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Should the Detroit Red Wings be worried about their defense?

Apr 18, 2011, 8:00 AM EDT

Martin Hanzl, Radim Vrbata AP

When we revealed that the Vancouver Canucks were our (admittedly predictable) choice to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup finals, many readers wondered why we didn’t choose the Detroit Red Wings.

At first blush, their misgivings were understandable. After all, the Red Wings are the NHL’s gold standard franchise. While they lack the quantity of the Montreal Canadiens’ championship banners, there hasn’t been a better team in the last 20+ years. By just about any metric, they are unrivaled.

That being said, the Stanley Cup isn’t a lifetime achievement award. The league’s championship trophy is actually a bit rude in its “What have you done for me lately?” status. While the Red Wings rank among the top contenders to win it all, they aren’t without some weaknesses.

The one glaring, neon issue that plagues them in my eyes is their defense. People love to critique the work of Jimmy Howard, and while he’s not in the upper echelon of netminders, he’s been a stabilizing force at the goalie position.

Yet there’s one number that jumps out at me: 241 goals allowed. The Red Wings allowed the most goals of any of the 16 teams who made the playoffs and the eighth highest total overall. Their penalty kill fared just a bit better in the 2010-11 season, allowing 53 power-play goals, tied for 12th worst in the league.

Not a reason to panic, yet.

Now before you say it, there’s no denying the fact that they’ve also been explosive on offense. Only the Canucks scored more goals (262) than Detroit’s 261. The Red Wings’ +20 goal differential shows that they are a genuinely good team, something I agree with anyway.

So they’re able to beat up on the Phoenix Coyotes so far, but the ‘Yotes might be the ideal match for Detroit. Few – if any – teams will be able to shut down the Red Wings’ locomotive offense altogether anyway, but the Coyotes aren’t a squad who can exploit Detroit’s defensive weaknesses as much as others. Shane Doan lead Phoenix in scoring with just 60 points in 10-11, followed by defenseman Keith Yandle with 59. As great as Yandle is, it’s probably not a fantastic sign when a blueliner rests one point behind your top scorer.

What happens when the Red Wings run into an offense that rivals theirs, though? You can blame some iffy penalty calls for the Coyotes’ aborted comeback in Game 2, but will Detroit struggle to hold onto leads against higher level squads too?

Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski are showing their age after all.

Perhaps the greatest microcosm of the Red Wings’ stealthy weakness is their flagship defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom. No one in their right mind would fault his overall game, especially considering his impressive 62 points this season. Yet even though it’s a bit of a shaky statistic at times, the team’s sliding defense might be best illustrated in their borderline infallible defenseman’s -2 rating, the first sub-zero mark of his incredible career. (Lidstrom also showed a steep decline in his Relative Corsi Rating, a more sophisticated defensive stat.)

Brian Rafalski’s numbers look a bit cleaner than Lidstrom’s, but both of the Red Wings’ best (yet aging) blueliners saw considerable drops in their average ice time. Rafalski’s time on ice went down four minutes per game while Lidstrom saw a drop of about two.

Less time on ice from those two outstanding, but aging defensemen means more time for less experienced and talented players. Niklas Kronwall produced a nice season (37 points, +5 rating), but I’m not quite as sold on Brad Stuart (20 points, +4 rating) even if he made his way onto James Mirtle’s top 30 defensive defensemen list. Both Kronwall and Stuart average more minutes per game than Rafalski, a discouraging trend.

Final thoughts

Now, I’m not saying that Detroit’s defense is awful. However, in the ruthlessly competitive West, I wonder if a slight weakness can turn into a glaring flaw. Howard is a nice goalie with flashes of brilliance, but his numbers indicate that he won’t win too many games for the Red Wings.

It looks like it might come down to seducing their opponents into trading offensive chances, then. That might work against conservative, low horsepower models like the Coyotes, but will they be able to keep up with the Ferraris of the NHL?

Let’s just say that if their season numbers are any indication, Henrik Zetterberg better be back by Round 2. (If they make it, naturally.)

  1. polegojim - Apr 18, 2011 at 9:14 AM

    James – as a die hard Red Wing fan, I agree the D needs to tighten it up… but don’t let Howard off the hook so easy. Howards our guy, and needs to get past his ‘flustered moments’ that put the defense in bad spots with poor puck handling. Just stick with ‘get the puck out of the zone’.

    Penalties are hurting us agaist Phoenix…I won’t whine…too much, but a couple have been ridiculous at best – Helm on Jovanovski for example? Please… but hey, we’ll push through.

    Tonight will get rough and physical. Buckle up boys, this desert battle won’t be for the faint of heart.

    • polegojim - Apr 19, 2011 at 1:48 AM

      Answer: NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO worries on D after this one.

      Big D showed up, and several guys I’ve criticized most SHOWED UP.

      Salei – points and toughness
      Ericsson – somebody TOLD HIM how big he is… and he PLAYED LIKE IT

      Great Job Jimmy, GUTTY game by Mule – Great Win Wings!!!

  2. polegojim - Apr 18, 2011 at 9:46 AM

    My pressing question is: Who becomes a healthy scratch when Hank comes back?

    Eaves – Cleary – Abdelkader – Miller?

    Eaves, just nothing there this series and very little during the season. But someone goes to R.

    I’d hate to see Cleary (46 pts) or Abdelkader (+15) out, but both need to do something to PROVE they should still be on the ice during these playoffs. Both have ZERO points and 4 PIMs. Miller at least has a point.

    C’mon guys, let’s crank it up tonight and make it a hard decision.

  3. datsyukian - Apr 18, 2011 at 3:23 PM

    James,

    I totally agree with you. In fact, I’ve been worried about Detroit’s defense situation since before the playoffs even began. I understand what you’re saying about Jimmy Howard, but he’s good enough to go all the way with the Wings in front of him. Sometimes he has a bad game, but Detroit can usually rally behind Joey MacDonald (who I like a lot). But I think you’re focusing on the wrong players when it comes to suspect Wings defensemen; You mention Lidstrom, Rafalski, Kronwall, and Stuart. That surprised me seeing as how you could have mentioned instead the declining play of Salei and the still-learning Ericcson. Those are the two guys on D that make me nervous, but especially young Ericcson. I can’t really comprehend that you’re “not quite sold on” Brad Stuart and don’t seem that impressed with Nick Kronwall either. Those guys, along with Lidstrom and Rafalski are solid as a rock defensively. It’s the third line D-men that need to get with the program. Go Wings!

    • James O'Brien - Apr 18, 2011 at 4:16 PM

      I hear what you’re saying, but Ericsson and Salei play less minutes than the top four D. They’re bigger weaknesses, for sure, but won’t be exposed as often.

      • polegojim - Apr 18, 2011 at 6:42 PM

        Salei is my biggest disappointment. Supposedly a big hitter, big game D. NOT
        Even in Colorado it looked like he showed up just enough to collect a paycheck.
        He was close to joining Modano and being a healthy scratch.

        Ericsson just needs some one to get in his head and remind him that he’s big man.

        Bruise brothers will be active tonight – watch for the highlights and replays.

  4. redwingrick - Apr 18, 2011 at 8:55 PM

    My concerns, too. It’ll take a huge effort and a bit of luck for the Wings to make the finals. At any rate, some changes will have to be made in the off season. The defensive and net minder positions definitely need an overhaul. I expect Salei will be gone. And wouldn’t be surprised if Lids retires. Stuart will be probably be traded and there is certainly a possibility that Rafalski could be moved. Osgood is finished. Another top tier goalie is a must.

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