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.