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GM Holland has blue print for Red Wings' defense

by Brian Hedger

DETROIT -- When Nicklas Lidstrom speaks, young defensemen listen.

That's why Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland used the "Nicklas Listrom card" when making a sales pitch to coveted 23-year old college free-agent defenseman Dan DeKeyser.

Holland just handed the phone to Lidstrom, the retired Red Wings captain and defenseman who now lives in Sweden but happened to be visiting Detroit with his family to start a vacation.

DeKeyser, who grew up a Red Wings fan in the Detroit suburb Macomb, couldn't believe it.

"He just told me about the organization and how special of a place it is to play," said DeKeyser, who went through his first NHL practice Saturday afternoon with Lidstrom watching from the bench. "They have a great management team and a locker room full of great guys. He said it would be a fun place to play, so I took his word for it."


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If DeKeyser pans out the way most who've scouted him think he will, it might turn out to be one of the best recruiting tactics Holland has ever utilized. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound former Western Michigan University player still has plenty of room to add bulk to his frame, but there is a lot to like from the outset.

His legs and strides, like his hair, are long, and his defensive abilities are advanced. Some who watched him extensively in college also say DeKeyser has underrated offensive ability. Lidstrom, for one, liked what he saw on Saturday, even if it was just one practice.

"He's a very good skater," said Lidstrom, who also helps the Red Wings as a scout in Sweden. "He looked confident out there. I'm sure he was nervous on the inside coming out and skating for the first time with the guys. He looked confident … … looks like he's a good puck-moving defenseman."

DeKeyser, who went undrafted out of high school and developed into a top-level prospect at Western Michigan, also looks like several other young Red Wings blueliners. Holland has stockpiled defense prospects over the past few years and it's paying off after the losses of Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski (retired) and Brad Stuart (free agent).

Holland's arsenal of young talent, from the NHL level to the junior ranks, isn't limited to the crop that's on the Red Wings (see sidebar). That means DeKeyser isn't stepping into the storied organization with the intense scrutiny of being "Lidstrom's replacement," or other out-sized expectations.

He's just another highly talented, valuable piece for a team hoping to "replace" Lidstrom by loading up with quality depth on the blue line.

Currently playing well for the Red Wings heading into Sunday's game against the Chicago Blackhawks (NBC, 12:30 p.m. ET) are 23-year old rookie Brian Lashoff, 24-year old rookie Brendan Smith, and 26-year old Jakub Kindl, who's finally developing into a plus player after some career turbulence.

Holland said DeKeyser likely will stay with the Red Wings once his contract is approved by the League. Detroit also has 27-year old Kyle Quincey working his way back from a facial fracture in the next two weeks. That's not to mention top defenseman Niklas Kronwall is 32, and his partner on the top pairing, Jonathan Ericsson, is 29.

Stocking the Wings' cabinet

In addition to incorporating younger defensemen onto the NHL roster, the Detroit Red Wings front office has built up the blue line at the lower levels of the organization.

Among a number of defensemen drafted by Detroit the past few years, general manager Ken Holland singled out the following young players for their development curves (listed alphabetically):

- 20-year old Mattias Backman (No. 146,) of MG/Arvidsjaur in the Swedish Elite League.

- 22-year old Nick Jensen (No. 150, 2009) of St. Cloud State, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's Defenseman of the Year.

- 21-year old Alexei Marchenko (No. 205, 2011) of the Kontinental Hockey League's CSKA Moskva.

- 19-year old Xavier Ouellet (No. 48, 2011), who's having a great season for the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

- 20-year old Ryan Sproul (No. 55, 2011) of the Ontario Hockey League's Sault St. Marie Greyhounds, one of the OHL's top scoring defensemen.

-- Brian Hedger

"I think it looks pretty good for us in the future," Kronwall said. "You can't [replace] guys like Lidstrom. He's one of a kind. What we can do is try to get as much depth as possible and do it together instead."

The Red Wings also signed 30-year old Carlo Colaiacovo last summer as a free agent, and after a lingering shoulder injury, he's working his way back on a conditioning assignment with Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League.

"I think it's always a priority to have good defense," Holland said. "Obviously we've had a guy [Lidstrom] who was a cornerstone for 20 years and we knew we had to overhaul. I think we're in a good position because we've got a lot of competition. We're going to have to make some decisions on defense heading into the summer, but the young kids have really stated a case and allowed us to have some depth."

DeKeyser enters that mix after carefully assessing the situation in Detroit with his agent.

"I just looked at what some of the best places would be for me to play and what they had on the blue line and where I would fit in," DeKeyser said. "Here there are quite a few young guys and a good group of veterans. I thought it would be a good fit for me. They have [Smith], [Kindl] and other guys that are good players and will be around for a while, so I thought it would be something to be a part of that, as well."

In other words, Detroit's' future looks bright on the back end, with a group of players and prospects that features big bodies, good skating, puck-moving ability and more grit than usual for the Red Wings.

"Me, [Smith] and Kindl all played together in Grand Rapids a little bit and have known each other for a while now," said Lashoff, whom Holland quickly signed to a contract extension after he started playing regularly. "It's good to be together from the start and just grow into something big. Obviously to get [DeKeyser] here is huge. From what I've heard he's a really good player and that will also be good for us going forward."

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