DETROIT – With the sudden retirement of Brian Rafalski and the Wings’ not wanting to bring back Ruslan Salei, defenseman Jakub Kindl just kept moving up the depth chart this offseason.
Then, Detroit began spending money prior to and during free agency.
First, the Wings re-signed Jonathan Ericsson (three years at $3.25 million a season) before he was able to test free agency.
Then, Ian White signed a two-year deal at $2.875 million a season.
Finally, Mike Commodore was added to the depth along the blue line, inking a one-year deal worth an even one million.
Kindl, who just completed his first full season in the NHL, looks as if he’ll once again be battling for ice time.
“I was really shocked when Raffi retired, I’m not going to lie,” Kindl said. “He had one-year left and he could still play. I didn’t expect that at all.
“I looked at that as an opportunity for me to play more in more situations for more minutes,” Kindl added. “I’m a year older with one more year of experience.”
Kindl, who has two years left on a deal that’s paying him $833,333 a year, was unable to beat out Salei in training camp and therefore found himself as the Wings’ seventh defenseman.
And Kindl didn’t exactly excel during his start to his seven games of the season. He was a minus-6.
He wound up appearing in 48 regular season games due to long-term injuries suffered by Rafalski and Brad Stuart. He had one goal and four assists and finished a minus-6, averaging just under 14 minutes of ice time.
As the season drew to the playoffs, Kindl did find himself in a battle with Salei for the sixth spot on defense which was eventually given to the veteran defenseman.
“I’m really looking forward to this season,” Kindl said. “Last year was a good experience and a huge challenge for me.”
Kindl, 24, was projected to be a highly skilled, puck-moving top-four defenseman when the Wings selected him 19th overall in 2005.
“The challenge for him is to find the confidence to be an NHL player,’’ Wings coach Mike Babcock said prior to the start of training camp. “There’s no question in my mind, or Kenny’s (general manager Holland) or Jimmy Nill’s (assistant GM) that he’s ready to play. But now, you got to decide you’re ready to play.
“He has a lot of things we think are important to play in the (NHL) on the back end,” Babcock added. “The ability to move the puck and he skates good. Now, the ball’s in his court. No one ahead of him is giving him a job. He’s fighting for ice time and more opportunity to play.”
Kindl’s game has improved.
In his first season in Grand Rapids he was prone to turnovers and made bad decisions with the puck. He finished that year a minus-34 rating and had just 17 points.
The next year he finished with 33 points and improved to a minus-14.
In his final year with the Griffins, he had another 33-point season and saw his plus/minus got to a minus-4 rating.
Babcock asked Kindl last year what he felt were his strengths and weaknesses. Kindl felt his weakness was his defensive play.
“He just needs to compete,” Babcock said. “When he competes real hard, he’s very good defensively. All you’ve got to do is look at all the great players and their competition levels are through the roof. If you don’t have that, you’re not going to be a good player.
“Competition level, drive and willingness to win battles leads to all the other things,” Babcock added. “Once you get confidence to do that and feel like you’re strong enough to do that, it’s amazing how the rest of your game and your hockey skills come out.”
Now, it’s back to battling for playing time with another veteran blue line.
“I don’t think about it,” Kindl said. “I know I can play. I’m only 24 and I hope I have a long future ahead of me. I’ll do whatever it takes to remain on this team and stay in this league.”
Kindl became a regular workout partner with Kris Draper, who retired on Tuesday.
“I saw how hard he worked as a 40-year-old,” Kindl said. “It was great. It kept me going.
“It was getting to the point where it looked like he was kicking my butt (working out) so I had to push it even harder,” Kindl added. “On the other hand, he was looking at me like a 24-year-old and he was trying to prove something to get better. We pushed each other. It was great for both of us.”