We're approximately t-minus 35 hours until the puck drops between the Ducks and Red Wings, and this is exciting to me, because that means that we can all stop predicting what is going to happen. We have previewed the hell out of the upcoming season, looking at both goalies, each defense pair, and pairs of forwards. We've given you predictions on what is going to happen, both in terms of the Red Wings and the NHL. I have read countless previews around the blogosphere, and the themes are the same: Jimmy Howard has to avoid a major sophomore slump; Ruslan Salei provides stability to the third defensive pairing; Mike Modano and Jiri Hudler make the third line as dangerous as any third line in the NHL; the Flying Circus is reuinted and it feels so good; Johan Franzen could finally hit 40 goals this year; and the Wings must stay healthy. However, there's one area where the Wings have an opportunity to improve and gain valuable points in an ultra-competitive Western Conference: the shootout. Join me after the jump where I'm going to make your head spin-o-rama with how the Wings can improve in this area.Let me start by saying this: I hate the shootout. Hate it. Loathe it. I think it's an abomination, akin to deciding a baseball game with a homerun derby. I get that it's used in international hockey, but that doesn't make it right, it just makes it common. I was perfectly fine with two teams battling all night neck-and-neck, and when the game was over they were tied. It was a sign that the two teams were equals that night, and both earned a point for their efforts and moved on. Then they introduced 4-on-4 OT and gave an extra point to the OT winner, while the loser still got a point for getting past regulation. That was cool, but I was never okay with the "loser point". Now, no one plays to win in overtime, because as long as you've got 2 good breakaway specialists, you are giving yourself a great shot at winning the game in the shootout. I tolerate it in the regular season, but know this: if they ever put this in to decide a playoff game, I am leading the lynch mob to the NHL's headquarters myself in protest.
Having said that, the shootout is a part of the game right now, so the Wings might as well learn how to get better at it. Last year was a tough year for the Wings as they failed to win their division for the first time in 9 years. They finished 10 points behind the Blackhawks, and while the injuries were a major factor in determining their place, the number of points they gave away via the shootout also hurt them. The Wings went 6-9 in the shootout last year, and that's 9 points they failed to pick up. If you want to understand how important the shootout can be in helping you rise in the standings, look no further than the Coyotes last year: they won a whopping 14 games in the shootout, and that allowed them to finish 4th in the conference. In the West, points are going to be hard to come by, so the Wings need to figure this out so that they can get back to winning divisions. With that, I present the ways the Wings can become shootout kings (all stats courtesy of NHL.com).
- The goalies. Among active goalies for their career, Jimmy Howard ranks 34th in shootout save percentage, and Chris Osgood ranks 51st. Essentially, they are giving up at least 1 goal per 3-man shootout round, and that puts a lot of pressure on the forwards to score more often (more on that in a moment). For Jimmy, I'm hoping that an entire season of being in the NHL and studying the different shooters will give him the confidence and understanding to stop them from scoring. He needs to be better and make that big save; either stop the first shooter before the Wings have their turn, or else stop the first guy after the Wings go. If Jimmy can get his save percentage up above .700, or even up to .750, the Wings' chances will improve dramatically.
- Pavel Datsyuk and Todd Bertuzzi can not be the Wings' only consistent shooters. Last year, these were the only 2 Red Wings (minus Drew Miller and Niklas Kronwall, who each took 2 shots respectively) who had a success rate of 50% or more - and you can scratch the "or more" part. Pavel was 7 for 14, and Bert was 4 for 8. Conversely, future captain Henrik Zetterberg was a pitiful 2 for 11. Let that stat swish around in your mind for a second. I love Hank more than most of my friends, and about as much as my family, but for some unknown reason, he sucks at shootouts. Witness the penalty shot in Game 3 against the Sharks last year; was anyone else like me and thinking "let Bert take it"? It's not just Hank: Valtteri Filppula is 1 for 6 in his career; Dan Cleary is 2 for 11. The Wings had Jason Williams and his 33% success rate last year, but he's gone. What the Wings need is a guy who is going to be able to score with some regularity. Which leads me to.....
- The arrival of Jiri Hudler is not only going to bolster the third line and the second power play unit; the guy is pretty good at shootouts. In his career, he is 7 for 18, the second highest success rate for anyone on the Wings who has taken more than 5 shots. I propose that the Wings' 3 shooters to start every shootout should be, in order: Datysuk, Bertuzzi, Hudler. Happy's presence in the lineup as a consistent scorer will allow the Wings to be much more dangerous, and I guarantee that the Wings will win end up with a winning record in the shootout this year due to his being back.
Like I said, I hope the shootout dies a horrible, painful death. I'd love to see 15 minutes of 4-on-4 OT, but that will never happen because they are too concerned about the length of the games. What I'd really like to see is eliminating the point for losing in the shootout, but keep that point for losing in OT. I think that in doing so, it would make teams really try to go for the win in OT, rather than just playing keep-away for 5 minutes so they can throw out their 3 third and fourth liners that happen to be shootout specialists. Unfortunately, until they do make a change, we're stuck with this, so the Wings need to make the most of it. Now, let's drop the puck and let the quest for number 12 begin.