CHICAGO -- When the Detroit Red Wings lost seven-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom to retirement after the 2011-12 season, the impact seemed obvious.
But Detroit also began the 2012-13 campaign without steady veteran Brad Stuart, who was traded to the San Jose Sharks just before he was set to become an unrestricted free agent this past summer.
It left two huge holes in the Red Wings defense corps, and Plan A for helping to fill the void, free agent Ryan Suter, ended up with the Minnesota Wild instead.
The Red Wings regrouped, and over the course of this season there has been a youth movement afoot on the team’s back end. Veterans Carlo Colaiacovo and Kent Huskins were signed to offer depth, but it was clear some young defensemen would get a chance to play.
Niklas Kronwall moved up the depth chart and embraced being the team’s new No. 1. Jonathan Ericsson has proven to be a solid partner for him.
A huge reason the Red Wings can eliminate the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks in Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals on Saturday at United Center (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, RDS) has been the play of the blue line after the all-Swede top pairing.
The group includes Kyle Quincey, Brendan Smith, Jakub Kindl and Colaiacovo.
“Well, obviously Kronwall and Ericsson, we think, are real good players and give us good stability, good matchup D,” Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. “Then after that, Quincey’s really kind of settled in, and Smith has gotten better for us this year, and Kindl has some good offensive skill and has played better. Carlo, who has been available to us pretty much all year, has played much better once [Danny] DeKeyser got hurt, and got an opportunity to go every day.
“So it’s been a work-in-progress on the back end. We struggled to move the puck early in the year and we’ve gotten better at it. If you watched us [Thursday] night in the first period you wouldn’t think we couldn’t move the puck, but we’ve done a pretty good job in this series.”
Smith, Kindl, DeKeyser and Brian Lashoff, who replaced DeKeyser at first when he was lost to a broken thumb, all qualify as NHL rookies. There were veteran options (Colaiacovo and Ian White), but Babcock has trusted the rookies and they have rewarded him.
DeKeyser was an instant hit after signing as a college free agent from Western Michigan and joining the club April 1. Smith has been one of the team’s top prospects for years and is starting to show why he’s been held in such regard.
Smith and Kindl were excellent in pressure situations around their net with the puck on their sticks in Game 4 when the Blackhawks pressed for a tying goal. Chicago was down 1-0 because Kindl scored a power-play goal midway through the second period.
Lashoff struggled a bit in two games after DeKeyser was injured in Game 2 of the first round, but Colaiacovo stepped in after being a healthy scratch and the top six has been set since.
“They’ve been great for us, really providing us some solid defense,” Kronwall said of the bottom four defensemen. “Kept it simple, making the right plays, making the right decisions out there. Played great for us so far.
“[Colaiacovo] has been great. Ever since he came in, he’s a really good puck-moving defenseman. At the same time he’s solid in our own end. He’s doing everything that’s asked of him and more. So he’s been great for us.”
Had the Red Wings landed the big fish of the offseason (Suter) this group could look completely different. This edition of the Red Wings has earned its place with plenty of resilience and improvement from the younger players and leadership from the stars who remain.
It is indicative of how the series has gone that on an off day before Game 5, the Blackhawks were answering questions about why their second defense pairing is struggling, and the Red Wings were fielding queries about the boost their depth defensemen have provided.
“This year we had a lot of injuries,” Detroit captain Henrik Zetterberg said. “A lot of guys have been in and out of the lineup. When they got the call to play they’ve been doing a good job, here in the playoffs as well. [Colaiacovo] came in and played really good for us. We need that. You need depth with your D, you need depth with your forwards. So far it’s been good.”