December 22nd, 2017
Wings’ defense corps, including and especially
whipping boy Ericsson, deserve some kudos
By KEITH GAVE
Time to set the record straight, proffer credit where it’s due and serve up any other cliché that fits: Jonathan Ericsson – the big defenseman Red Wings fans love to hate – has been his team’s best and most consistent player this season.
Sports fans love to crowd-source their derision, and Detroit fans are no different. We’ve seen it unfold in recent years with Brandon Inge, the Tigers’ erstwhile third baseman/utility man, and Jeff Backus, the Lions’ big left tackle for 12 mostly miserable years.
No matter what he did, Inge couldn’t seem to sustain much love from Tigers fans. He couldn’t do anything right, they said. And they were pretty much correct after Inge hit 21 home runs by the All-Star break, got shut out in the Home Run Derby event and seemed to lose his stroke at the plate. He finished with 27 homers, and his playing time began to diminish.
Every time a Lions quarterback got sacked, no matter who broke down on the offensive line, Backus took the blame. Truth is, Backus was a rock at his position, missing just one start – in his final season – in 192 two games, and the Lions missed him terribly after he was gone.
Now comes Ericsson, the stalwart Swedish defenseman in his 11th season with the Wings. Oh, how the fans seemed to love the kid when, in his first full season with the Wings, he scored four even-strength goals among eight points, finishing plus-9 with 25 penalty minutes (note the odd number, which means gloves might have been dropped) in 22 playoffs games as the Wings came within a goal of repeating as Stanley Cup champions in 2009.
Since then, the Wings have been a team in transition. Superstar defensemen like captain Nick Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski retired in successive seasons. More recently, Hall-of-Famer-in-waiting Pavel Datsyuk left to finish his career in Russia. The result was predictable for a team drafting at the wrong end of the first round for more than a generation: The Wings began to descend in the standings; their 25-year tradition of advancing to the Stanley Cup playoffs ended; and they’ve become a team that now ranks among the bottom-feeders in the NHL.
And it’s all Jonathan Ericsson’s fault. Just ask the fans. The stupid ones who only know enough to parrot what they hear from the so-called experts in sports-talk shows.
It’s far, far too early to proclaim a turnaround in this mostly dreadful season. That stretch of 10 losses in 11 games, climaxed by the humiliating 10-1 loss at Montreal on Dec. 2, was the worst I’ve witnessed from this franchise since they lost 57 games and finished with just 40 points and finished 21st in a 21-team league in 1985-86.
But since that embarrassment in Montreal, the Wings are 3-2-2. And even losing as they did, 4-3, Wednesday in Philadelphia, their second game in as many nights, they looked like a different team – one that was willing to compete.
I won’t go so far as to say Ericsson is the reason for this recent run. But he’s a big part of it. Consider that in their first 31 games this season, the Wings got a combined total of five goals from their defenseman. In the past three games, including victories at Toronto and Brooklyn against the Islanders, their D have contributed five more.
Danny DeKeyser and Trevor Daley each scored their scored his first goals of the season in a 3-1 win over the Leafs. Daley scored again, with Mike Green, in the 6-3 win in New York. And Green scored again, his fourth, the next night against the Flyers.
But Ericsson contributed too. He earned an assist with a brilliant pass through traffic across the crease from the side boards on the opening goal by rookie Martin Frk. That goal evened the score early in the first period and gave the Wings some much-needed mojo. Ericsson also led the Wings that night with four hits and two blocked shots. He finished the game plus-four.
Ericsson is the only Wings regular on the plus side of the ledger on a team with a minus-15 goal differential.
In rather dramatic fashion, we’ve seen what this team is capable of doing when the much-maligned blue-line unit gets involved in the offense, and when it doesn’t. It’s probably unfair to think it can continue like this consistently. Seriously, when Ericsson – as quietly good as he has been – qualifies as the closest candidate you have to being a No. 1 defenseman, you’re in trouble.
Fans in Detroit surely know that. They’ve seen what can happen when you have a defense group consisting of Lidstrom, Rafalski, Nick Kronwall and Brad Stuart, as they did in 2008. Or Lidstrom, Vladimir Konstantinov, Larry Murphy and Slava Fetisov in 1997. You win Stanley Cups.
Any rebuild of this roster – and make no mistake: despite what GM Ken Holland is saying, this team is in the early stages of a major reboot – begins on the blue line. But one thing we know for sure is that at age 33, Jonathan Ericsson is one of the guys they can build around.
He’s not the problem. He’s part of the solution. Give the guy some props.
Detroit Lions (8-6) vs. Cincinnati Bengals (5-9)
1 p.m., Sunday
At Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio
TV/Radio: FOX; WQON-FM (100.3)
Line: Lions minus-4½
This should be a fairly entertaining game. Since neither team can run the ball effectively – these are the worst two rushing teams in the NFL – the ball should be in the air a lot. And that favors Matt Stafford and the Lions. With Andy Dalton under center, the Bengals are the worst offensive team in the league. Detroit needs to win to keep its flickering playoff hopes alive. It will.
Prediction: Lions 23, Bengals 16