We begin with this gem from Bruce MacLeod:
Rookie defenseman Jonathan Ericsson was assigned to Grand Rapids after a seven-game stay in the NHL. Ericsson was moved so that he'd get ice time. With Brian Rafalski and Nicklas Lidstrom back, there was no spot for him in the lineup. Coach Mike Babcock said that he considers Ericsson an NHL player right now, one that he would put in the lineup without hesitation.(Bold is mine.) Ericsson's re-assignment was no surprise since, even if he has out-played several of the Wings current D, he has no playoff experience and is unlikely to hurdle Brett Lebda and Andreas Lilja for the last D spot. However, Babcock's comment on Ericsson gives us plenty of fuel for speculation. First of all, is he ahead of Meech on the depth chart? Let's assume Nick, Raffy, Stuart, Kronner, Cheli, Lils, and Lebda are the top 7, regardless of who's #6. Ericsson got PT ahead of Meech a number of times during his call-up, despite Meech displaying a lot of game and surprising a lot of folks, most especially his game against Edmonton. It's no surprise Mike Babcock loves size, but not that much (remember Cory Cross vs Brett Lebda? I believe Brett won that particular competition.)
Ideally, we'll never find out who's #8 on the depth chart, because ideally we'll never get there. A much more interesting question is the #6 slot: will it be the physical, shot blocking, PKing but occasionally boneheaded Lilja? Or Lebda, who is much safer but brings pretty much nothing to the table (no offense, doesn't PK, not physical, doesn't drop the gloves, etc)? My guess? I'm going with Lilja, but methinks that come playoff time, the only minutes he'll get will be on the PK. Why?
There are two D-men on the ice at all times, and 60 minutes in a game. That means, 120 minutes of TOI between six defensemen. Lids will eat 30. Let's say 30 for Kronner. He PKs, he QBs the PP (albeit the second unit of both teams) and of course is a monster at even strength. The Wings will pair him with Lidstrom on the road in order to avoid having a non-physical/non-physical pair of Lids and Raffy. So between the Ni(c)ks, that's 60 minutes right there. Rafalski, Chelios, and Stuart are all obviously capable of big-time minutes as well, each in the 20s at least. I've argued that in the playoffs, Chelios is due for a bump-up in PT, after what he showed last year in the postseason after Schneids and Kronner went down.
Given their depth, the Wings probably will end up not playing Lids and Kronner 30 each just because they can afford not to. But my point is, their depth also affords them to not play their 6th D very much at all. So if you're not getting a lot of minutes, who do you go with, Lilja or Lebs? Well Lilja can pitch in on PK, whereas Lebda can't - Lilja can be physical, Lebda can't. Lilja blocks shots more than Lebda, and shot blocking in the playoffs is critical. My point is, Lilja makes for a better specialist than Lebda, even if Lebda is overall a safer D-man.
As for next season, Lilja's been offered a two-year deal, but that was ages ago and we haven't heard anything on that front in a while. Return to the quote from Babcock. He says Ericsson's NHL ready. Meech is under contract next year. Neither he nor Quincey can't be returned to the minors. Without Ericsson, and assuming Lilja and Stuart both jet in FA, you've already got a full boat with 7 defensemen. So my guess is Holland is backing off his plan of bringing back Lilja, for two reasons: Kronner's emergence as a star, and Ericsson's as an NHLer. I'm going to make a bold prediction right now, now that it's obvious: Ericsson is going to Filppula his way onto the roster. The question is, who else is on the blueline next year?
Lebda, Meech, Quincey, Ericsson
I've said it before, but for as solid and dependable as Brett Lebda is, he has little future with the Wings. This was the reasoning I used to say that they should trade the guy at the deadline, although I'm glad they didn't because I like having 7 playoff tested D going in to the postseason. But if Ericsson does force his way on to the roster, the Wings will have to move at least one D if they don't want to carry eight. And Lebda - he's got Ericsson, Meech, and Quincey on his back, to say nothing of the more distant Jakub Kindl and Brendan Smith. And Rafalski, Kronwall, and even Chelios and Lidstrom won't be making room on the roster any time soon. I don't see how he can possibly survive to get a contract extension.
I would've said dump Meech until I saw what the kid could do - I thought of him as a Lebda clone, but as demonstrated during the injury high-tide, dude's got skills. He worked the PP, jumped up in the rush, made solid passes, and altogether showed himself to be more offensively competent than Lebda. Don't let his speed fool you, Lebda is far from an offensive-defenseman. His goal against Minnesota to win it was a tantalizing taste of what that speed can do, but we've actually seen it pay off only a few times.
So here's my guess: Lebda gets dealt, Ericsson skips the Chris Chelios School For Defensemen and jumps right into the Top 4. It's a bit of a stretch, and if that indeed happens the Wings will be chomping at the bit to pick up a playoff tested D or two at the deadline. Then you've got Meech and Quincey platooning the #6 spot.
It's a very green defense, and another possibility might be to bring back Lilja or Stuart on a one-year deal, or sign a veteran FA in the offseason. Then you either give Ericsson another year in the AHL, or you put him at #6 and have Meech and Quincey ride the pines all season. But honestly I like my Ericsson-at-#4 scenario a lot better. Why? Because I fucking love Jonathon Ericsson guys. I can't wait until the Wings monopolize the Calder race next year, between him and Fabian Brunnstrom.
Anyway, enough dreaming. Hasek's looking sharp, the D is generating offense once again, and best yet, secondary scoring is picking up as Franzen and Hudler both showed last night. Chelios is ready to step in. The only question is: how quickly can Dan Cleary return to his epic-beard-growing, penalty-shot-scoring, Dion-Phaneuf-crushing, balls-to-the-wall, playoff-fucking-animal form? My hope: soon.
-Given that top lines/pairs play disproportionately more in the playoffs, whoever does win the #6 D spot won't be playing that much anyway
-I like Lilja to win it, not because he's a genius or anything, but because he's better at hurting people and killing penalties
-Look out for Jonathon Ericsson. I think he'll Filppula his way on to the roster ahead of Meech and Quincey, and be the #4 D next year
-That means at least one of Lebda, Meech, or Quincey will be traded or cut (my guess: Lebda)