Is There A Defense For The Red Wings Defense?

I'm gone for 2 seasons and this is what you become? - Christian Petersen

Alternate title: I really really really really really really really miss Nicklas Lidstrom.

There were a lot of things that didn't go as planned this season for the Wings, and there's plenty of blame to go around. The lack of offense and forward puck movement from the defense was a particular weakness that I think held the team back. We know the Wings defense has declined in the past few years, but just how much? All the numbers and calculations in this post use only regular season stats, and the 2012-2013 season is pro rated to 82 games.

The Problem

This year the Red Wings were 21st in Defense scoring in the league, with 26 goals and 115 assists  Each of the goals from defensemen came in separate games, and the Wings were 14-7-5 when a defenseman scored a goal. Excluding the 2012-2013 season (Pro rated 27G 106A 133Pts), that's the lowest point contribution since at least the 07-08 season. Niklas Kronwall was 10th among defensemen in NHL scoring which is pretty good considering the competition he was up against and the significant role he played for the Wings. After Kronwall however, the drop off is significant, with Danny DeKeyser coming in at 75th. How many players did the Wings used to have in the top 50?

Season # in top 50 Player and Rank
07-08 3
08-09 3 Nicklas Lidstrom(3rd), Brian Rafalski(5th), Niklas Kronwall(11th)
09-10 2 Nicklas Lidstrom (9th), Brian Rafalski(20th)
10-11 3 Nicklas Lidstrom(2nd), Brian Rafalski(12th), Niklas Kronwall(30th)
11-12 3
12-13 1 Niklas Kronwall (7th)
13-14 1 Niklas Kronwall (10th)

Well there's the problem, we no longer have Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski, I'm glad we cleared that up. The Wings lost those two and weren't able to replace their production, leaving only Niklas Kronwall to carry the bulk of the defense scoring. The only year above that Kronwall wasn't in the top 50 was 2009-2010 when he only played 48 games and finished 77th.

The Wings used to be significantly above average in defense scoring, finishing tops in the league, but that seems like a distant memory.

Season NHL rank for D scoring
07-08 2nd
08-09 2nd
09-10 8th
10-11 1st
11-12 12th
12-13 21st
13-14 21st

Looking at the data graphically, it's easy to see the trend has been... undesirable. We're going the wrong way! For reference, Chris Chelios retired from the NHL after the 2008-2009 season, Brian Rafalski retired after the 2010-2011 season, Nicklas Lidstrom retired and Brad Stuart left after the 2011-2012 season.

Wings_defense_scoring_medium

Here's how the Wings compare to the league averages offense from defensemen.

Wings_defense_scoring_vs_league_medium

I think a significant weakness in the current defense is poor puck movement, control, and possession.It's hard to put an exact number on the goals and assists lost because of this, but just watching the defense this year try to get the puck out of the zone and up to the forwards was frustrating. Watching the Griffins defense makes me incredible jealous because the defensemen are almost as good as the forwards (and sometimes better) at moving the puck, entering the zone, getting quality scoring chances, and driving offense. The Wings don't have the players who can do that right now. Kindl is supposed to be a "puck moving" defenseman, but hahaha. I think Smith will continue to grow into being able to do that well at the NHL level, but with the defense roster we had this year we sucked asterisks, and I'm being generous. I also think the lack of puck movement and offensive abilities from the defense put more pressure on the forwards and they weren't able to do their job of scoring as well either.

The Wings defense also shot well below the league average of 5% this season, coming it at 3.97% (including only players who played at least 20 games) .

All of this just shows what we already knew. The Wings defense has been becoming increasingly weaker as we've lost Chris Chelios, Brian Rafalski, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Brad Stuart without replacing their contributions. As a result, our once dominant defense has become average at best.  We have all summer to speculate about who we thing the Wings should sign or promote, and who should be let go, waived, or shot into the sun. It sounds like the Wings are planning to rely heavily on the defensemen in Grand Rapids to come in and make this team better, and from what I've seen so far of those guys, I'm happy to agree.

The Solution

Ken Holland and Mike Babcock have both spoken frequently about the need to upgrade the defense, but exactly how we'll do that is still uncertain. Mike Babcock has some ideas though. During an interview with Dean Molberg and Rhett Warrener on the Fan 960 last week, Babcock spoke about the Wings defense, among other things.

Question: You're a couple years removed now, but with the loss of Nick Lidstrom you think, ‘ ok we're going to lose the best defenseman in the game' but even as an everyday defenseman, how can't you lean on that guy, and is it safe to say that as prepared as you were to be without him, did it go even further than you expected?

Babcock: "We didn't realize how good he was on the powerplay. That' been the biggest thing. Nik Kronwall's been a heck of a player for us and a heck of a leader, and yet he doesn't shoot the puck on the blue line in any way like Lidstrom does, he's more of a passer. We've been looking for a shot on the back end for a long time, now it just so happens we've got a 6'4" right handed D-man in Sproul who was the Canadian Hockey League D-man of the year two years ago, in Grand Rapids. He doesn't quite look ready yet, but he's got an absolute bomb, we're hoping he can arrive here sooner rather than later and really help us with that. Nick's a fantastic player, a generational player, you're not going to have another one probably,but we also had a great supporting cast around him and our supporting cast has suddenly gotten very young.

We feel that the growth of Dan DeKeyser, who we signed out of college, we think he's a great top four D who really gets the puck going. Smith, who we drafted in the first round I don't know how many years ago, started to settle in and play and move the puck for us so we put him with Kronwall. Big E, who missed the last half of the year with a hand injury and never played in the playoffs is a 6'5" D man who can move the puck. When you look at that, and suddenly you add Backman who played in Linkopings, he can really move the puck and he's a 6'2" guy, I think our back end is really going to move the puck next year which is so important to success.

Ideally over a period of time we've drafted and developed enough kids, we've got a real good coach in Grand Rapids and Jeff Blashill has done a real good job, I was down there the other day and we have four D-men who are ready. I don't know if they're ready at the start, but they're ready, they're big puck movers and we want to be a puck moving back end."

I'll let Tyler address the comment on Lidstrom

We have several really good D prospects who I think should be with the Wings next year, and not having to completely rely on the UFA market is very beneficial to the Wings. Babcock specifically talks about Kronwall, DeKesyer, Smith, and Ericsson (the best of the current D-men) and his mention of Backman in the conversation is well deserved because I think he could be with the Wings next season. Ultimately lack of competent puck movement from the defense is a key area the Wings were lacking this year and the Wings appear to be looking to remedy that with home grown players, and that makes me excited.

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