Has Niklas Kronwall filled the big shoes that were left by Nicklas Lidström? That is a loaded question if there ever was one. Who in their right mind expect anyone to come in and start playing the game at the same level as the great number five did? I don’t expect that many fans or media would have and that is okay, because I do not have to explain to you how good Nicklas Lidström was.
We must remember though that Lidstrom wasn’t always a perennial Norris winner. The younger Nicklas Lidström had been playing second string for quite sometime and there were tons of Detroit Red Wing fans who were highly critical of him and his defensive ability in the mid-90s. Similarly, Kronwall did not come into this year with a solid stamp of approval from most fans and probably most pundits as well. Sure, he was known as a good second pairing defenceman in the past, but this season he was expected to carry a heavy load and most doubted he could handle it especially with the worst defensive core in years for the Wings.
So, how has he fared?
Well, he is currently rocking a minus five rating and has not been as solid defensively as most would like. He sometimes gets caught out of the position; and a prime example of this was on the game winning goal by Anze Kopitar few days ago. The hard hitting defensemen has not laid out any serious punishment either as we all are patiently waiting for another big hit from him. The overall defensive unit has struggled a bit too as the Wings are 11th in goals against in the Western Conference. So there are lots of things to complain about his game and nit pick here and there.
But despite all that this man has been on a god damn tear offensively. He has started to shoot a bit more on the PP and is quarterbacking it with confidence. He has 17 points in 21 games and leads all defensemen in that category. These are Erik Karlsson numbers we are talking about here as he is currently on pace for 39 points in 48 games. The Wings powerplay that was struggling early in the year has come to life, and Kronwall’s play at the point has been a huge reason why.
Going forward, what do the Red Wings need from him to continue to be successful? Leadership and more shots on net. Is that it? Well, no… but those are the two most important factors he’s bringing right now. Going forward though he will need to lead the defensive corps in the way Lidstrom did both on and off the ice. I know it is hard to be compared to the perfect human being, but nevertheless Kronwall needs to be an example of what to do and what not to do to younger defenders such as Jakub Kindl, Brendan Smith and Brian Lashoff along with the prospects Detroit will bring up in the coming years. He has to understand that now there is a group of young defenseman that are looking at him for not only guidance but for examples of his work ethic and we all know that work ethic is contagious.
Shooting the puck is a must. He has a very underrated shot in my humble opinion. It is a fierce weapon on the power-play and hopefully Detroit loads it up as often as possible. Some say that Lidström was cheating all of those years with Holmstrom in front of the net, but I think we can find Franzen and Cleary to be fairly effective in this area as well. Making a good first pass, and moving the puck and getting it out of his own zone is also key for Kronwall, and the Wings.
Let’s be honest, right now he is not the Norris favorite. However, it is not too far fetched nor too soon to anticipate him being in the discussion at season’s end if he stays healthy. The minutes and talent are there now and so is the opportunity. He has more points right now than Kris Letang, the guy who is playing with Crosby/Malkin/Neal combo, and while Kevin Shattenkirk and Brian Campbell can also make a run at leading the league in points by a defender, I can see a possibility for the Norris Trophy returning to Detroit this year. To do this though, Kronwall must improve his defensive play, as strong two way defenders like Zdeno Chara will continue to be in the mix for the award.
Pressure is building in the West and you can no longer just buy players to stay the best each year, the competition is tougher than ever and your best players need to be at their best every single night in this shortened season. Kronwall in my eyes has been good for the Wings on a majority of nights and Detroit fans should be thrilled with his play so far. Many may disagree with me, but they need to realize that he is not nor will ever be Nicklas Lidström number 5. He is however becoming a great defenseman in his own right and going forward he will be creating a new stamp on Detroit’s history as Niklas Kronwall number 55.