There's a lot of big storylines for the upcoming Red Wings season. Can the Wings stay healthy? What role will youth play? What is this team's ceiling, and can they actually hit it? We're all pretty familiar with these already, but if you're a numbers nerd like myself, there are a few other storylines to be tracking. On the eve of the NHL season, we're going to take a look at five statistical storylines to keep an eye on this season if you are a numbers nerd, aspiring numbers nerd, or just a regular Wings fan with a passing interest in modern NHL statistics. To put it simply, the more of these five storylines turn out to be positive, the more success the Wings will likely have this season. Let's get started with an easy one.
Jimmy Howard's Save Percentage
Jimmy Howard has a career save percentage of .917. It's not really a hall of fame number, but it's certainly an above-average number. However, going into last season, Howard had just compiled a save percentage of .920 or higher in 3 of the last 4 seasons, which is a truly excellent performance. He was trending upward in his career, and his reputation was steadily increasing from "good" to "great." Then last season's .910 happened, which was his worst season since 2010-2011's .908 save percentage. There's a lot that goes into a goalie's save percentage, and "luck" (or "random chance" for those uncomfortable with the term luck) is absolutely one of them. So in some sense, Jimmy may improve just by getting a few more favorable bounces this year. Regardless, if Howard had managed to repeat his shortened season's .923 save percentage last year, he would have given up 19 fewer goals, which probably would have swung 3-4 games minimum, if not more. The reality is that last year's team, injuries and all, was probably a 5-6 seed with a better Howard performance rather than an 8 seed, and that's pretty significant.
If the Wings really are going to take a step forward this year, Jimmy Howard is capable of helping them do exactly that regardless of the health situation. So keep an eye on where Howard's save percentage tracks this year. If he can rebound up to his .920+ ways, you can expect a noticeable improvement in goals against for the Red Wings this season.
Second Pairing Possession Numbers
This was a real issue last season, something I touched on in my evaluation of Kyle Quincey. The gist of it is the Red Wings carried play when the top pairing was on the ice - pretty well with Kronwall/Ericsson, even better with Kronwall/Smith. The third pairing was heavily sheltered, but the Wings did still carry play when they were on the ice too. The second pairing, however, was predominantly Quincey/DeKeyser, and they lost the possession battle - floating around a 49% corsi as a pairing. The Red Wings were a solid possession team last year, but there's a very strong case to be made that an improved second pairing would push them up a tier and make them a much more dangerous team. The Red Wings suddenly-deep forward corps can only do so much if the guys on the back end struggle to get the team transitioning out of the defensive zone, and that's something Babcock himself has harped on during the offseason and throughout the preseason.
Look for a mixing of the second pairing this season, and then keep an eye on the possession numbers of whoever is playing those minutes. Babcock had Smith and DeKeyser skating together in practice yesterday, and perhaps that's a clue on what he plans to try differently this year. Brendan Smith has a habit of tilting the ice the right way whenever he's on the ice, so watching to see if the top-4 improves this year merely from a pairing shuffling is a key issue to keep an eye on.
Riley Sheahan with fewer training wheels
This may be a controversial inclusion, but there are definitely a few Wings fans such as myself that have a little voice in the back of our heads that is concerned about Riley Sheahan if he suddenly doesn't have possession monsters Tatar or Nyquist on his wing. Tatar and Nyquist thus far have been significant possession boosts with whoever they play with, and when they're with Sheahan, they get sheltered minutes to boot. Joakim Andersson looked consistently excellent in the short season with Tatar or Nyquist on his wing, but since he's lost those linemates, he's struggled to even stay in the lineup. The reality is we have yet to see Sheahan without one of those guys on his wing, and we have yet to see him play minutes that weren't very favorable.
The Red Wings are deep enough right now that Sheahan definitely won't get thrown into the fire immediately. However, with Nyquist's spot on a top line locked down, and Tatar likely to see at least a few cameos up with Datsyuk, Sheahan will get some tougher minutes eventually. If he can continue to push possession with tougher minutes and/or less forgiving linemates, that'll say a lot more about his ceiling in the NHL.
Stephen Weiss was almost impossibly bad last year. You know he wasn't great and didn't put up many points, but his corsi was probably even worse than you realized. The Red Wings had just 4 guys below 49% corsi, and Drew Miller's 48.8% may as well be rounded up. Here are the 3 that were below 49%.
Raw corsi% is pretty crude and not something you should rely on solely for making player-to-player comparisons, but when the gap is this large, something is seriously wrong. Daniel Cleary was supposedly hurt most of the year, and Luke Glendening was a frequent punching bag for stats-oriented Wings fans, and yet both of them were way better than Weiss - or rather not nearly as bad. Putting up a 41.7% corsi on a team that was a 51.4% team is very difficult to do, but Weiss managed. Watching his numbers will be a pretty crucial indicator this year. Can he rebound and manage to be at least average on a pretty good possession team, or will he continue to drag down whoever he is on the ice with. We know he's healthy and feeling better this year, so we can expect improvement, but will it be enough?
Young defensemen impact
The position Detroit is in with the Griffin defensemen this season is the same position they were in with the Tatar/Nyquist/Jurco/Sheahan quartet last season. Several of them look ready or close to it, but there's a lot of bodies in front of them. The only thing we really know is a few of them will get significant looks this season, and it'll be really interesting to see if they can steal a spot and latch onto it. If the third pairing suddenly has Xavier Ouellet instead of Brian Lashoff, for example, can it improve over the middling performance we typically see out of Lashoff? The third pairing last year with Lashoff was already heavily sheltered, so we would want to see Ouellet or whoever comes up to dominate some soft competition to show they're really ready for the big time. The reality is that Kindl and Lashoff are under contract, so the youngsters need to prove not only that they can turn in an equivalent performance, but that they can turn in a significantly better performance.
So if you're interested, keep an eye on the numbers when these guys do get a chance to come up. Lashoff put up a 50.3% corsi with very soft minutes last year, and Kindl put up 51.6% with equally soft minutes. If Ouellet, Jensen, or whoever come up for a significant chunk of time, watching their corsi against the soft competition they face will say a lot. The best teams in the league often separate themselves by having superior depth, and the Wings are lacking that on the back end currently. If one or more of these guys can step in and tilt the ice in a serious way when they're out there, it'll say a lot about this team's ceiling.
These are all very pertinent issues facing the team this year, and they're statistics that we'll be checking in on throughout the regular season. Even if talking about these issues from a stat-centric point of view bores you to tears and you have more fun just watching and ignoring numbers, keep an eye out for these things while you're watching the Red Wings this season.