Despite living in Montreal, I have been a fan of the Detroit Red Wings since the epic 1997 playoff series against the Colorado Avalanche. Now, I’m not sure that Mike Vernon got the best out of his scrap against Patrick Roy, but I was not even ten years old at the time and basically decided to root for Detroit because I really disliked the color purple. Fedorov, Yzerman, Shanahan and (later) Brett Hull were some of my favorite NHL players growing up, so I had plenty of reasons to keep cheering for the Wings over years.
That being said, my biggest fascination with the current edition of the Wings is how Mike Babcock and his coaching staff has been able to set up the team from a puck possession point of view.
Chart 1: 2014-15 NHL 5vs5 Shot Attempts For/Against
While the 2014-15 Wings is slightly below-average at creating shot attempts (FF60), they are an elite shot suppression team (FA60), allowing fewer unblocked shot attempts against per 60 minutes of 5vs5 play than every single team in the NHL bar the Tampa Bay Lightning.
For most coaches, the natural reaction to having fewer bona fide talents on their rosters is to play a more structured, disciplined and low-event brand of hockey. For the past 5 years, Detroit has increasingly embraced that mindset without most people realizing it.
From a fan’s perspective, it could be argued that Detroit’s player personnel and overall skill level allows the team to play a free-flowing, creative game while creating the same basic shot-based outcomes as a neutral zone trap team circa 2001.
There is some truth to that statement. However, considering that Datsyuk (aged 36), Kronwall (aged 33), Zetterberg (aged 34) and Franzen (aged 35) have already played their best hockey, and that the Red Wings made the playoffs last year despite having Drew Miller and Luke Glendening playing heavy minutes for a good chunk of the season, I’d be much more inclined to believe that Babcock and his staff have done an exceptional job of maximizing whatever talent they have around, rather than subscribe to the theory that the current Detroit team has an overabundance of talent to begin with.
Mike Babcock has recognized that his stars are aging, and that his depth players just aren't as good as those he used to have. Making adjustments over time allowed his team to remain a consistent postseason threat.
Chart 2: Detroit Shot Attempts For/Against, 2007-2015
With the departure of Lidstrom, Filppula, Rafalski, Holmstrom, Hudler and Hossa, we can see that the Red Wing’s ability to create shot attempts has essentially been getting worse every single year since 2010. However, Mike Babcock and his assistants have managed to keep the team competitive by focusing on preventing the other team from attacking the Detroit zone. As a result, this year’s team has been better at preventing shot attempts against than most other Red Wings squads in recent memory, an impressive feat considering that the 2007-08 and 2011-12 teams had a younger version of the current core, plus Nick Lidstrom quarterbacking the team in all situations.
The perfect counter-example to Babcock’s influence on his team is that of recently fired Paul Maclean on the Ottawa Senators. Since winning the Jack Adams Trophy in 2013 with the young, speedy, free-wheeling Sens, MacLean’s charges have gotten their jocks handed to them defensively in each subsequent season. While the Wings stayed above water with +41/-36 in 2013, +40/-37 in 2014 and +39/-35 this year, the Senators have cratered from a perfectly good +45/-40 in 2012-13, to +44/-46, to +37/-45 before MacLean got pink-slipped. The Sens are a cap-floor team and have lost important pieces of their roster such as Spezza and Alfredsson in recent years. Playing a more conservative, low-event style and focusing on preventing opposing shots, like the Wings have been doing, may well have saved MacLean's job.
Chart 3: Ottawa Shot Attempts For/Against, 2007-2015
Assuming that it is indeed the Detroit coaching staff which deserves the bulk of the credit for the team being so efficient defensively, then how many goals is that worth? Well, the 2014-15 Red Wings are allowing roughly 10% fewer shot attempts against than what can be expected out of an average NHL team, when looking at a linear regression of all team-level data since 2007. Over the course of an 82-game season, we can estimate that Detroit’s shot suppression ability is worth approximately 15 goals. As a point of reference, only Tatar, Franzen, Zetterberg, Nyquist, Kronwall and Alfredsson made a bigger difference to last year’s Detroit Red Wings, according to Hockey-Reference’s Goals Created metric.