Tomorrow the ten Red Wings players who were selected and able to play for their countries at the Sochi Olympics will begin the Men's Ice Hockey Tournament in search for gold. The remainder will each go their separate ways for a short break of their own before resuming practice with the team in preparation for the playoff run. Starting on February 26th, the Wings will have 24 games remaining to earn their 23rd straight postseason berth.
By standings points, the Wings sit in the Eastern Conference's eighth position, holding onto the last wild card spot. They're up by only one point on three teams hungry to move up and down by a full six against the third and final guaranteed spot in the Atlantic Division. Not all teams have played the same number of games heading into the break, but if you separate everybody by their percentage of points earned, nothing changes in the standings above 10th place.
Regardless of how you cut it, the Wings are a playoff team right now, but how good are they?
|Goals per Game||2.53||19th|
|Goals Against per Game||2.67||15th|
|Time on Power Play||338:11||9th|
|Time on Penalty Kill||358.31||4th-Most|
|PP/PK Time Differential||-20:20||22nd|
|Team Fenwick Close||51.24%||12th|
Looking through the team stats, they tell a pretty good story of an average team. The Wings don't score enough goals, allow too many, take too many penalties and don't score enough on the power play. They're very slightly on the unlucky side as far as what happens on events aimed at the net, but that's not a heavy consideration for a team which is only outshooting their opposition by half a shot per game.
So that's it then? They're just an average team and we should generally expect average results? Well, not quite. There's also this.
Updated breakdown of CHIP numbers at the Olympic break. pic.twitter.com/J7njtVAdhc— LW3H (@LW3H) February 9, 2014
Now it's very hard to tell what exactly the Wings have lost in talent, but it's not hard to figure that a $64M team that plays average with about $30M of that talent out of the lineup might play a little better when that talent returns. Hopefully that's what actually happens.
If we're going to limit ourselves to just two words to describe the first 2/3rds of the season for Detroit's forwards, my choice would be
fart-bubble pussy-riot scabby bandage forced transition. Drew Miller is the only forward in the organization to have played in all 58 games. For various injury/scratch reasons, only three more (Abdelkader, Andersson, Cleary) have appeared in more than 50 games. Henrik Zetterberg is the only forward on the Wings who is in the top-30 in NHL scoring, sitting in a 3-way tie for 28th with two guys who have each played at least 12 more games than he has.
Overall, the Wings have put 20 forwards on the ice and have gotten 130 goals from that crew (88% of team total). Again, Hank leads the way with 16, which is only good for 66th leaguewide. Just five forwards have double-digits in goals (Datsyuk, Alfredsson, Nyquist, and Tatar are the others).
With the high-skill veterans missing significant time, the story of the season to date has been the emergence of the young forwards to pick up some of the slack. Outside Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Alfredsson, the top two scorers fro the Wings are Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar. Nyquist didn't get into his first game until November 21st and Tomas Tatar was a healthy scratch for eight of the team's first nine games. The former is pacing for what would be a 60-point season over 82 games while the latter has paced out at 40 points from third line minutes.
The bitter argument here is that these guys wouldn't have even gotten their chance if not for other players' failures. Injuries have of course played a role, but so have the failures of players like Joakim Andersson (13 points in 52 games), Mikael Samuelsson (1G in 26GP), Daniel Cleary, Todd Bertuzzi, Cory Emmerton, and Stephen Weiss.
Bottom line: The future of the Red Wings' forward corps looks bright, if they can survive long enough to get there. Depth is simultaneously what has kept the Wings in the race and what has hurt them in close games this season.
Veterans bolstered by youngsters is a similar story along the Detroit blue line, but it's not working that well. Points-wise, Niklas Kronwall is having a good year, with 36 points in 56 games played. After that, the drop is severe; Brendan Smith sits in 2nd for scoring with just 13. Overall, the 17 goals for Detroit defensemen places the Wings' in 29th place for the category, ahead of only Montreal.
This might actually be a place where we could simply say the Wings are getting unlucky, as Detroit's defensemen are shooting a combined 3.9% (general average for defensemen is about 5%). However, even if it is just bad luck that guys like Smith, Ericsson, and Kindl are each shooting below 2%, it's not particularly luck-related that two of those three sit outside the top 100 shot-producers among their position (and none of Detroit's defensive corps are in the top-60).
In their own end, the Wing's blueliners have been a flaming bag of donkey hair. From coverage mistakes in front of the net to turnover errors cutting transition short, the relatively young group under Babcock has fallen pretty far from where it was when Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski was the top pairing. Detroit could very much use a veteran minute-muncher to settle things down. Unfrotunately, it doesn't seem like many of those are actually on the market right now.
With injuries and inconsistencies, the problem for the Red Wings on defense is that they essentially have three defensemen capable of consistently playing top-four minutes and four of them who are better-suited for the third pairing. The vacuum in the middle has caused problems for guys who are expected to be able to handle bigger roles than it seems they can.
Combined, Detroit's goaltending has a .913 save percentage, which is currently one shot out of a thousand below the league average. Jonas Gustavsson has a 13-4-3 record, but the worst save percentage on the team, so you can thank him for magically creating more goals from his own crease. On the flip side, Petr Mrazek has stopped 92.4% of shots he's faced, but has just one win in four decisions thanks to the team scoring just one more goal in front of him all season long after spotting him 5 in a game where he shut out the Oilers.
Jimmy Howard meanwhile has just been average, putting up a .914 with two shutouts to his credit. Howard got off to a rough start to the season and missed some time with injury. After coming back the first time, he played better until he was hurt again. Once more, Jimmy returned to the lineup and played well, but he went into the Olympic break failing to crack the .900 save percentage mark in 3 of his last 5 games.
So yeah, the Wings would be better if their goaltending were more consistent.
Detroit has 11 home games and 13 road games remaining after the break. Fortunately, it's not a horrible gauntlet. While there are no true cakewalks, Detroit will have a chance to control their own destiny. Last week, Rob Vollman was tweeting about remaining strength of schedule and I asked him where Detroit stands. Here was his response.
@wingingitmotown Detroit is middle of the pack in post-Olympic schedule difficulty.— Rob Vollman (@robvollmanNHL) February 5, 2014
So that's at least calming. It gets slightly better when you look at the story Mr. Vollman posted on Bleacher Report the next day, where he laid out the ten teams with the toughest remaining schedule and both the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens, who sit above Detroit in the standings, made the list.
Anything can happen going forward and the futures of both Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen could have a lot of say in whether the Wings continue their streak of consecutive playoff appearances, but they're a better team than the record indicates and they should be able to find their way in a solid playoff position come April 13th.