Martin Hanzl, Radim Vrbata

Should the Detroit Red Wings be worried about their defense?

7 Comments

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.)

Stars’ Eakin is ‘prepared’ for Rangers retribution for that Lundqvist hit

Leave a comment

The New York Rangers were probably glad that Cody Eakin received a four-game suspension for his “intentional” hit on Henrik Lundqvist, but they might seek a more direct form of justice against the Dallas Stars tonight.

Eakin is aware of that fact, too, as he told the Dallas Morning News’ Mike Heika.

“I’m prepared. If it was our team, there would obviously be words that were shared,” Eakin said. “I’ll be prepared and I’ll continue to play a hard game. Whatever happens, happens.”

Hey, Lindy Ruff apparently hoped that Jamie Benn “emptied his frustration tank” during his outburst following Monday’s loss; perhaps Benn will have a little bit left over to defend Eakin?

The Rangers aren’t playing coy about the hit being a talking point.

“That’s not something you forget about,” Chris Kreider said, according to Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News. “I’m sure someone will have a conversation with him.”

Sounds so civil. Perhaps they will have this conversation over a soothing cup of chamomile tea?

Pre-game reading: Who’s on the ‘trade bait’ list?

2 Comments

— Up top, relive last night’s wild affair in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins and Capitals combined for 15 goals. According to the NHL, it was the most goals in a game since Oct. 27, 2011, when the Jets beat the Flyers, 9-8 because Ilya Bryzgalov got “lost in the woods.”

— TSN has come up with its annual “trade bait” list of 20 players who could be dealt before the March 1 deadline. At the top of the list? Colorado’s Matt Duchene, who could certainly help a playoff contender. That being said, a Duchene trade may be more likely to occur in the offseason, when more teams have the flexibility to swing a big deal. Pure rentals on the list include Martin Hanzal, Thomas Vanek, and Radim Vrbata. (TSN)

Brad Marchand has no doubt that an NHL team would be accepting of a gay teammate. “Guys would accept that, no question. We’re a team in the [dressing] room and a family. It doesn’t matter what different beliefs guys have, or where they come from, or whatever the case may be. Guys would accept it. Again, in the room we’re a family. That’s the way it is on a hockey team, and that’s the way it will always be.” (ESPN)

— Sounds like the Toronto Maple Leafs have taken a page out of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ playbook. Or maybe it’s the Green Bay Packers’ playbook? Said d-man Connor Carrick: “When you’re defense, a lot of times you’re in the quarterback position and sometimes you’ve just got to throw it up, make a good play and let your receivers – let your forwards – do something with it.” (Sportsnet)

— The Vancouver Canucks have tried to stay competitive while retooling their roster. You can quibble with that philosophy, but according to Henrik Sedin, it’s better than tanking. “You can see on any given night, we’re in the games. I don’t think that was the case last year. There needs to be pieces brought in for sure to take that next big step. But at least we’re building a culture where everyone is accountable and we know what to expect from each other.” (The Province)

— According to Postmedia’s Michael Traikos, John Tortorella and Mike Babcock are the runaway leaders for the Jack Adams Award. We’d also throw Bruce Boudreau into the coach-of-the-year conversation, but if the Jackets and Leafs make the playoffs this season, it’s hard to imagine someone other than Torts or Babs getting the nod. Maybe Boudreau or Todd McLellan? But probably Torts or Babs. (National Post)

Enjoy the games!

Capuano firing puts focus on Snow

BETHPAGE, NY - SEPTEMBER 09:  (L-R) Head coach Jack Capuano, John Tavares, and General Manager Garth Snow of the New York Islanders pose for a photo during a press conference naming John Tavares the New York Islanders team captain at Carlyle on the Green on September 9, 2013 in Bethpage, New York.  (Photo by Andy Marlin/Getty Images)
Getty
1 Comment

A coaching change is rarely made without management shouldering some, or much, of the blame.

Case in point, last year, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford admitted that he was partly to blame for his team’s struggles, “because I didn’t get the defensemen that were necessary to have more movement from the back end.”

But Rutherford fired Mike Johnston anyway, and we all know where Mike Sullivan led the Pens, with some help from his GM.

Today, Jack Capuano was fired after a lengthy run as the head coach of the New York Islanders. And while there was certainly a case to be made for the move, GM Garth Snow will not, and should not, escape blame. The Isles’ roster is littered with underperformers, and it starts with Andrew Ladd, the team’s big offseason acquisition.

Halfway through the season, Ladd has just eight goals and four assists. He also turned 31 in December and is signed through 2022-23 for a cap hit of $5.5 million. 

Nikolay Kulemin is another aging, overpaid winger. So is 37-year-old Jason Chimera (or at the very least, he’s aging). For some reason, Cal Clutterbuck got a five-year, $17.5 million extension. He hits a lot, sure, but he only has three goals in 40 games. Meanwhile, Nino Niederreiter, whom the Isles traded to get Clutterbuck, has turned into an impact player for the Wild.

