BY THOMAS DRANCE
I find it helpful to think of Hockey as a game of ratios and percentages governed by randomness. It’s certainly not about raw numbers. Teams cannot control the bounces or harness the powers of puck luck, but the good teams can control the game by winning the percentages. Basically, a good team is a hockey team that can tilt the odds in their favour consistently.
Even those teams however, can get repeatedly burned over a small sample of games. Let’s wade into the muck this week and evaluate some teams that are better (or worse) than their record suggests. We looked at the Edmonton Oilers earlier in the week and then checked out the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. Today lets peel back the curtain on the Detroit Red Wings (Edmonton Oilers at Detroit Red Wings (-175, 5.5)).
It’s not much of a surprise that life after Nicklas Lidstrom ain’t easy. Compounding the issue, of course, is that over the course of the summer, the winged wheel failed to bring in an adequate first pairing stopgap. So far the Red Wings have appeared to pay for it: they’re sporting a -6 goal differential through nine games, they’re fourth in the Central Division and they’ve been clearly defeated by teams like Columbus and Calgary. That has got to hurt.
Detroit’s big issue at this point, is health or a lack thereof. In fact the injury situation continue to deteriorate as defenseman Brendan Smith – one of Detroit’s few bright spots in the early going this season – just went down with a shoulder injury that will keep him out of the lineup for three to four weeks. He’ll join Carlo Colaicovo, Mikael Samuelsson, backup goaltending Jonas Gustavsson and tough minutes ace Darren Helm on Detroit’s War and Peace length injury list.
The lack of personnel, especially along the back-end where the Red Wings are hurting in particular, makes Detroit’s uphill climb seem even steeper. But on the other hand, they still have the look of a quality NHL club – certainly a playoff team – that just needs to catch a couple of break, and iron out their special teams play.
Their special teams play in particular has been really, really ugly. The Red Wings are killing off fewer than 70% of opposition power-plays and are capitalizing on 12.2% of their own opportunities with the man advantage. Worse, this isn’t luck, Detroit’s special teams play really is that bad. They’re in the bottom-5 in the entire league actually in terms of power-play shot rate, and they allow shots against at the third highest rate of any NHL team in the league so far. In all, Detroit’s special teams alone have produced a -10 goal differential, through nine games. Tough to win games like that.
I’m not sure what the quick fix is for Detroit here. In fact, looking over the names that lead the team in short-handed ice-time: Jonathan Ericson, Kyle Quincey, Brad Lashoff and Ken Huskins – I have to think that it’s possible that Detroit’s penalty-killing issue is deep and structural. One thing that could be tried, I suppose, would be giving the likes of Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Kronwall and Flippula additional short-handed minutes in an effort to stem the bleeding – but using your best players on the penalty-kill should be a last resort. Detroit may find themselves in a situation where they just have to try it sooner than later though…
The power-play on the other hand, is a trickier fix, since Babcock is already using his top-personnel on the first unit. Really Detroit is probably just going to have to cross their fingers and hope that when Ian White gets up to speed and Mikael Samuelsson returns to action, they’ll at least be able to make do. It’s tough to imagine a five-man unit featuring Samuelsson, Johan Franzen, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Nicklas Kronwall can’t capitalize on power-play opportunities at a clip near the league average going forward…
Finally we get to the good news. Injuries aside, the Red Wings remain the gold standard in puck possession systems. They’re not a crushing wave like the Los Angeles Kings are, but through all of their injury woes, they’re handling events at even-strength. Detroit is in the top-five in Fenwick percentage tied, and are sixth in Fenwick close through nine games. Obviously we’re not at a stage where we can draw anything but proto-inferences from that data, but based on this club’s track record, I’d expect that to continue. Detroit is also due a few bounces here and there at even-strength, with their on-ice shooting percentage hovering below 7%.
At the moment Detroit has Pavel Datsyuk, of course, who has primarily skated in between Todd Bertuzzi and Valteri Flippula on a checking line that has soaked up the minutes against the opposition’s top-line. Henrik Zetterberg, twenty-six year old rookie Damien Brunner and Johan Franzen meanwhile have been left to mop up the scraps and they’ve excelled in that role. The third line of Justin Abdelkadar, Dan Cleary and whomever is healthy enough to join them (primarily Patrick Eaves or Drew Miller) has done alright and the fourth line isn’t getting their teeth kicked in too badly. That forward group remains a top-10 group in the league, and at evens they’ve generally handled their opponents despite the woeful puck luck.
Ultimately, Detroit should be saved by the steady play of Jimmy Howard in net and the overwhelming quality of their even-strength puck possession. I do think Babcock is going to need to move his top players into a power-play role though, and that ken Holland might need to be looking around for an overpaid defenseman he can acquire on the cheap. The Red Wings aren’t an elite team anymore, not with that blueline, but they’re a playoff team and I think they’re better than they’ve looked so far this season.