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Sophomore Slump or Defensive Deficiency?

Ask anyone that follows the game of NHL hockey with some degree of regularity to name the Top 5 defensemen in the game today, and the name Nicklas Lidstrom will cross the lips of almost every single participant in the poll. Some might argue that Lidstrom is even the greatest to ever play his position, and there is likely a case to be made for that argument as well. His game is almost as flawless as it was when he was 10 years younger, and the reliability and skill he brings on the blue line are the anchor for the entire Red Wings defensive corps. However, the same logic that says Lidstrom is one of the game’s elite tends to give a sense of comfort that isn’t always founded in rational thought to many a Red Wings fan. Sure, Lidstrom’s play is one of the hallmarks of this team, but spots 2-6 on the blue line don’t necessarily follow the transient property of Lidstrom’s greatness impacting the remainder of the group.

Before I go any further here, let me freely admit that I’ve questioned this defense for the past two years as being overrated and overvalued based on the perception of Lidstrom’s greatness. It’s a testament to his achievements, for sure, but it’s also causing a false sense of security in terms of the expectations around this team. Following the 3-2 loss to the Flyers yesterday, the Red Wings now sit at 16th in the league in goals against per game, surrendering an average of 2.80 per contest. Sure, it’s still sub-3 goals, but that also puts the Wings one spot below the Mendoza line of mediocrity, also known as the bottom half of the statistical representation of the NHL. For a team featuring a sure-fire HOF’er on the blue line, that’s pretty tough to stomach.

The easiest course of action, of course, is to blame the guy between the pipes: one James Howard. There’s no dodging the fact that Howard has been nothing short of average since the calendar rolled into December, and he’ll be the first to tell you that. Howard is now 5-5-1 since the start on December, with a GAA over 3.00 and a cloud of uncertainty forming around him. Many folks are already throwing around the dreaded “S” word, choosing to believe that the Wings lack of success in preventing the puck from going into the net is because Howard is just going through a mythical rite-of-passage as opposed to something more tangible and reliable. Yes, Howard is struggling. Yes, there may be some credence in the thought that Chris Osgood might be a better bet at this point (Yes, you read that correctly. Somewhere, Petrella just had a seizure.) But there is more than meets the eye here when it comes to the Wings and team D.

Detroit’s defensemen are, for lack of a better term, a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to playing style. Most of the guys are big and physical, preferring to knock guys off pucks and drive them into the boards. The obvious exceptions, of course, are Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski, who rely more on skill and positioning as opposed to brute force and physical play. While this may sound like a no-brainer to any Wings fan worth his salt, the fact that 2/3 of the Wings defensive corps relies on physicality sometimes gets lost in favor of terms like “puck-moving defensemen.” While true, Detroit’s puck movers are still big, hard-hitting guys at heart and one would expect them to play in a system that accentuates their strengths as opposed to burying them for a preferred scheme.

What am I getting at? Honestly, tell me you haven’t watched a Wings game in the past two years and thought to yourself on more than one occasion “Damn, it sure looks like X team is on a power play with the way they are holding the puck in our zone.” It happens all of the time. Unfortunately, it seems like it’s designed to happen that way. Rather than giving the D-men the green light to take the body and force the turnovers deep, the Wings rely on a penalty-kill like mentality in that they prefer the forwards to crash down and pick up the bodies, while the D stays at home in front of the net to take away the area immediately in front of whoever is tending net at the time. While this sounds like an effective scheme on paper, it allows for any given number of mismatches in terms of players being open. Think of it like a match-up zone defense in basketball, if you will. The two defensemen pick up guys that come through their zone, but defer to their teammates once those players leave their responsible area.

As any basketball coach will tell you, the best way to beat the zone is to move the ball and exploit the open lanes. The same holds true in hockey, except with some variables thrown in. A basketball team that can shoot the deep ball with any measure of effectiveness is going to give zone teams problems, and that logic translates over pretty seamlessly to the ice as well. Of course, theory has you believe that shooting from the outside is what most teams would like to have happen when they are in their own defensive zone, but that only works if your goalie is reliable on the long bombs and the defense is giving him lanes to see the shots. See where I’m going here?

Yes, the Wings do a good job of forcing guys outside, but it’s increasingly becoming moot when two or more guys are jamming up the area in front of Howard or Osgood because that’s what their assignments are in this system. It’s tough to read and hear about guys not having a chance to stop pucks because they get deflected on the way to the net and there’s “just nothing they could do.” Hell yes there is. It’s called adjusting defensive positioning and the Wings have been rather poor at it. Rather than letting guys go out and play the physical game while allowing the forwards to filter down to take away the middle, the Wings continue to rely on the stagnant defensemen in the middle of the ice, commonly leading commentators around the league to note that “they aren’t moving their feet.” Yes, they aren’t moving their feet because they aren’t supposed to, Jim.

The best example of this theory that I’ve seen in some time was Dan Carcillo’s goal yesterday. The puck winds up behind the net, only to be circled up top, where three forwards immediately converge on their assignments. The only problem? The defense decided to stand in the middle of the ice, and before Salei or Kronwall even knew what happened, Carcillo got lost behind them for an easy tip-in. What the hell? Why isn’t one of these guys all over him when the puck is still behind the net and following him afterward? You guessed it: It’s not their assignment. Take away the slot and above the crease and let the other guys pick up the rest. It’s the same reason you see Nick Lidstrom watch pucks go behind the net, only to skate directly in front of the goaltender and watch the play develop. Does it work for Nick? Sure. The rest of the defense? Not so much.

