Special Teams is Killing the Red Wings

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

"You need someone to grind even on the power play" - Michael Petrella

Did you read that quote up there? Do it again. Let it sink in.

I was chatting with Michael Petrella (formerly of The Production Line) the other day about the Red Wings organizational development plan and how little faith the fans have in it to keep the team competitive. During that talk, a particularly interesting tidbit came up. Brendan Smith, who is just now a rookie, was drafted the same year as Patrick Kane, David Perron, PK Subban, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Max Pacioretty. Throw in Jamie Benn, Logan Couture, and Wayne Simmonds for good measure.

A good number of them (all but Shattenkirk) have all hit at their mid-level payday. Many of them have the deals which will take them until they earn UFA status. Each of these guys is more-proven than Brendan Smith. If we wanted to have a little more fun, we could look at everybody from the 2009 class and see which guys have gotten more opportunity than Gustav Nyquist.

But I digress, this isn't about a development plan that leaves players in the minors in favor of re-treads. It's about how Detroit's Bowman Index score (the sum of the rankings numbers for the team's power play and penalty kill effectiveness) is only 7 (out of 59) possible numbers away from being as bad as can possibly be.

While there are a few different problems to look at (the complete disappearance of depth scoring for one), Detroit's 5-on-5 scoring ratio is 1.08. The Red Wings are outscoring their opponents at even strength. I mean, it's by one goal and that one goal can be essentially thrown out if you discount Damien Brunner's goal in the waning seconds of Saturday's loss to Columbus. At least Detroit isn't getting outscored at even strength.

Detroit's powerplay is 25th in the league for scoring percentage. If you use Behindthenet.ca's 5-on-4 scoring rate, their 3.0 goals per 60 minutes of power play time is worse than every single team other than the New York Rangers'. This gets significantly worse when you consider that Detroit has spent more time on the power play than any other team in the league. If we go back to scoring percentage and increase their 12.2% rate to an at-least-respectable 20%, we're looking at four extra goals over the Red Wings' 9 games. Increase it up to 22.4% (just below 12th-place Florida), you've eliminated the -5 goal differential the Wings have this season.

The other side of the coin is no better. By percentage, Detroit's PK sits at 28th at less than 70% effectiveness. It's a good thing that 10 teams in the league spend more time shorthanded than the Wings do. By rate (again, per Behindthenet.ca), they get a little bit better in the rankings, but 10.7 goals allowed per 60 minutes on the PK is terrible. If the Wings spent 30 minutes of each game alternately drawing and killing penalties, they'd lose every game by four goals.

Individually, the players are faring as would be expected from one of the league's worst overall special teams.

Henrik Zetterberg leads the Wings in 5-on-4 scoring pace with 5.08 points/60 minutes played. For comparison, his rank among players with respectable PP time (at least 2 min per game) puts him in a tie for 60th with Brad Boyes. Pavel Datsyuk's and Johan Franzen's scoring rates place them at 90th and 92nd leaguewide. The drop-off from those three sees Damien Brunner at 148th in the league and every single other Red Wings forward with at least two minutes of PP time per game tied for dead last with a 0.00 scoring pace.

For the record, going back a few seasons, the pace for the league's best PP scorers is somewhere between the high-5s and the high-6s.

On the PK, we look at the opposite: how many goals are scored on the Wings per 60 minutes of PK time with individuals on the ice. Focusing on ice time leaders, we've got Jonathan Ericsson, Kyle Quincey, Drew Miller, Nik Kronwall, Justin Abdelkader, Kent Huskins, Daniel Cleary, and Pavel Datsyuk as the top eight in total ice time (Darren Helm will be PKing forward #1 when he can play again).

Of those players, Nik Kronwall is watching about 17 goals per 60 minutes of PK time (4vs5 only). Ericsson is just behind him at 16.27. Drew Miller and Justin Abdelkader fill up the worst two forward spots at about 16 and 15 GA/60 respectively. This isn't very surprising, considering Drew Miller and Justin Abdelkader share roughly 40% of their PK ice time.

For comparison to previous seasons (with the larger data sets), the 30-best PKers in the league who played at least 70 games and had decent ice time short-handed all had PK goals-against rates at or lower than 5.0.

Of the top eight, there is one player who through any combination of possible factors has played in more than 3 minutes of PK per game and hasn't seen a goal against at 5-on-4: Kent Huskins. The best of those who have seen goals against include Dan Cleary, Kyle Quincey, and Pavel Datsyuk.

The numbers will regress toward the mean as more ice time happens, but it's pretty clear that the Wings' PK either lacks the right personnel, the right mixes of talent, and/or the right coaching.

Personally, the PK worries me much more than the PP does. The Wings have enough scoring talent in the top six (as evidenced by the fact that the top six is doing all the scoring for the Wings so far this season). What I would like to see from a pure approach standard is exactly what Petrella said in the quote at the very top here.

"You need someone to grind even on the power play"

Penalty-killers at the professional level are all coached more-or-less the same: Try to keep the puck to the outside. Let the skill guys pass around the perimeter all they want, but get in the good shooting lanes and get on the guys who wander into the middle. For skilled forwards, that setup is basically a honeypot. Give them all the room they could possibly want to complete passes and dance around on the outside of the area and they'll go to town, kind of forgetting that the point is to get the puck in front of the net and then put it in there (not to pick on the guy, but Valtteri Filppula is probably the poster-child for falling for the allure of all the extra space he's given on the outside).

If you'll remember all the way back to last night's game and the only goal Detroit scored, you'll remember that just prior to the setup for the goal, Henrik Zetterberg started the process by trying to drive to the middle of the ice and drawing two defenders. That play didn't work, but Damien Brunner was able to block the clearing attempt and move the puck over to Kronwall, who was able to keep possession despite a bobble on the pass because of how much Zetterberg's move to the middle forced the Flames' PK to collapse in. This is how you grind on the PP. The Red Wings need players who are willing to lean on the defenders and put pressure to the center of the PK box in order to shrink their coverage area and get more prime real-estate in scoring areas. Easier said than done, but I'm not the one getting paid millions to do this.

As for the PK? I think the problem is pretty much the opposite. A good PK certainly keeps players to the outside, but they also opportunistically jump at bad passes, mishandles, flat-footed players, and chances to pressure the points. Going back to the 2007-08 season, there's no correlation between teams who tend to score more shorthanded goals and those teams giving up more short-handed goals against. In fact, the correlation is very weakly negative...meaning an increase in short-handed goal scoring might (And I stress MIGHT) be responsible for a team's PK goals against going down.

That could just as well mean that only teams with finishers tend to have more-successful PKs and that the worst PKing teams tend to be aggressive-but-terrible. I think I'd be willing to chance that, because the status quo right now is non-aggressive and still terrible.

The return of Darren Helm and his speedy aggressiveness should certainly help, but the Red Wings can hardly afford to wait for and count solely on that. Something isn't working and that needs to change.

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