Predictions of the Red Wings' remarkable run of postseason appearances finally coming to an end is starting to become a rite of spring. After all, there is no shortage of reasons prognosticators love to point to: Nicklas Lidstrom's on-ice presence is gone; the Wings, now four years removed from their last conference final appearance, are in general decline; and of course the always popular "the roster is getting too old."
Despite these arguments, Detroit doesn't appear ready to take May off just yet. If there is a potential Achilles heel to point to, however, it might be Detroit's defensemen. Aside from the likely top pair of Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson, the group doesn't quite have the depth Wings fans are used to.
This is where defenseman Danny DeKeyser comes in.
At the start of last season, Detroit's defense was a minefield of questions following the departures of Lidstrom and Brad Stuart. While Jakub Kindl, Kyle Quincey and Brendan Smith managed to keep the Red Wings afloat on the back end, it wasn't until DeKeyser joined the team in the season's late stages that the defense truly stabilized.
After finishing his junior year at Western Michigan University, the Detroit native opted to sign with his hometown team. He played a total of 13 regular-season and Stanley Cup playoff games and was emerging as a key figure on the back end before a broken right thumb ended his season.
Upon his return from injury, DeKeyser helped lead Detroit's American Hockey League affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins, to the 2013 Calder Cup title.
That brief stretch was enough to impress not only the decision-makers in Detroit, but USA Hockey, which invited DeKeyser to its Olympic orientation camp this summer.
DeKeyser had proven his effectiveness in the short period before his injury, shoring up Detroit's blue line with his large frame (6-foot-3, 190 pounds) and ability to spark the transition with passes out of his end.
"He already got a taste of it last year," Kronwall told the Detroit Free Press this month. "He came in and did unbelievable. Coming in now, he knows what to expect and he knows what's expected of him. I think he's going to do really well."
Considering Detroit was one win away from eliminating the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference semifinals, one must wonder what kind of difference DeKeyser might have made against players like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Barring a sophomore slump, having DeKeyser back on defense this season could pay tremendous dividends for a team that already is strong up front and in net. If he plays like he did during his brief stay in Detroit last season, he has the potential to bring the Red Wings stability in the one area that could be perceived as a weakness.
Despite the apparent ease with which he adapted to the NHL, DeKeyser will face several obstacles in his first full pro season, like adapting to an 82-game schedule. DeKeyser never played more than 42 games in his three seasons with Western Michigan.
"I'm just going to try to take it up another notch," DeKeyser told the Detroit Free Press recently. "Just going to try to have a good season. It's a long season; 82 games will be a bit of a grind. Just have to battle through that and have a good season."
If that grind doesn't wear DeKeyser out, he could be one of Detroit's better defensemen.