Look, I get that I’m only one uneducated blogger offering up criticism on a defense that has had its fair share of struggles recently. There’s a reason the Wings coaching staff is on the bench instead of me, and it’s not because my suits aren’t as nice as Uncle Mike’s. But it’s pretty easy to see that running a defensive scheme that looks eerily like a glorified penalty kill (17th in the NHL at 81.4%, FWIW) isn’t getting it done for this team. If you want Howard and Osgood to be better, force guys outside but give them lanes to see the puck and take away the ambiguity of the random tip-ins. Put guys in position to force turnovers in the corner and allow the backchecking forwards to clean up any delinquents in front of the net.

Who knows, maybe that IS the scheme the Wings are running and the players just aren’t executing it properly. But with a blue line of big guys that like to hit and play physical hockey, I’m just not buying it.

5 thoughts on “Sophomore Slump or Defensive Deficiency?”

  1. I’m starting to worry that it’s a coaching issue. The problem is the moving their feet part, because when a D-man chases a guy up the boards while a forward covers his spot back up, that chasing a guy at the boards is supposed to result in angling him off and squeezing him so his only option is toward the blue line to a defenseman that the winger is supposed to have covered (while the center takes the D-man’s spot). Under the current system, they are supposed to be using their physicality to break up cycles, they’re simply not doing it.

    On behind-the-net plays, D-men are never supposed to get directly behind the twine, instead passing that responsibility off again to the center while he posts at the corner of the net. On the Carcillo goal, Ericsson did not take the back corner of the net as he was supposed to. Instead, he was posted in front where Filppula should have moved into and lost his man. Of course, Kronwall was screening Howard and Hudler is not supposed to let that shot get through in the first place.

    Then again, the goal that Howard gave up to Hartnell was soft. The woes here are a mixture of a loss of focus on getting pressure on guys and the goaltending giving up too many soft goals.

    It’s Babcock’s job to make sure their feet are always moving and that the “keeping the guy to the outside” mentality means “forcing the guy into the boards and holding him there with the puck until your teammate comes to bail you out.

  2. VipersGoneNotForgotten

    I think this defense is what it is, average. What seems to me to be the difference between this year and last year is the goal tending. I think Howard is in a sophomore slump. Maybe Howard feels that he does not need to carry the team because the offense scores so many goals, maybe our expectations on what he can be is just too high. Either way he needs to find a way to turn it on by the beginning of the playoffs or we are destined to be another high seeded red wings team that loses to an underwhelming playoff team with a hot goalie.

  3. There have been so many times this season where I’ve gone, “What are they doing out there?” And honestly, I can’t tell, I just know when it isn’t working. I’m not great at paying attention to the little details like that (and my brain automatically looks at offensive plays rather than defensive plays, I don’t know why), so I don’t pick up on some of these things that well. I will try to be a smarter fan and pay attention though. 🙂

    As far as the type of Dmen we have, that’s interesting, too and I only sort of agree with your assessment of our guys. Of course Rafi and Lidas are the skill and positioning types, I agree 100% there. And Stuart and Salei are the physical types. Stuart almost always plays the body (to a fault sometimes), blocks shots, knows his role, etc.

    Rig is… confused, let’s be honest. He doesn’t know what type of defensemen he is. (Does he even know he’s a defensemen?) I think he knows he’s supposed to be physical, but I think he would LIKE to rely on skill and positioning (which he doesn’t. have.)

    And Kronwall likes to make those big open ice hits, but I don’t think of him as much of a physical guy either, I think of him like a hybrid. I also think he’s getting much better at his positioning.

    After reading JJ’s comment, especially this bit- “Under the current system, they are supposed to be using their physicality to break up cycles, they’re simply not doing it.” I thought I might have a guess?

    Maybe because Rig and Kronner aren’t 100% sold on the system? Maybe if Nik Jr really DOES wanna be like Nick Sr… he’s trying to play more like Lidas and not how Babs wants him, leading to that stagnant d-man in front of the net issue? And like I said, Big Rig is just confused. Thank goodness he seems to have either grown half a brains’ worth of sense, or he’s at least listening to the coaches part time, because he’s not as awful as he was, but he’s still clearly confused.

    The last game (an atrocity for 2 periods and a mediocre effort for the third) the problem seemed to be more with lazy, lack of trying. If guys got out of position, they weren’t hustling to get back, weren’t fighting for the puck. They were getting beaten 100% on effort. I think that’s a whole team thing, not just a D thing. A forward’s not doing his job, so the defenseman tries to compensate, then everything falls apart. They were really sloppy the last 3 games, I think injuries are a bit of it, but mental fatigue is the most of it.

    The D and the goalie get the brunt of the blame, when really, it’s everyone contributing to the suckfest. OMG. Comment so long and disjointed and sucky. I almost deleted it without posting but I can’t bear to waste that much effort. haha.

  4. Howard sees the forwards and thinks: I don’t have to be awesome, those guys will score my way to a win.

    The team saw Howard last season and now they think: we don’t have to hustle so much, this guy could’ve won a Vezina with the Detroit Red Griffins.

    All and all, poor effort by all parts, including coaching. And sophomore slump my ass, it’s a slump, fuch has many years he has under his belt. It was completely unrealistic to expect Jim to play like he did last year.

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