Dan DeKeyser handling NHL learning curve

A month ago, Dan DeKeyser was patrolling the blue-line for Western Michigan. Since then, he has made a seamless transition to the NHL and is playing key minutes in the Stanley Cup playoffs, writes's Doug Harrison.

D-man playing key role with Red Wings' other 'kids'

Former Western Michigan standout defenceman Danny DeKeyser, left, has made a seamless transition to the NHL with the Red Wings. In 11 regular-season games, he collected an assist, posted a plus-4 rating and averaged 18 minutes two seconds of ice time. (Harry How/Getty Images)

A few words of advice from Ken Holland has the future of the Detroit Red Wings defence looking bright and enhanced the team’s chances of a deep run in these Stanley Cup playoffs.

A year ago, with Nicklas Lidstrom leaning towards retirement and fellow defenceman Brad Stuart preferring to be with his family in San Jose, the longtime Red Wings general manager expressed an interest in undrafted college blue-liner Dan DeKeyser.

The more they talked, Holland believed it would be in the player’s best interest to return for his junior season at Western Michigan, even though many of the NHL’s 29 other teams were courting DeKeyser.

The six-foot-three, 200-pound rearguard listened, posted 15 points in 35 games this season for the Broncos and was named defenceman of the year in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.

Soon after, the Red Wings reportedly beat out at least six other NHL clubs to sign the 23-year-old Michigan native to a two-year entry-level contract.

"We feel he can turn into a good shut-down defenceman," Holland told reporters in late March.

DeKeyser wasted little time delivering on that promise and has made a seamless transition to the NHL. In 11 regular-season games in April, he collected an assist, posted a plus-4 rating and averaged 18 minutes two seconds of ice time. 

Not bad for someone who was playing college hockey a month ago.

‘Great addition’

"He’s been a great addition to our team and [Red Wings head coach] Mike Babcock has given him a lot of responsibility, and he’s run with it," Holland said.

"To think we could be in a playoff race and be playing playoff-type games on a night-to-night basis and he could step in the lineup and be on the penalty kill, power play, play regular shifts, play in our top four … is pretty incredible."

With a playoff berth far from guaranteed entering the final week of the season, DeKeyser stepped up and played 18 minutes a night, posting a plus-3 rating in four straight wins as the Red Wings claimed the seventh seed in the Western Conference.

"Because he’s got attention to detail defensively," Holland said, "Mike Babcock continues to put him on the ice and then from there, it’s confidence. Once you start getting put in important situations you start to believe you can play in the league and I think that’s what’s happened to Dan DeKeyser."

Babcock, who guided Detroit to a Stanley Cup title in 2008 and the Cup final the following season, had seen DeKeyser play six to eight times in college and liked his game.

Holland did as well, describing DeKeyser as a tremendous skater with an ability to skate laterally that enables him to skate at and above the pace of games at the NHL level.

"He’s a great defensive defenceman and that’s the part of the game he’s most comfortable at," said Holland. "That’s also the part of the game the coach cares the most about for young players, other than those that can come in and be candidates for rookie scoring titles."

The Red Wings had questions on the blue-line at the start of the season after Lidstrom retired, Stuart was traded to San Jose and Carlo Colaiacovo, Jakub Kindle and Brendan Smith were placed on injured reserve in the first three weeks.

Full-time role

The concerns didn’t subside as injuries continued to mount, but it afforded Kindl and Smith, once healthy, a chance to display their talents in a full-time role.

Smith, 24 had played 14 games in the 2011-12 campaign and 34 contests a year ago while Kindl’s ice time was also limited the previous two seasons with the experienced Brian Rafalski, Lidstrom and Stuart on board.

Holland praised Babcock for his patience and putting young players in important situations.

"I’ve seen him work with young players. I’ve seen him work with older teams. He’s a guy that’s coached twenty-plus years of hockey," Holland said. "I like experience.

"As you move in young people there’s a learning curve, but Mike was steady on the rudder. We wanted to qualify for the playoffs because that’s why you play hockey but at the same time, we’re trying to transition our team so that we don’t have to go into a massive rebuild."

While Kindl and Smith flourished this season they, like DeKeyser, had never skated in a Stanley Cup playoff game. But the trio suited up on Tuesday in Game 1 of a Western Conference quarter-final at Anaheim, with each playing more than 17 minutes in a 3-1 loss, while healthy veterans Ian White and Colaiacovo sat in the press box wondering when they might return to game action.

"This is Jakub Kindl’s third year in Detroit, so even though he [hadn’t] played a playoff game, he’s been here," said Holland. "He’s been through our [conference quarter-final] series last year with Nashville. He’s been here through [West quarter-finals and semifinals] with Phoenix and San Jose [in 2011].

"Brendan Smith has been in the American league for two-and-a-half seasons and [in Detroit] also. I think there’s a difference between a 19-year-old rookie and a 23-year-old rookie.

"They’ve got some miles on them," said Holland. "They don’t have NHL playoff games but either lots of college or pro games. On one hand, they are kids but on the other hand, they’re not quite the kids you think of when you think of kids."

Should Babcock need to make a change on defence this post-season, established professionals are next in line.

"The kids have done the job, or they wouldn’t be in the lineup," said Holland.