Martin Hanzl, Radim Vrbata

Should the Detroit Red Wings be worried about their defense?

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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.)

Devils’ Merrill undergoes shoulder surgery, out four months

NEWARK, NJ - JANUARY 04: Jon Merrill #7 of the New Jersey Devils skates against the Detroit Red Wings at the Prudential Center on January 4, 2016 in Newark, New Jersey. The Red Wings defeated the Devils 1-0.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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New Jersey d-man Jon Merrill, who struggled through an injury-riddled campaign, has undergone successful shoulder surgery with an expected recovery time of four months, the club announced on Wednesday.

Merrill, 24, only appeared in 47 games this year, first missing time with an arm injury, then suffering a shoulder ailment late in the year.

There was no clear indication if the two ailments were related, but Merrill’s arm injury was on the right side, and surgery was on his right shoulder.

A former University of Michigan standout taken 38th overall in 2010, Merrill enjoyed solid rookie and sophomore campaigns in New Jersey. His second year was especially solid — 14 points in 66 games, averaging over 20 minutes per night — and he boasts good size, going 6-foot-3, 205 pounds.

Based on the four-month timetable for recovery, Merrill will likely miss parts of New Jersey’s training camp and preseason action.

Max Talbot mulling European options for next season

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After a 10-year career with over 700 games played and one Stanley Cup, Maxime Talbot could be done in the NHL.

Per RDS, Talbot — who’ll hit unrestricted free agency on July 1 — has “some options in Europe” for next season, and is contemplating a move overseas.

In his prime, Talbot was a gritty, hardworking forward with decent touch around the net. He scored double-digit goals four times, including a career-high 19 in ’11-12.

The 32-year-old split last season between Boston and its AHL affiliate in Providence, scoring seven points in 38 games at the NHL level.

Talbot did acquit himself very well with the P-Bruins — 21 points in 26 games — and has some experience playing abroad, having suited up for Finnish League club Ilves Tampere during the lockout.

Based on how things went last year in free agency, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Talbot land in Europe.

The likes of Maxim Lapierre, Curtis Glencross and Marcel Goc all failed to score NHL contracts last summer — Lapierre and Goc proceeded to sign overseas, while Glencross opted to retire.

 

Ex-‘Hawks coach Suhonen takes Austrian national team job

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 13:  Thomas Raffl #5 of Austria celebrates with his teammates after Thomas Hundertpfund #27 scored a goal in the first period against Tuukka Rask #40 of Finland during the Men's Ice Hockey Preliminary Round Group B game on day six of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Bolshoy Ice Dome on February 13, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Alpo Suhonen, who became the first European-born NHL coach in over 50 years upon taking the Chicago gig in 2000, has been named the new bench boss of the Austrian men’s national team, per IIHF.com.

Suhonen, 67, takes over from former NHL defenseman Dan Ratushny, who was splitting duties between Team Austria and Lausanne of the Swiss League.

Suhonen takes over the national team at a critical juncture. Austria finished a disappointing fourth at the 2016 World Hockey Championship Division 1 tournament — meaning the country finished 20th overall. As the IIHF websites notes, that’s the worst finish for Austria in 86 years of WHC competition.

Looking forward, Austria does have a chance to make amends this summer, when it will play a series of contests to prep for Olympic qualification.

Suhonen inherits a roster with decent NHL pedigree as Thomas Vanek, Michael Raffl and Michael Grabner are all eligible to participate.

That said, Vanek was named to Team Europe’s initial 16-man roster for the World Cup of Hockey, and it remains to be seen how that will impact his national team commitments.

Datsyuk’s agent acknowledges offer from KHL’s SKA, but no deal yet

Detroit Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk (13) celebrates his empty net goal against the Edmonton Oilers in the third period of an NHL hockey game in Detroit Monday, March 9, 2015. Detroit won 5-2. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
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Gennady Timchenko, the billionaire chairman of KHL club SKA Saint Petersburg, reportedly believes there’s a “good chance” that Pavel Datsyuk will be playing for his team next season.

But according to Datsyuk’s agent, Dan Milstein, there’s only been an offer from SKA. Nothing has been signed yet. There could still be offers from other KHL teams for his client to consider.

And at any rate, Milstein insisted once again that Datysuk won’t be making any decisions until he speaks with the Detroit Red Wings in mid-June, after the 37-year-old returns from a family vacation.

Milstein passed along that update to Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press, plus a few other Wings reporters.

Related: Datsyuk ‘wants to make sure the Wings have options’