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.)

The Buzzer: Connor Hellebuyck’s sixth shutout; Staal, Granlund combine for eight points; Penguins cruise

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Players of the Night:

Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets: Hellebuyck’s sixth shutout of the season — a 34-save effort in a 4-0 win against the St. Louis Blues — set a new franchise record. He’s now just two wins away from tying the team’s franchise record for wins by a goalie at 32.

Eric Staal and Mikael Granlund, Minnesota Wild: Staal and Granlund basically had their way with the New York Rangers in a 4-1 win. They each scored twice and also assisted twice on each other’s goals. Feasting on the Rangers is pretty easy these days, but it was an impressive night for the duo nonetheless.

William Karlsson, Vegas Golden Knights: Goals No. 32 and No. 33 tonight, including quite the rip on his second one. Added an assist as well in a 6-3 win for the Golden Knights over the Vancouver Canucks. What a player he’s turned into.

Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins: Kessel has two goals and an assist and Malkin and Guentzel each had a goal and two assists. The Penguins are already scary on offense, and they just added Derick Brassard on Friday. Three-peat, anyone?

Highlights of the Night:

Saucy little number:

Patrik Laine makes it look so easy:

Slick feed game:

Ugly suit night for the Winnipeg Jets:

https://twitter.com/NHLGIFs/status/967262571605778433

Trade of the Day:

The three-team deal that happened, then it didn’t and then happened again

Penguins land Derick Brassard on second try in wild three-team deal.

Own goal of the night:

Troy Stecher got a little unlucky on this one:

Factoids of the Night:

Scores:

Wild 4, Rangers 1

Penguins 6, Hurricanes 1

Jets 4, Blues 0

Blackhawks 3, Sharks 1

Golden Knights 6, Canucks 3


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Why the Golden Knights got involved in Derick Brassard deal

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If Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee is to be believed, getting forward Ryan Reaves and a draft pick while not having to give up anything but some cap space was the meal ticket.

McPhee, who spoke to the media in Las Vegas during the first intermission of their game against the Vancouver Canucks on Friday, said they added grit to their lineup with Reaves after the Golden Knights were one of three teams involved in a wild trade that ultimately sent Derick Brassard from Ottawa to Pittsburgh.

Reaves, McPhee said, is a tough guy who can do more than just dole out physical punishment.

“Ryan is a big strong guy that brings some grit, some strong depth to our hockey club,” McPhee said. “He’s a unique player. These players, tough guys in this league, many of them have been rendered obsolete because they can’t play. (Reaves) can play.

The deal was convoluted, McPhee admitted, saying that it’s something that happens with three teams involved. He said it took four transactions to make it work.

“We gave up some cap space, we have a lot of cap space and a minor league player to do this, so we picked up two assets,” McPhee said. “I thought it was a good deal for our club.”

McPhee said he spoke with Pittsburgh a couple days ago, and the deal for Reaves came together quite quickly. He said the issues with the deal were more on the side of Ottawa and Pittsburgh and once those were worked out, the deal was made.

McPhee said he doesn’t necessarily believe the club needs to make moves.

“But if there are opportunities to make the club a little bit better, one percent, two percent, three percent, you do it if it’s not going to affect chemistry,” he said.

This may only be part of the story here for the Golden Knights.

Sportsnet’s John Shannon reported that Vegas may have got involved in the deal to block the Winnipeg Jets from getting Brassard.

Even though the Jets and Golden Knights wouldn’t meet until the third round of the playoffs — a lot would have to go right for that to happen — Vegas essentially made sure that if the scenario ever came to fruition, they wouldn’t have to deal with Brassard in the series.

If true, that’s some next level stuff by McPhee and Co.

McPhee played down those reports in his presser, saying it wasn’t a “material” part of the deal.

“We saw an opportunity to pick up Ryan Reaves and a draft pick in what was a simple transaction for us,” he said.

TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reported that the Jets were disappointed not to land Brassard after going “hard” after him. The move would have solidified Winnipeg’s spine, with Mark Scheifele, Bryan Little, Brassard and Adam Lowry down the middle. Winnipeg’s already a scary team without Brassard’s services. The fear factor would only have improved with him.

