Martin Hanzl, Radim Vrbata

Should the Detroit Red Wings be worried about their defense?


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 Panthers are healthy scratching Bolland, and he is their highest-paid forward, but they insist they’re not sending a message

Dave Bolland, Derek Nansen
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It feels like there’s a story brewing in Florida, where Dave Bolland — the team’s most-expensive forward, at $5.5 million a season — has been a healthy scratch for three consecutive games.

But according to head coach Gerard Gallant, there’s nothing to see here. Move along.

“There’s nothing to talk about,” Gallant said, per the Miami Herald. “He sat out, our team is playing well. There’s nothing more than that. We have to sit two guys and I like the way we’re playing. The next game is a different game. We may change something up, who knows.”

Bolland had just one goal and five points in 18 games prior to getting parked in the press box. Well, technically he got dropped to the fourth line before hitting the press box, but you get the idea. He’s not exactly in Gallant’s good graces.

Not helping Bolland’s case is the fact that, as Gallant pointed out, the club is playing pretty well without him. The Panthers have rebounded from a rough start to November by winning back-to-back games against the Islanders and Red Wings, which set them up nicely for the remainder of this current five-game road swing.

Florida has games still to play in St. Louis, Nashville, Columbus and New Jersey. It’ll be interesting to see when — or, if — he draws back into the lineup.

In closing, a reminder that Bolland’s in the second of a five-year, $27.5 million deal.

Canucks rookie Virtanen exits with upper-body injury, won’t return


After sitting out Friday’s game in Dallas, Vancouver’s Jake Virtanen had to be excited at drawing back in for tonight’s game against the Ducks.

Unfortunately, the excitement didn’t last long.

Virtanen suffered an upper-body injury after playing just 1:45 in the opening frame, and was ruled out of the contest during the intermission. It’s unclear exactly what happened, but it looks like Virtanen was injured on a hit by Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf.

Virtanen didn’t take another shift following the incident, and Getzlaf was given a minor penalty on the play.

While we don’t know what the injury is or it’s severity, losing Virtanen for any length of time would have ramifications for the Canucks and this year’s Canadian entry at the World Juniors. There has been talk of Virtanen possibly being released by the Canucks to participate in the tournament; last year, he was part of the team that captured gold in Montreal and Toronto.

Virtanen has played in 18 games for the Canucks this year, scoring one goal and four points while averaging 10:17 TOI per night.

McLellan sounds off on Oilers after shutout loss in Toronto

Todd McLellan

Edmonton lost for the fourth time in five games on Monday, a 3-0 defeat in Toronto that marked the second time in a week the Oilers have been shut out.

Needless to say, the head coach wasn’t happy.

In a fairly blunt and harsh assessment aimed at a variety of players, Todd McLellan had some choice words for what he called a “disappointing” effort.

Some of the more choice quotes:

“I didn’t think we were a very hard team. I didn’t think we stood over a lot of pucks. I didn’t think we won a lot of battles along the boards. I didn’t think we were competitive enough in a lot of areas.”

“When I look at the trip as a whole, we had some key, key people really under-perform on the trip. Significant minus numbers, not hitting the score sheet. It can’t always be the [Leon DraisaitlTaylor Hall line] that provides that.”

It’s fair to suggest that last one was directed at Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle.

Nugent-Hopkins has just two points and zero goals in his last five games, with a minus-8 rating. Eberle is pointless entirely, and also at minus-8 over the same stretch.

They’re hardly the only Oilers not pulling their weight at the moment, however. Edmonton has lost 15 times in its first 25 games, a figure that suggests there are more problems that just a couple of underachieving forwards.

Just ask McLellan, who all but admitted his team has issues matching up.

“We’re not where we need to be,” he said. “We’ve got work to do as a team, work to do as an organization to get bigger, stronger, harder, and physically win more battles than we lose.”

Roy: Avs ‘need, expect more’ from Varlamov


The tough times continue for Semyon Varlamov.

After another unsuccessful outing on Monday — allowing four goals on 27 shots in a loss to the Islanders — Varlamov was subjected to a familiar refrain: Patrick Roy saying the Avs need more from their No. 1 netminder.


You can hear all of the head coach’s comments in the video above but, for brevity’s sake, here’s the Varlamov stuff:

“It’s not easy for him. Obviously we need that extra save and we didn’t get it on the road. It’s hard to win if you’re giving four goals on the road.

“We just need more from him. He’s our No. 1 guy and we’re behind him, but we need, we expect more from him.”

There has to be serious concern about Varlamov right now, if there wasn’t already.

His save percentage through seven games in November (.891) is marginally better than it was through seven games in October (.889), and that’s not the only alarming stat. Varlamov’s yet to record a shutout this year, yet to record back-to-back victories and has given up at least three goals in six of his last seven starts.

Not good.

Compounding things for Colorado are the standings. The Avs are now 9-14-1 and mired in the Central Division basement, meaning that — if they have any hope of going on a tear and getting back into playoff content — they’ll need to do it soon.

Which means they might not have the time, or the patience, for Varlamov to find his game.