There are a lot of questions on the Wings’ blue line as season begins

DETROIT – The Wings’ blue line has taken quite a hit over these last two seasons.

First, Brian Rafalski called it quits. Then, Nicklas Lidstrom retired and Brad Stuart was traded.

That’s three top four defensemen gone in a short amount of time.

“I think everyone has a lot of question marks about it,” Wings goalie Jimmy Howard said Thursday after practicing at Joe Louis Arena. “But there’s no slouches back there, that’s for sure. You can’t replace Nick, and Stewie’s a tough one to replace, especially what he brought to the defensive side of the puck and the (penalty kill), the way he’d lay his body on the line, but we got a lot of guys back there willing to do that as well. It gives the guys an opportunity to step up and take advantage of a role they might not have had.”

Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson and Ian White, who was brought in to replace Rafalski, are the known commodities on defense.

All three benefited from having a seven-time Norris Trophy winner out there with them.

“No doubt we’re going to miss Nick and Stewie,” Jonathan Ericsson said. “There’s no one in here that’s going to be able to take (Lidstrom’s) place. All of us together have to take another step in our game, try to contribute the best way we can to fill the spots we missed. On the power play, Lidstrom’s going to be missed, so Kronner has to take another step.”

The Wings are hoping Ericsson’s game continues to get better as it did towards the end of last season.

“Stewie was a huge player in the penalty kill,” Ericsson said. “We’ve got some new guys and myself, too, we have to take another step.

“I look forward to (the challenge),” Ericsson continued. “I’ve been paired with Nick in a few playoff games, playing against top lines. I always felt that was a fun, challenging experience. It gives you a little extra to go out there and stop the best players on the other team.”

Ericsson is slated to be paired with Kronwall, who had been with Stuart.

“He’s been really good for us,” Ericsson said of Kronwall. “I have all the faith in the world in Kronner that he’s going to be even better for us. We worked well when we were paired together, both on the penalty kill and five-on-five.”

Kronwall won’t replace Lidstrom, but he will take over as the leader on the blue line for this group.

“For Nik, the biggest thing is not overdo it, don’t feel like you got to put the whole world on the back of your shoulders and go out there and be something you’re not,” Howard said. “Nick is really good using his instincts out there, making that first pass out of the zone, or whether it’s as a big body-checker jumping up in the play. He reads the plays really well, he’s got great hockey sense. If he just plays within himself he’ll be fine.”

Kyle Quincey’s return to Detroit after he was acquired at the trade deadline last season wasn’t a smooth one.

Add rookie Brendan Smith, free-agent signee Carlo Colaiacovo and Jakub Kindl, who has yet to find a regular spot in the lineup, and that’s the Wings’ seven defensemen they will start the season with.

“There’s going to be a lot more minutes,” Smith said. “(Lidstrom) played in all positions – power-play, penalty kill, even strength, four-on-four. Whatever it was, he dominated.

“We’ve just got to come in and play well as a unit and that will take care of itself there,” Smith added. “You can’t replace a guy like Nick Lidstrom. Nobody in the NHL can. We’ve just got to go out as a D corps and do the best we can do and be productive in that sense.”

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