The Jets, reportedly, offered three pieces for Brassard, in what was a “solid” package. Given what Pittsburgh sent Ottawa’s way, that likely means a first-round pick, a roster player and a high-level prospect.

The Jets are now forced to look elsewhere, and perhaps they have the league’s newest team to blame for it.

A Jets-Golden Knights series would have a little more on the line if it comes to be this spring.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Penguins land Derick Brassard in three-team deal

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There likely won’t be a more wild trade before the deadline than the one that took the better part of Friday to finally be completed.

The Pittsburgh Penguins had Ottawa Senators forward Derick Brassard in their grasp, then lost him, and then snatched him up again.

Penguins defenseman Ian Cole was headed to a bad team, then he wasn’t, and then he was again.

And somehow Ryan Reaves is now with the Vegas Golden Knights and the NHL’s newest team is retaining a bunch of salary.

The first trade: Penguins receive Derick Brassard; Senators get a first-round pick, Ian Cole and intriguing goalie prospect Filip Gustavsson.

This deal was rejected by the NHL for “improper use of salary retention,” so it was back to the drawing board for all involved.

The second (and actual) trade: Penguins receive Derick Brassard; Senators get a first-round pick, Ian Cole and intriguing goalie prospect Filip Gustavsson. This didn’t change.

Penguins also acquire a 2018 third round draft pick and prospect forward Vincent Dunn from the Senators; and they also get prospect forward Tobias Lindberg from the Golden Knights.

Vegas receives Ryan Reaves and a 2018 fourth-rounder (Vancouver’s) from the Penguins and also retains 40 percent of Brassard’s salary.

Why the Penguins made the trade: It’s been no secret that the Penguins have been looking for center help since losing Matt Cullen and Nick Bonino. Brassard fits that bill, and honestly, stands as a nice upgrade.

At 30, Brassard is still at or near his prime. The Penguins get Brassard for two playoff runs, as his $5 million cap hit runs through 2018-19.

Brassard’s quietly enjoyed a strong season in Ottawa, as he has 18 goals and 38 points in 58 games. He’s just one point shy of tying his 2016-17 total, even though that came in 81 contests. The former Rangers forward is battle-tested in the postseason, too.

No doubt about it, this is a contending team being aggressive to try to win a third straight Stanley Cup. Brassard makes an already-impressive offense that much deeper.

The inclusion of Cole helps make the money work for the Penguins, even if it’s worth noting that Pittsburgh still has some questions on defense.

Why the Senators made the trade: The Senators are in liquidation mode, and to start, this trade helps Ottawa get a first-rounder back after giving one up in the Matt Duchene trade. Granted, the Penguins’ first-rounder could be very low – they’d love it to be the 31st selection – but it’s a key return for the rebuilding Sens.

Gustavsson, 19, isn’t just a throw-in, either. He was a second-round pick (55th overall) in the 2016 NHL Draft. With Craig Anderson already 36, the Senators need to look to the future, and Gustavsson has a chance to be a part of the picture in net.

You can argue that Ottawa’s returns aren’t fully documented yet, as they might move Cole for even more futures:

This is also worth noting from a Senators perspective:

Why the Golden Knights made this trade: 

This one deserves a¯_(ツ)_/¯.

Vegas gets some grit in Reaves and a pick, but get roped into 40 percent of Brassard’s salary for some reason or another.

Who won the trade?

Senators fans are unlikely to be happy with the team cleaning house, particularly with players who helped them make a deep playoff run remarkably recently. Still, they’re diving in with a reset, if not a rebuild, and this is a decent return. Getting a bit more for Cole could help, and Gustavsson’s development will play a significant role in how this move is viewed in hindsight.

The Penguins are going for it, as they have been for some time. Brassard fills a serious need, and while defense is an issue for Pittsburgh, Cole found himself as a healthy scratch and obviously on the way out at times.

This is all about the present for Pittsburgh, and it’s easy to justify such a thought process. Let’s not forget that Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, and Phil Kessel are 30 while Evgeni Malkin is 31. You never know when the championship window might slam shut.

Your excitement regarding the Penguins’ side hinges on how much you like Brassard. Not everyone is blown away by what he brings to the table.

