Wings' depth makes the difference

Ross McKeon
Yahoo! Sports

To understand just how good the Detroit Red Wings are as they start the defense of their 11th Stanley Cup, don't look so much at who is on the roster as much as who is not.

After placing defenseman Chris Chelios, veteran forward Darren McCarty and No. 3 goalie Jimmy Howard on injured reserve in addition to exposing journeyman forward Aaron Downey to waivers, the Wings assigned three players to the minors who could make any other team in the league.

Starring for your Grand Rapids Griffins of the American Hockey League are Darren Helm, Ville Leino and Jonathan Ericsson.

Upon hearing of the decision, and understanding full well why it has to be this way, coach Mike Babcock had this to say to Detroit general manager Ken Holland: "These are the best players I've ever been involved with sending to the minors ever, I can tell you that."

Leino is a 25-year-old left wing who scored 28 goals and 77 points in 55 games with Jokerit Helsinki. That was enough to make the Finnish native of Savolinna the league's second-leading scorer. Detroit's Finnish scout Ari Vuori targeted Leino, who had 4-5 teams interested in his services. Assistant GM Jim Nill was instrumental, too, and the free agent decided to sign with the Red Wings, even if it meant the player who Babcock predicts will be "a scoring machine" has to fight for a roster spot.

"He's an NHL player for sure," Babcock said during a conference call Tuesday. "The puck follows him around like it does (Pavel) Datsyuk. He's got great hands and hangs on to it real well. The pace of his game is not what it's going to be here in two months, but it's very good."

Ericsson is a 6-5, 205-pound defenseman, drafted 291st overall in 2002. Detroit is great at finding untapped talent late in the first round where it is accustomed to selecting, but this is ridiculous. At one point during the Stanley Cup Finals last year, Babcock said he "couldn't believe Ericsson wasn't playing in the NHL" then. He said it to support a point of the kind of depth he had at his disposal, but as another season rolls around the versatile defenseman is again in the minors.

"The biggest problem for young defensemen here in Detroit is we don't play them," Babcock said. "Unless it was February last year when the rest of (the regulars) got hurt, they don't get in the lineup. So development for these young guys is tough. It's in our practice, rotation, and the best players play here in Detroit."

Helm, just 21, was selected in the fifth round in 2005. A scorer at Medicine Hat (WHL) in junior hockey, Helm may have to go about it a bit differently to stick in Detroit. At 6-foot and 182 pounds, he's not going to be a physical force, but Helm displayed his wares at the biggest time of the year last postseason despite getting fourth-line minutes.

Helm scored the first two goals of his NHL career in Game 2 vs. Dallas in the conference finals and Game 5 vs. Pittsburgh in the Cup Finals. Both goals were a result of Helm using his outstanding speed.

"Helm is an on-the-puck, two-way guy, (a) really good player (who) plays with a lot of pace," Babcock said before tossing Leino back into the conversation. "They're as good of call-ups as we've had since I've been here. I can tell you that for sure."

In all honesty, it didn't matter really how well the trio of youngsters played during the recently completed camp and preseason – and they all played well. For a team like Detroit, it's all about being bound to contracts and moving players who can be moved. As players age and gain experience, this solution to the roster crunch won't work as well. Holland already warned next summer will be different.

"This is a one-year window of opportunity to win the Stanley Cup, add a Marian Hossa, and really keep our team together," Holland said. "No matter what happens, when this season is over, we're going to have to make some hard decisions."

Holland will find himself in a similar predicament that Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero experienced this offseason, doing the very best he could to keep his young core intact. Shero didn't want to lose Ryan Malone, he probably didn't want to lose Adam Hall or Jarkko Ruutu. He didn't necessarily want to trade Erik Christensen or Colby Armstrong either, but how else was he going to get a player like Hossa?

It was a business before, but the salary-cap system means, besides introducing more parity, managers have to make quicker decisions on players and sometimes ones that they don't really want to make.

Of course, don't feel too sorry for Holland and Co. when they're raising that Stanley Cup banner at Joe Louis Arena on Thursday night when the Red Wings host the Toronto Maple Leafs. He's got Henrik Zetterberg, Datsyuk, the pair of prime-age superstars who take as much pride in their defense and piling up points. He's got Nicklas Lidstrom, the greatest European defenseman to play the game who is under-rated for his stellar leadership skills. Holland has so many pieces that fit so well into the system – Brian Rafalski, Tomas Holmstrom, Johan Franzen, Niklas Kronwall, Kirk Maltby, Daniel Cleary, Kris Draper, Chris Osgood – and on and on it goes.

"I believe this is an opportunity," Babcock said. "When I hear Ken talk about what's going to happen next year, I get nervous for next year already.

"We don't know when this chance will come this good again. We have to make sure our preparation is equal to the opportunity, and so that means it's a great one, let's get to work."

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