last off-season to replace the retiring Brian Rafalski, stepping into Rafalski’s vacated role as Lidstrom’s sidekick, a position briefly held by Brad Stuart. Stuart is another Wings’ defenceman who has left the fold, signing with the San Jose Sharks. That means that only one-quarter of the Wings’ top-four from two years ago remains with the team: Kronwall.
Kyle Quincey and Carlo Colaiacovo are decent second-pairing options and Jonathan Ericsson can also fill that role. Also, the Red Wings hope that Brendan Smith can build on a 14-game stint in the NHL last season and become a number one defenceman, but he is still a long ways off. Kronwall is the Wings’ best all-around defenceman: he plays in every situation, is capable of scoring and setting up goals, and hits harder than anyone else in the league. He has yet to prove, however that he can be that number one guy.
That leaves Ian White. How well he plays will determine how successful the Red Wings’ defence corps will be next season.
White isn’t a number one defenceman by any means, but he is an excellent and underrated complementary player. He’s a puck-moving defenceman who consistently posts solid Corsi ratings, indicating that when he’s on the ice, the puck is being directed at the opposition net far more often than at his own.
White benefited from playing with Lidstrom – how could he not? – but it was no mistake that he ended up with him on the top pairing to begin with. He has yet to post a single negative Corsi rating in his career, despite starting it with the woeful Leafs and playing with three different teams, including the Flames and Hurricanes, in the 2010-11 season. He has only been a minus player once, back in 2007-08, when he led all Leafs’ defencemen in Corsi, but saw his PDO hit a career-low largely thanks to Vesa Toskala.
Last season, White was second to Lidstrom in ice time per game and second among defencemen in Corsi and Quality of Competition for the Wings. He tied for the team-lead in plus/minus, was third behind Lidstrom and Kronwall in scoring from a defenceman with 36 points, and led all defencemen in shots. The only area where he didn’t play a key role for the Red Wings was on the penalty kill, where he averaged just over a minute per game, but was clearly a tertiary option.
The key is that White wasn’t dependent on Lidstrom to push play in a positive direction. While Lidstrom still drove the play when they were partnered together, White was still effective when on the ice with other defencemen. While White wasn’t paired frequently enough with Kronwall last season to effectively analyse how well they might play together, past seasons show that he improves the Corsi rating of whatever defenceman he is partnered with, like Francois Beauchemin and Luke Schenn in Toronto.
It’s that ability as a complementary player that makes his play key for the Red Wings this season. If he can partner effectively with Kronwall, the Wings will have an effective top pairing that can play big minutes, particularly given mainly offensive zone starts. From there, they can distribute ice time between Quincey, Colaiacovo, and Ericsson, while easing Smith into a larger role.
If White doesn’t fit well with Kronwall, the Red Wings’ corps could collapse entirely. Kronwall has always had Lidstrom ahead of him on the depth chart and has been effective in his shadow, but may struggle when faced with stiffer competition. White, on the other hand, has played big minutes in Toronto, Calgary, and Carolina before doing so in Detroit, facing the opponent’s top lines night-in and night-out. That experience will be necessary as the Red Wings shift gears from a one-man show into an ensemble cast on defence.
Kronwall is obviously no stranger to big minutes, but hasn’t had to face many of them from the top pairing against top lines. Meanwhile, his Corsi rating has been among the lowest among Wings’ defencemen for several years, though that can be partly (or mostly) attributed to receiving more starts in the defensive zone. If the Wings keep to the pattern of giving their top pairing more starts in the offensive zone, that will certainly help, but it will be up to White to be an effective partner to make it work.