By Dave Waddell -
Unwanted and undrafted in the 2008 NHL Draft, Detroit Red Wings’ defenseman Brian Lashoff is a testament to there’s more than just one way to work your way into the National Hockey League.
The Albany, N.Y. native slipped through seven rounds of the draft that June, but Wings’ general manager Ken Holland wasn’t going to let him slip away this summer.
Not part of the Wings’ plans when the season started, injuries and Lashoff’s ability to take advantage of the opportunity said injuries presented prompted Holland to sign the 22-year-old to a three-year deal worth $725,000 per season Feb. 25.
“We like to reward young people when they play well,” Holland said. “The reward is a one-way deal.”
In his 18 games, Lashoff has a goal and three points and is minus-four. However, the tale of Lashoff’s worth isn’t told in statistics.
His is a game best measure by what scouts call the ‘eyeball test.’
The six-foot-three, 212 pound Lashoff reminds many of the previous holder of the No. 23 jersey in Detroit – Brad Stuart.
Lashoff is a gritty defenseman, who leads the Wings in hits and is among their leaders in blocked shots. He’s become a pivotal piece on the penalty kill and he’s gone from unwanted to one of the first names called by coach Mike Babcock.
“He’s played on the top pairing with (Niklas) Kronwall, played against the best players, also played on the penalty kill,” Holland said.
“He makes a good outlet pass. He competes hard. He’s got a good reach. And he’s only 22.
“We think he’ll get better and better.”
While others may have had questions about his ability to develop into an NHL regular, Lashoff’s faith never wavered.
These are heady times for the youngster nicknamed ‘Smash’, yet he refuses to be sucked into the vortex of good vibes.
“When I came here I was never going to get too high or too low, just kind of stay the same way throughout my time here and work hard every day,” Lashoff said. “It never changes for me, whether it’s a game day, a practice or if I’m playing.
“I’m going to be ready whatever opportunity is given to me.”
That quiet self-confidence was one of the characteristics the Wings noticed when they offered Lashoff a tryout in September, 2008.
Detroit was just coming off a Stanley Cup season and still had the likes of Nick Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Brad Stuart and Niklas Kronwall along with a young Jonathan Ericsson, who had played so well in the previous spring’s playoffs.
It hardly seemed a logical choice to try and work yourself up from the dregs of the minor leagues with that formidable blue-line looking set for the next few seasons.
However, Lashoff was playing the long game.
He pleasantly surprised Wings’ general manager Ken Holland that fall. Holland saw enough in the rugged defenseman to offer him a contract.
Lashoff signed and went back to the Ontario Hockey League to continue to polish his craft. The Wings’ foresight was rewarded when Lashoff made the U.S. national junior squad that would go on to win the world title in 2009-10.
He enjoyed his first full season at the AHL last year in Grand Rapids. The plan was for him to remain there for another year.
However, the NHL lockout bought him another half season of AHL action and he was ready when injuries ravaged the Detroit defensive corps. Lashoff has played in 18 of Detroit’s 22 games to date.
The irony of it all must have struck Lashoff as he signed his new deal.
In inking the one-way pact, Lashoff has cemented himself in the Wings’ NHL plans while none of the six draft picks Detroit made in 2008, which included first-round pick Thomas McCollum and fourth-round selection Gustav Nyquist, have been able to stick with the big club permanently to date.
Though he still makes the occasional rookie mistake, Lashoff has become instrumental in helping the Wings find some answers on a defense, which had been the biggest question mark coming into the season.
With Detroit leading the NHL in man-games lost to injury, the fact that the Wings remain solidly in the playoff race while watching their defensive numbers steadily improve bodes well for the Wings when they get healthy.
Detroit has only conceded seven goals in its last five games following a 2-1 shootout loss to Chicago March 3 and now the questions are more about Detroit’s depth at forward.
Retired Wings’ captain Nick Lidstrom feels Detroit will reap the rewards of surviving thanks to the help of youngsters such as Lashoff and fellow rookies Damien Brunner, Tomas Tatar and Joaquin Anderson.
“Guys are getting an opportunity to play more,” Lidstrom said.
“I think it’s just the maturity of getting experience to play and play every day, against the top players and knowing that small mistakes can end up with the puck in your net.
“It’s a learning experience for the kids and it’s a great way to get a chance to play with so many guys out.”