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Jumbling the defense

by Michael Caples / Detroit Red Wings
DETROIT – When Brad Stuart came to the Red Wings in 2008, he had already played seven NHL seasons. But even he felt a little nervous the first time he played next to Nicklas Lidstrom.

“When I first got here, there was a game, I think it was in Columbus, where I played with him,” Stuart said of playing with the six-time Norris Trophy winner. “I don’t know what it was, I guess you feel a little bit more pressure, it’s hard to explain. I’m over it now, but at first…”

It’s a good thing that Stuart is over it now; he’s been paired up with the Wings’ captain once again. Coach Mike Babcock confirmed that the forward lines will stay intact Thursday when the Wings host Phoenix, but the defensive pairings have been shuffle with the injuries to Brian Rafalski and Jonathan Ericsson.

“The game plan coming out of training camp hasn’t worked out so well,” Stuart said, “but that’s the way it is. You get injuries, things happen, so you have to have the ability to change it up.”

Babcock said the Wings have been fortunate to only lose Justin Abdelkader up front, which has allowed him to keep the forward units together for the first month of the season.

“Obviously you’re getting to see a lot of things,” Babcock said about the pairings variations. “We haven’t had that with the forwards. We’ve been real fortunate that they’ve all been healthy, with the exception of Abby, who’s just coming back. So here we are, over the year there’s going to be lots of combinations on ‘D’, and up front, and we just have to find a way to make it all work.”

When asked about how players adapt to playing with superstars like Lidstrom, Babcock said that there is a learning curve.

“I think so for sure,” he said. “During the morning skate today, Abby went with (Henrik Zetterberg) twice and (Pavel Datsyuk) once, and Abby didn’t even think about taking a shot the whole time, didn’t matter if the guy was covered, he passed it to him. Why do you think that is? It’s not because they’re telling him to do that, that’s just the way it goes. ‘I’m supposed to give it to them’. That’s all part of becoming a good pro and figuring it all out.”

Stuart said that players feel added pressure to perform at their highest level when they are playing next to a player of Lidstrom’s stature.

“I guess you feel like there’s this expectation where you have to have the game of your life or else he’s going to be disappointed in you,” Stuart said. “That’s not the case, but that’s kind of how you feel when you first start.”

Babcock said he isn’t concerned about anyone who would be paired with the Wings’ captain.

“Well we haven’t had any trouble with anybody who’s played with Nick, ever,” Babcock said. “I don’t think that’s any surprise. But (Stuart) gives him a physical guy who can match-up and go get pucks for him, get over and make plays. It’s been good. I don’t know if that’s our best group when we get our six together that we envisioned playing at the start of the year, but it’s been a good pair for us at this point.”

When asked about what the pairings would be once all the defensemen are healthy, Babcock said he would like to pair Stuart with Rafalski, but he just has to work with who’s ready to play.

“I’m hoping to put him with Rafalski, but we’ll see,” Babcock said. “This fantasy we all have about when everyone’s healthy, it doesn’t really happen, so we’ll just keep plugging.”

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