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X-Factor: Ericsson now quite relevant for Red Wings

by Brian Hedger

DETROIT -- Jonathan Ericsson is another one of those Detroit Red Wings who make people marvel at the team's European scouting system.

The 28-year old defenseman, who signed a three-year contract extension this past summer to stay in Detroit, was selected in the ninth round (No. 291) of the 2002 NHL Draft. By the way, that also happened to be the last pick in that draft. The NHL Draft has since been shortened to seven rounds.

The NFL would've labeled Ericsson "Mr. Irrelevant" and mockingly honored him with all kinds of fun gift packages. The 6-foot-4, 221-pound Ericsson, however, just began his journey to the NHL in relative obscurity.

The imposing Swedish defenseman now finds himself anything but irrelevant as the Red Wings prepare for their 21st straight Stanley Cup Playoffs. After Ericsson and a number of his teammates returned from costly late-season injuries, people learned just how important "Big E" has become to Detroit's blue line.

"We think [Ericsson's] really come on," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said this past week. "I think the appreciation for Jonathan Ericsson went through the roof when we lost everybody. When 'Big E' wasn't there, our penalty killing wasn't even close. Since he's [gotten] back, we seem to be back on track."

It's not that cut and dry, of course.

Detroit also lost starting goalie Jimmy Howard to a nagging groin injury for four straight games down the stretch and also had penalty-killing speed demon Darren Helm leave the lineup on March 17 with a partially-torn MCL in his left knee.

Howard has returned and Helm is still recovering, but there is no denying the correlation Babcock made between Ericsson and the improved penalty killing. In the first five contests since he returned from a fractured wrist that cost him 13 games, Detroit didn't allow a single power-play goal in 15 chances.

Ericsson's also been shifting to the top pairing with countryman and legend Nicklas Lidstrom -- who missed 11 straight games himself with a deep bone bruise in his ankle that happened in the same game during which Ericsson was injured.

Prior to the injuries, Ericsson had been a staple on the third pairing, while Lidstrom was working with free-agent acquisition Ian White on the top pair.

As a result, Ericsson's offensive numbers don't really pop. His skating and ability to move the puck, however, have improved to the point where his size is now a bigger factor.

"It's not a decision that's necessarily long-term," Babcock said in discussing the pairing of Ericsson and Lidstrom. "It's a decision so I could see it. When I started the year, that's where I thought [Ericsson] was going to play. I didn't know Ian White was this good. So, what happened is [White] and Nick got playing so good, I never got [around] to it."

After White fell into a rotation of guys on the back end being rotated into the lineup down the stretch, it allowed Babcock to put the two Swedes together as a pair; which Ericsson has enjoyed.

"All of our [defensemen] are trying to have the same mentality out there … don't throw away the puck too much," said Ericsson, who's grown in that area quite a bit in his third full NHL season. "Nick does everything so well and creates time for you. I'm not nervous at all. It's just an honor to play with him and try to embrace that as a challenge of playing against other teams' top lines.''

Babcock said it's actually a bit of a two-way street when it comes to the benefits of the physically-imposing Ericsson playing alongside the more skill-minded Lidstrom, who is a master of anticipation and playing the angles.

"I would also tell you it can help [Lidstrom] to play with a big body, too," he said. "There's some give and take there. That's why they're called partners."

Babcock might opt to break them up again just as quickly, but Ericsson's increased role and importance isn't likely to change in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. If anything, he becomes even more important when facing opposing forwards that require some muscle to defend.

"I like [Ericsson], he’s big," Babcock said. "His size helps out. A lot of the teams we play, some of their top players are huge men. He’s a big man who doesn’t get bounced around. His confidence is at a high level."

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