Multiple reports today show that despite the Red Wings current position (2nd in the West with 70 points), general manager Ken Holland is not enthused with his team’s defensive game.  As Holland told Pierre LeBrun, "We haven’t played very well defensively the last month, and I’m going to watch the next two weeks to decide if I’m going to try to do something."

Are the Red Wings really struggling?  If so, why?

To answer the first question, yes, the Red Wings are allowing too many goals: 62 in their last 20 games.  Over the year as a whole, they’ve averaged 2.93 goals against per game, for 21st overall in the NHL.  It’s probably the single-biggest reason that the team isn’t sitting in first place in the league.

As for the second question, one of the nice things about goals against is that it is relatively easy to find the causes: either the team is allowing more shots, or more of the shots on net are ending up behind the goaltender.  In this example, it’s a little of both.

  GA/Game SA / Game EV SA / 60 PK SA / Game Total SV% Even SV% PK SV%
Total: 2.93 30.0 29.9 48.2 0.902 0.912 0.873
Rank: 21st 12th 16th 10th 20th 21st 22nd

Detroit’s save percentage is bad all over, and their even-strength shot prevention is surprisingly mediocre.

Jimmy Howard is part of the problem.  Howard’s 0.904 save percentage ranks 22nd among NHL starters, which isn’t especially surprising given his AHL statistics.  Look at Howard’s save percentages as a professional (min. 10GP):

  • 2005-06: 0.910, AHL
  • 2006-07: 0.911, AHL
  • 2007-08: 0.907, AHL
  • 2008-09: 0.916, AHL
  • 2009-10: 0.924, NHL

After four seasons of being a pretty good AHL goaltender, Howard’s save percentage jumped to the elite level in the same year that he made the jump into the NHL.  Based largely on Howard’s AHL results, this fall the superb Contrarian Goaltender predicted that “Howard is more likely to have a below-average save percentage (say, .905-.910) than he is to match his .924 this coming season.”  Injured backup Chris Osgood hasn’t fared any better (0.903 SV%); in fact, both NHL goalies are behind the 0.911 pace set by AHL’er Joey MacDonald.

Not that this means the Red Wings need a new goaltender; they’ve been getting by with average (and occasionally below average) goalies for years, and have been beneficiaries of playoff hot streaks.  Still, in Ken Holland’s shoes I’d be looking at adding a competent goalie (as he attempted to with Evgeni Nabokov), perhaps as a replacement for the older Chris Osgood.

What about shot prevention?  Let’s compare Corsi (shot attempt) numbers to percentage of starts in the offensive zone:


Defenceman Off. Zone Start Corsi Rating/60 QualComp Rk.
Jakub Kindl 59.5% +4.68 6
Ruslan Salei 55.8% +6.41 7
Brian Rafalski 54.8% +12.99 5
Jonathan Ericsson 52.9% +9.56 3
Niklas Kronwall 50.3% +10.35 4
Nicklas Lidstrom 47.5% +2.88 1
Brad Stuart 46.9% +0.45 2

Lidstrom and Stuart don’t look especially good by their Corsi number alone, but the reason for that is obvious: they’re playing against really good players and starting a lot in their own end.  Ericsson, Kronwall and Rafalski are all facing the middle of the pack and doing very well.  The problems are on the top end – Jakub Kindl and Ruslan Salei are starting tons in the offensive zone, playing the weakest opposition, and somehow are just barely above water on one of the league’s best teams.

This is a team that could use a depth defenceman.


Forward Off. Zone Start Corsi Rating/60 QualComp Rk.
Justin Abdelkader 60.1% +13.22 13th
Jiri Hudler 59.3% +4.78 9th
Mike Modano 56.7% +4.35 14th
="top" width="125">Andrew Miller 53.7% +3.26 12th
Dan Cleary 53.4% +9.41 7th
Kris Draper 53.1% +0.25 8th
Todd Bertuzzi 51.9% +2.58 5th
Johan Franzen 51.2% +6.13 4th
Valtteri Filppula 50.4% -0.36 6th
Darren Helm 50.3% +5.39 11th
Henrik Zetterberg 48.9% +15.47 2nd
Tomas Holmstrom 48.4% +14.51 3rd
Patrick Eaves 47.3% +2.75 10th
Pavel Datsyuk 45.3% +15.06 1st

Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are simply outstanding players.  There isn’t any way around it.  There’s also a fairly decent supporting cast around them up front – players like Holmstrom, Franzen, and Cleary.  I’d also argue that players like Abdelkader, Helm and Eaves are doing a good job in their respective roles.

Hudler and Filppula are the biggest disappointments for me; they’ve shown enough in the past that I figured they would look better by these measures.  At least Filppula generates offence.

I’d argue the team could use a third-liner, someone to shore up the depth.  There’s nothing wrong with the top half of the forward corps.

In Short

Depth players and better goaltending are the needs here.  One good defenceman could do wonders, and a single top-nine forward could help a lot too.  I suspect the Red Wings might just hope for better goaltending; certainly Howard and Osgood are both capable of going on tears so it’s not necessarily a bad idea.  That said, if a decent goalie turns up for not much – like Nabokov – I can’t see Holland letting him slip by.

Finally, one last note: I’m being a little harsher with these players than I would be with others, because in Detroit phrases like “NHL average” are a little insulting.  The standards are a lot higher on elite teams.