A while back I wrote a piece about how Detroit Red Wings will have a top ten offense this year and that the Detroit faithful will enjoy the slightly less stingy defensive teams playing in the Eastern. The points I argued for the success of Detroit Red Wings were simply that they have depth and youth that have skill. The issue here is that Red Wings right now have lost seven straight and rank 8th from the bottom of the NHL as far as goals for are concerned. The defense has not been as fantastic as we hoped and the goaltending while great at times, has also been less than expected overall. Lately things have gone from bad to worse, with the Red Wings losing seven straight games.
So with Thanksgiving quickly approaching, what exactly do Red Wings fans have to be thankful for?
Let us start with a big thanks to NHL realignment that has moved the Red Wings from the Western Conference and the Central division to the Eastern Conference and new Atlantic Division. In the past there has been a debate that the West was a better conference than the East, but but this year, so far, it has been ridiculous how one-sided this West vs East battle has been. Let us look at the league standings for a second.
That is the top eight teams in the league right now (prior to Wednesday’s games) and the most interesting thing here is that not a single Eastern Conference team on the list. Sure Boston, Tampa Bay, Toronto, and Pittsburgh are all just a point away from Minnesota, but this list just underlines the heavily one-sided dominance of the West over the East this season.
So a move to the Eastern Conference could not have come at a better time for the struggling Red Wings. The Wings would be ranked in 10th place in the West compared to the 6th place in the East their currently occupy.
It is also kind of scary for Wings fans that the team could have an even worse record if they were playing full-time in the West, with their current struggles. The Wings only have four wins against the West so far in eleven games. Sure, it all looked excellent after a three-game winning streak against Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton and the Wings seemed to be jelling. Since then they have not seen a W in seven games. The optimist in the room will yell out that they have managed to grab five points in those last seven games and that is surely is better than losing in regulation!
I am thankful for the fact that NHL has introduced one point for a loss in OT/SO. The Red Wings have managed to stay in the top half of the East standings with the five loser points they have grabbed in those seven games. The cynic in us is thinking …Yeah, but all of those loses in the shootout and OT is not what fans expect with guys like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Daniel Alfredsson, Stephen Weiss, Tomas Tatar, and Todd Bertuzzi. This is very true.
The fact that Datsyuk and Bertuzzi cannot score in the shootout is just plain weird. I would say it is disappointing and scary, but it isn’t. These guys can score and in Datsyuk;s case is one of the best in the league at this NHL skills competition. I am not sure what is happening but maybe Wings need to have a bit more fun out there. The shootout is pressure, pure and simple. Letting the team have fun during the game and during the SO can maybe inspire a bit more creativity in practice and in-game situations.
The fact that Jimmy Howard has one of the worst shootout SV% in the league is kind of disheartening. The league average is about .700+ in that department. It is a bit unfair to point a finger at Jimmy as the forwards have just simply not been able to give him any sort of cushion nor back him up when he needed a big goal.
Speaking of goaltending, Red Wings fan can be thankful for Jonas Gustavsson, who has been very good so far with three wins in four starts and while this is a very small sample he has proven to be fairly reliable this year. Last season he only saw four starts and only won 2 of those while putting up an awful .879 SV%. This year he is already rocking a 2.48 GAA and .929 SV%. Sure its a small sample, and he did get rocked by the Islanders for 4 goals against and a shootout loss, but he had very strong starts against good teams like Boston and Colorado.
Howard on the other hand has been, to be honest, not himself. He is on pace to have one of the worst seasons in his career. Projected for only 23 wins at this point, it is not acceptable and would surely eliminate the Wings from the playoffs if he cannot do better than that number. He can be better and the young defense in front of him can surely be a bit better as well. What is baffling though is that he has made tons of huge saves to keep the Wings in the game, but it seems that some of the stoppable shots tend to squeeze by right now.
The biggest and I mean the biggest issue with the Red Wings is their defense and its lack of passing ability. It just seems so terrible at times. I am not even talking about two line passes out of the defensive zone, because those passes are never hitting a player in stride and on the stick anymore. Besides Danny DeKeyser (who is now injured) the team has had a serious issue with any sort of breakout pass, be it long or short. These difficulties have extended to the offensive zone. Wings fans have been spoiled with Brian Rafalski and Nick Lidstrom in the past, but the current unit is not only not living up to their high standard, but also not even playing at a league average standard. If the Wings want to play puck possession hockey they need a defensive unit that can pass the puck efficiently and hit forwards with tape-to-tape passes in stride.
The passing problem causes puck fumbles that result in small delays of milliseconds for the forwards to settle the puck before moving forward or dishing the puck to a linemate. With the speed of the NHL game, that millisecond delay is everything. Even the simple pass between one defender to another side-to-side tend to sometimes be a bit behind or bouncing over sticks, and these result in an extra step for opposition forecheckers and a bad or worse a defensive zone turnover. Next time you sit down to watch the Wings, pay attention to that first pass . It is simply amazing how bad the Wings defensemen have gotten in passing the puck. I first noticed it in the game against the fast tight checking NY Rangers.
The first pass is something Red Wings have been known for and is the greatest tool in a fast transition game. I think that it is the biggest thing that needs to be addressed for the Wings. Secondary scoring issues will resolve itself out when the D can hold on to the puck and move the puck with accuracy and speed. There has to be that buffer that existed or they have to change the way the Wings play the puck. You cannot play puck possession hockey when your defensemen fumble the puck passing to each other.
The last things I am thankful for are Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. The two will have to carry this team all year long and they have so far, with both players at a point per game pace. I think the entire hockey world is blessed with these two continuing playing hockey at such high level, but the Wings will need secondary scoring and will need it ASAP for them to continue to be a playoff squad.
Let us enjoy the holidays and don’t sweat it too much Wings nation. The Red Wings have a few injuries to battle through but with Pav and Hank plugging away, they are still a very good team. A team that is simply underperforming right now and should be able to make the improvements necessary to continue their playoff streak in this weak Eastern Conference.
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