The pecking order on defense was more or less set in stone at the start of the season. Nicklas Lidstrom was your number one. Brian Rafalski, Brad Stuart and Niklas Kronwall made up two through four, in whatever order you so pleased. Jonathan Ericsson was the de facto fifth defenseman, if you want to call it that. Then Ruslan Salei was the number 6 guy, with Jakub Kindl only ever getting game action when those above him on the depth chart needed time off.
But with the start of the playoffs just days away, has there been a shift in the ordering at the bottom of the depth chart? Follow along after the jump and we’ll find out!
Salei was brought in to do one thing: solidify the bottom part of the defense. In that sense, his season has been a successful one in my opinion. While he hasn’t played a lot of minutes, he’s done nearly everything asked of him.
He’s been solid on the penalty kill, and he’s added a bit of nastiness that the Red Wings tend to be short on from their blue liners. I even think his style of play has rubbed off a bit on the much younger Kindl, as he has been playing with more bite in the last third of the season than he ever did before.
In addition to all that, he’s chipped in more offense than I thought he would. His 10 points may seem like a meager contribution, but he is really not asked to do much in the offensive zone, so anything he does add is bonus.
He was firmly entrenched in his role as an every day player for the Red Wings…until he started to miss some time to be with his pregnant wife and family, who still live back in California.
On multiple occasions, the team granted him permission to miss games to attend to his family, which was a very classy move on their part. They did the same for Johan Franzen and Chris Osgood, who also became fathers this season.
However, Salei’s missed time, combined with the growth and maturation of Kindl as a player have narrowed the gap between the two on the depth chart, so much so that Salei’s position as the team’s #6 defender is now in question heading into the playoffs.
In fact, just over a week ago, coach Mike Babcock issued a challenge to both Salei and Kindl: One of you needs to step up and claim that spot.
So, has either of them done that?
Let me try to make the decision for coach Babcock right here, right now.
First of all, the case for Ruslan Salei.
The biggest plus with Salei is that you know what you are going to get, for the most part, on a night to night basis. He is pretty consistent game to game in that he never really wows you, but he never really makes you want to punch holes in your television either.
Even more so than his contributions this year, he has a familiarity with Babcock from their time together in Anaheim. In every sense of the word, Babcock knows Salei. He knows when he can put him out on the ice. He knows how long he can put him out there for each game. He knows what he can expect from him in any given scenario.
He has miles of experience on the younger Kindl. He has represented Belarus internationally for years, dating back to 1994 World Championships.
He served as captain of the Belarusian men’s Olympic team in 2010, proving his value as an on-ice and locker room leader.
Salei is what you would call a known commodity.
Kindl, on the other hand, is almost an entirely unknown asset, one whose both potential and risks are enormously high.
Babcock said earlier this week, in all of his years as a coach, he’s never had a player come so far in terms of development in one year of play, which is an amazing compliment for the 24 year old defender.
I couldn’t agree more with Babcock in this sense. I was excited for his potential at the start of the season, having followed his progress through the minor league system.
I knew we had drafted him 19th overall in 2005.
I knew he had almost made the team as a 19 year old out of training camp. I also knew that since then, he hasn’t progessed as quickly as the Wings would have liked with the Griffins.
His offensive game was always his strength, but he only ever put up 33 points in any one season in the AHL. His defensive game, which was his knock coming out of junior, was still a question mark.
At the start of the season, in the limited action he saw, I was impressed with his on-ice intelligence.
At the same time, he made some decisions with and without the puck that made me shake my head in frustration. Add to that the fact that he was not doing anything offensively for the team, and it was understandable that he spent most nights in the press box.
Then, when the injuries started to mount, first Brad Stuart with the broken jaw, then Rafalski with his various ailments, and finally Kronwall with his upper body injury, Kindl got into more and more games, and finally started to develop a groove.
I have been so impressed with the transformation in his game from Game 1 to Game 82. He looks like a completely different player on the ice. He has developed some snarl, and is using his big frame to his advantage defensively.
He looks more competent with the puck, and is less prone to backbreaking mistakes.
He has been so good lately that he has even made Salei a healthy scratch on two occasions, towards the end of March.
So with the job on the line in the last 5 games with Niklas Kronwall out, did he do enough to overcome Salei’s steady dependability?
Sadly, I think not.
The telling statistic for me is that Sunday afternoon, he played a mere 7:17, second last on the team to only Mike Modano’s 6:30.
Salei, on the other hand, played nearly double that at 14:15.
Since they’ve been playing primarily on the same even strength pairing, the disparity in their time on ice comes from the fact that Salei also plays the penalty kill, in addition to even strength. Kindl, usually, does not.
Ruslan Salei was brought in on a one year deal, and I believe strongly that he was brought in more for the post-season than for the 82 game lead-up to it. His grit, toughness and tenacity is why Babcock lobbied for him and the Wings ultimately signed him, and that will show up more in a 7 game playoff series than a marathon regular season.
While Babcock did issue the statement that the 6th spot was up for grabs, I think that may have been a bit of gamesmanship on his part. He was giving Salei a bit of a kick in the pants, letting him know that he couldn’t get complacent and still needed to remember why he came here.
He was also giving Kindl some praise and encouragement, throwing him a bone for the progress he’s made, telling him, “look kid, you’ve done well, and you’re going to be a part of our future”.
I strongly believe Kindl will be in the top 6 next season, on a full time basis, instead of as an injury replacement.
Salei, on the other hand, is likely on his victory lap. I strongly believe that no matter the outcome of the Wings playoff run, Salei will be hanging them up this summer and rejoining his family on the West coast. It surely has been difficult living away from them the past several seasons with the Wings, Avalanche and Panthers.
Kindl, who is one of four defensemen the Wings have signed already for next season, will be around for a while. The fact that he is not going to be in the Wings top 6 on Wednesday night when they open up the playoffs against Phoenix should not discourage him and shouldn’t take away from the tremendous strides he’s made this year.
I simply believe it is going to come down to the fact that in the playoffs, experience usually trumps youth and exuberance.
I could be wrong entirely, but I truly believe that Ruslan Salei will be in the lineup on Wednesday night, and Jakub Kindl will not.
Do you agree or disagree with me? Let’s discuss it in the comment section!