And we haven’t even mentioned the goaltending situation, which remains in flux. Thomas Greiss has been the Isles’ only good netminder this season. Greiss is also a 30-year-old pending unrestricted free agent who will undoubtedly be looking for a raise.

Now, do the Isles have some good, young prospects? Yes, they do. Mathew Barzal, Kieffer Bellows, Anthony Beauvillier, Michael Dal Colle, and Josh Ho-Sang all have real potential.

But management and ownership have a major task ahead of them in re-signing John Tavares, who can become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2018. So far, the captain has said he wants to stay. But with just 24 playoff games on his NHL resume, he’s also said he wants to have success.

“I think for myself, I’ve always shown and talked about my commitment here,” Tavares said recently. “Wanting to have success here and keep building on some of the good things we’ve done. Obviously, this [low] point’s been disappointing.”

It was reported back in December that the club’s new owners, Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky, had been searching for a “big name” to run the team. The Isles denied the report, but it immediately set off speculation about Snow’s future.

Don’t expect that speculation to die down now that Capuano has been shown the door. Snow was actually asked today if he thought his job was safe.

“I don’t even worry about that,” he told reporters.

It’s beyond his control anyway. All he can do now is hope for a miraculous turnaround. The Isles start a six-game home stand Thursday. They’re currently dead last in the Eastern Conference, eight points back of the second wild-card spot.

“We need to turn this ship around,” said Snow, “and I really have a lot of confidence in our coaching staff and in our players.”

Of course, he’s said that before.

Goalie nods: Interesting times in St. Louis, as Hutton makes third straight start

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 01: Carter Hutton #40 of the St. Louis Blues stops a shot by Vincent Hinostroza #48 of the Chicago Blackhawks during a preseason game at the United Center on October 1, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Getty
1 Comment

Jake Allen‘s had trouble adjusting to life as the Blues’ No. 1 netminder — see here, here, here and here — and now, he’s getting an awfully long look at St. Louis’ No. 2.

Tonight, Carter Hutton will make his third consecutive start when the Blues host the Sens at Scottrade. The decision to stick with Hutton comes after he stopped 55 of 56 shots in back-to-back wins over the Sharks and Ducks — on the road, no less — and posted a 23-save shutout in San Jose on Saturday.

Allen, meanwhile, hasn’t played since a 5-1 loss to Los Angeles last Thursday in which he was hooked in favor of Hutton. That was, somewhat infamously, when Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock dropped some pretty frank talk on his beleaguered No. 1.

“This is really on the athlete. There’s times in your young career where you just said you’ve had enough and then you’ve got to go turn it around the other way,” Hitchcock said of Allen’s struggles. “He’s in a position where he’s the guy that has to really take charge here.

“He’s got to man-up and get better.”

Allen, 26, was tasked with carrying the load this season after the Blues dealt Brian Elliott to Calgary at the draft. His status as the club’s No. 1 was cemented with a four-year, $17.4 million deal signed not long after. But things haven’t gone to plan since — Allen’s struggled all year, and is currently saddled with a .900 save percentage and 2.76 GAA.

This latest development is really compelling. For most of the year, Hitch has adhered to the “he’s our guy, we gotta stick with him” philosophy with Allen — until now. Perhaps Hitch is tired of waiting. Or perhaps he sees Nashville in the rear view — the Preds have won three straight, and are now just four points back of St. Louis in the Central.

For the Sens, Mike Condon starts in goal.

Elsewhere…

— More of the same for the red-hot ‘Canes, who will give Cam Ward his 20th consecutive start. No word yet on who goes for the host Blue Jackets, as Sergei Bobrovsky has been dealing with an illness.

Henrik Lundqvist‘s trusty backup, Antti Raanta, is out until the All-Star break with a lower-body injury, so it’s King Henrik in goal for the foreseeable future. No word yet on who Dallas will start, though Kari Lehtonen did play in yesterday’s loss to Buffalo.

Robin Lehner, fresh off a 31-save win over Dallas on Monday, is back in for the Sabres. He’ll be up against Frederik Andersen in Toronto.

— The Devils will stick with Cory Schneider after he beat the Canucks in Vancouver on Sunday. The host Wild are going with Devan Dubnyk, who continues to be lights-out this season.

— It’s Roberto Luongo versus Chad Johnson as the Panthers take on the Flames in Calgary.

Semyon Varlamov, who’s lost his first two games since returning from a groin injury, will get the start in Colorado as the Avs host the Blackhawks. Chicago counters with Corey Crawford.

Jonathan Bernier took advantage of a rare start on the weekend, shutting out the Coyotes, but the Ducks will go back to John Gibson when the host the Bolts. Tampa Bay has yet to announce a starter, but Ben Bishop did play (and win) yesterday in L.A.

Ryan Miller gets back in goal for Vancouver after Jacob Markstrom played against New Jersey on Sunday. Looks like Miller will face off against Pekka Rinne, who starts for the visiting Preds.