This is an obvious case of two teams going in different directions, and thus looking for very different returns. Which team got the best value out of the deal, though?

It’s worth noting that the Penguins gave up a first-round pick and a prospect last summer to get Reaves.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Trades fantasy hockey owners should root for

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Trades can really liven things up for a sport, so here’s hoping that the intriguing Michael Grabner to Devils move is the catalyst for a memorable stretch of swaps.

While there’s always the risk that a player will struggle to get acclimated to a new city and new teammates, trades can also provide a boost in fantasy hockey. As we wait for more deals to trickle in, it might be fun to picture changes of scenery. Here are some moves fantasy owners should root for.

[More on the Grabner trade.]

Elephants trotting around the room

Look, asking the Senators to trade Erik Karlsson is asking a lot.

It could be quite a late-season boon for owners who’ve been burned a bit by a season that’s not up to his honestly ridiculous standards. Complaining about a defenseman generating 42 points in 55 games is silly, but considering that Karlsson often goes in the first or second round, and fantasy sports are kind of silly by nature, well …

Anyway, a move to a contender could really help him. Maybe he’d enjoy short-term puck luck (his shooting percentage this season is 3.4 percent, half of his career average of 6.8). Considering his puck dispersal skills, setting up teammates who are likely more skilled and more motivated at this point in the season could really be electric.

Max Pacioretty also stands as interesting.

With a 7.7 shooting percentage, “Patches” is also lacking when it comes to lucky bounces. More than that, it has to be a drain on him to lose so often, particularly in a hockey-obsessed market like Montreal. Being “one of the guys” on a contender could really do him good.

Also, it’s been noted, yet it must be said: Pacioretty’s really never played with a great center. Imagine what he could accomplish with a legitimate No. 1? With his contract expiring after 2018-19, the motivation should be there, too.

Some others worth noting in this category:

  • Evander Kane has dealt with injuries and the frustrating knowledge that he’s never suited up in a playoff game in his career. With an expiring contract at age 26, you could argue that Kane has the most on the line of just about any of the most realistic trade targets in the NHL.
  • On the other end of the spectrum, yet with comparable sniping skills, you have Rick Nash. Much like Pacioretty, Nash is getting his goals now after a prolonged slump. While Kane has never tasted playoff play, Nash surely would like to show that he’s more “clutch” than his critics believe.
  • Mike Green got roasted a bit in this PHT roundtable, but that’s based on real-life play. From a fantasy perspective, Green could be fascinating. That said, he plays a huge role in Detroit, and might actually see a downgrade if traded. So maybe he’s a coin flip?
  • Ryan McDonagh and Oliver Ekman-Larsson are both defensemen who will likely be affected by what happens with Karlsson, as they do too see contracts expire after 2018-19. McDonagh seems more likely to move than OEL, yet both could really thrive on better/more driven teams down the stretch.

[Dion Phaneuf: better in fantasy than reality.]

Lightning round

OK, now onto a handful of names that might not come up much/at all, but would be a lot of fun.

  • Goalies with more fuel in the tank: Sorry, Antti Niemi, but there are better options out there for goalie rentals, even with Petr Mrazek off the market. The Coyotes might want to keep Antti Raanta around, but it would be intriguing to see what he could do for, say, the Hurricanes. Raanta’s save percentage is up to .922 this season. Since 2014-15, Raanta is tied with Carey Price and Corey Crawford for the NHL’s best save percentage at .923.

Raanta would be the gem in my eyes. Still, there are some other interesting considerations. Would the Sabres trade sneaky-good Robin Lehner? Could Jaroslav Halak help someone if the Islanders decided they’ve had enough?

  • I’ve stated that the Coyotes would likely lose if they traded Max Domi. Domi’s fantasy owners and new team could enjoy modest-to-significant gains, however.
  • This is more tangential: Jeff Carter might be nearing a return. With that in mind, the Kings might actually be a more beneficial landing pad for a player than maybe they’d seem. It sounds like they’re happy to get Tobias Rieder, though.
  • As always, root for the Oilers to trade skilled players (note: they’re saying they are leaning toward tweaks this time, for what it’s worth). You may very well see that player burn them for making such a move, possibly right away.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.