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.)

Glendening done for year with fractured ankle, may need surgery

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What began as a promising season for Detroit’s Luke Glendening has ended on a sour note.

Glendening — signed in the offseason to a four-year, $7.2 million extension — suffered a fractured ankle in last night’s loss to Carolina, and is done for the year.

Wings GM Ken Holland announced the news on Wednesday, adding that the club wasn’t sure if Glendening would require surgery or not.

Glendening, 27, earned his extension after putting up a career-high 21 points in 81 games during the ’15-16 campaign. This year proved to be a frustrating one, though, at least in terms of offense — Glendening found the back of the net just three times in 74 games, and went nearly three months between tallies during the season.

His ice time also took a hit. After averaging over 14 minutes per night in each of the last two seasons, Glendening received just 12:55 TOI per.

 

Report: Wild land Gophers captain Kloos, in on Hobey Baker finalist Vecchione

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Minnesota could soon have a couple more additions to its impressive prospect pool.

Per the Star-Tribune’s Mike Russo, the club has agreed to terms with University of Minnesota senior Justin Kloos on a two-year, $1.4 million entry-level deal. Kloos — like another prospect that just left school, former first-round pick Luke Kunin — will report to AHL Iowa on an amateur tryout, and his ELC will kick in next year.

Kloos, 23, captained the Gophers to the NCAA championships this year, racking up 43 points in 38 games. Russo reported the undrafted free agent had “a bunch of offers” from NHL clubs including Calgary, Vancouver and San Jose.

And the Wild might not be done there.

In the same report, Russo also notes the Wild are “heavily in” on Union’s Mike Vecchione, widely regarded as one of the top UFDAs available in this year’s collegiate class.

Vecchione, a senior, finished third in the country this year with 62 points in 36 games en route to a Hobey Baker nomination. He’s captained Union in each of the last two seasons and is the reigning ECAC player of the year. The 24-year-old has been tied to the Flyers, given he has some familiarity with the organization and attended the club’s prospect development camp last summer.

These have to be exciting times for the Wild (if you ignore the fact they’re mired in an awful slump). Landing Kloos and the potential of getting Vecchione would, as mentioned above, add to a stable that includes Kunin, Russian Kirill Kaprizov, Sweden’s Joel Eriksson-Ek and Kunin’s U.S. junior teammate, Jordan Greenway, who all showed extremely well at the world juniors.

Speaking of Eriksson Ek, he’s up with the Wild now after being brought over from the Swedish League. Wild GM Chuck Fletcher is hopeful the 20-year-old — taken in the first round of the ’15 draft — can provide Minnesota with “a little shot in the arm.”

Hobbled Penguins hoping to be ‘healed up right around playoff time’

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PITTSBURGH (AP) Ron Hainsey arrived in Pittsburgh from Carolina a month ago on the verge of reaching the playoffs for the first time in his 14-year career.

The durable defenseman found an odd but perhaps apt way to fit in with his new team: He got hurt. Ten games into his tenure with the Penguins, Hainsey went down with an upper-body injury to join an increasingly long line of familiar faces watching in suits from the press box rather than wearing sweaters on the bench.

“Injuries happen,” Hainsey said on Tuesday after skating with his teammates, an important step toward his hopeful return before the postseason begins next month. “Obviously, this team we have a lot of them.”

So many to so many bold-faced names — from Hainsey and fellow defensemen Olli Maatta, Trevor Daley and Kris Letang to star center Evgeni Malkin and energetic young forwards Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary — that it’s remarkable the defending Stanley Cup champions have been able to hang around in the chase for the Metropolitan Division and the Presidents’ Trophy.

“It’s been crazy around here,” said defenseman Justin Schultz, one of only five players to miss fewer than five games so far. “You see so many guys walking around, it’s wild.”

The wear and tear from trying to keep it together with a threadbare lineup, however, is beginning to show.

Pittsburgh’s hopes of catching first-place Washington took a hit during a third-period implosion on Sunday night at home against Philadelphia as the Flyers poured in four goals over the final 20 minutes of a 6-2 win that left the Penguins three points behind the Capitals with seven games to go.

It was a rare forgettable night in a season that’s showcased both the brilliance of center Sidney Crosby (who’s 42 goals lead the league) and the laser focus preached by coach Mike Sullivan.

There have been few signs of a Stanley Cup hangover. The Penguins have the fewest home losses in the league and they’ve kept Washington and Columbus within arm’s reach despite the kind of health issues their two rivals have largely avoided.

The key now, even with players on the verge of returning, will be keeping it going. While the odds of Pittsburgh emerging from the three-way race – and avoiding a first-round matchup against the other runner-up – are iffy at best, don’t expect the Penguins to ease up in an effort to rest for the playoffs.

“Our experience has been that you just don’t flip a switch and turn it on,” Sullivan said. “We’re going to have to go into each game with a mindset of trying to win.”

Pittsburgh went 8-2 over its final 10 games of the regular season last spring then rolled to the franchise’s fourth championship. Putting together another surge will be difficult, though there were promising signs during a crowded post-practice dressing room.

Sheary, who left the loss to the Flyers with a lower-body injury, practiced on Tuesday and should play on Wednesday when Chicago visits. Jake Guentzel, who suffered a concussion last week after getting hit illegally by Buffalo’s Rasmus Ristolainen, skated but no timetable has been set for his return.

The rookie, who struggled getting off the ice after being leveled by Ristolainen, called the hit “just a hockey play,” though it ended with Ristolainen receiving a three-game suspension.

The line of Guentzel, Sheary and Crosby had almost single-handedly kept Pittsburgh’s offense going with Malkin out. They’re optimistic they’ll get a chance to recreate the mojo before the regular season ends.

“You don’t want to limp into the playoffs, losing a few games,” Sheary said. “I think momentum is a huge thing in this game. If you’re playing well going into the playoffs, I think that carries over big time.”

Getting familiar faces back in the lineup before mid-April is critical.

On that front at least, the Penguins appear to have been spared. It seems everyone has a chance to be in uniform when things get going for real.

“It seems like all the injuries are supposed to be healed up right around playoff time,” Sheary said.

“Hopefully we can get those guys back and use it to our advantage.”

School’s out: McAvoy signs ATO with Providence Bruins

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Charlie McAvoy is done with college hockey.

The 19-year-old defenseman is leaving Boston University to sign an amateur tryout with the Providence Bruins. It’s expected he’ll make his AHL debut this weekend.

McAvoy was drafted 14th overall in 2016 by the Boston Bruins. In addition to starring for the Terriers the past two seasons, he was named to the World Juniors All-Star Team after helping the Americans to the gold medal in 2017.

Bruins GM Don Sweeney did not rule out the possibility of McAvoy making his NHL debut this season. (If McAvoy does, he’ll burn the first year of his entry-level contract.)

As for the other BU star and Bruins draft pick, Sweeney said forward Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson has yet to decide whether to go pro.

Forsbacka-Karlsson, 20, was drafted 45th overall in 2015.