We've been working on our season previews for the last couple weeks and have gotten all the way through the forwards and the offense. We'll start on defensive personnel soon, but let's go ahead and take a look at the overall team defense as it stands.
Last Year's Benchmark
While there are lots of ways to describe "defense" in the NHL, the collective way of looking at it all together as a factor of preventing goals bears a strong indication that what the Red Wings had last year defensively was fairly average. In all situations, the Wings were 12th in goals allowed per 60 minutes and 13th-best in total shots against. The reason for the ranking difference was because of their 16th-best goaltending.
However, we've got a big gap in here caused by special teams. When we go by just 5-on-5 hockey, Detroit was the 7th-best at preventing goals and the 4th-best at preventing shots (by rate). The problem is that only Winnipeg spent more time on special teams than the Wings did. Detroit spent two more hours on special teams than the league average. This works out to about 90 seconds per game more that Detroit spent on the power play (not defense) or on the penalty kill (yes defense). Since there were only 27 second separating total PP time from PK time for the wings all season, that's a split where the Wings were spending a lot more time than they should have playing PK.
Of course, one of the things that can lead to taking penalties is bad defensive play too, so it's not exactly like the even-strength defense is getting off the hook for how often they had to play shorthanded. The Wings' defensive corps took 47% of the team's minor penalties last season. Not all of those are defensive lapses (just like not every penalty taken by a forward is a guy playing offense), but either way, the Wings have a decent foundation to build off of with lots of room to improve.
Changes to the System
Personnel-wise, the only change to the way the Wings ended the season last year is that right-shooting offensive defenseman Marek Zidlicky has been replaced by right-shooting offensive defenseman Mike Green. I think Green should be a healthy step up from Zidlicky, but the way the corps is made up right now looks very similar to the way it did at the end of their playoff run.
More importantly, we're in a wait-and-see mode to see how things will be different with Jeff Blashill running the team. Mike Babcock intentionally played a very low-risk/low-reward style of play last season, opting to keep total shooting events lower for both teams. Jeff Blashill's Griffins had defensemen who took a few more chances in the offensive zone. It'll be interesting to see if the Wings trade a bit more quantity in shots allowed without giving up too much in quality.
The Wings have never gotten defense only from their defensemen. Last season the Wings dedicated an entire forward line to helping make sure the team was defensively responsible. The results were mostly positive in terms of helping win the possession battle, but they also spent a lot of time positioning themselves against the opponents' cycle in their own zone. This leads to more difficulty breaking out with a speed or manpower advantage and it can also lead to penalties taken.
If we were talking about a boxing match, this system is akin to two fighters grappling for most of the fight looking for opportunity to land quick punches instead of two guys trying to knock each other's teeth out with haymakers.
Honestly, when it comes to defense, the system works. No team allowed fewer high danger scoring chances against than Detroit. They may have spent a lot of time in their own zone, but when it came to it, defensive breakdowns leading to real quality opportunities came few and far between for Detroit's opponents.
The personnel hasn't changed too much, but the philosophy will evolve under a different coach. I think Blashill opens up the defense a little more than Babcock did. Detroit's 211 goals allowed was about 7 below the league average. I'm not sure a real defensive improvement is in the cards for this year other than a hope that a goaltender's duel will help keep more shots out of the net while an uptick in offensive chance-taking can help unbalance the power play/penalty kill ratio more in the Wings' favor.
It's weird to think that things will hinge more on the offense, but I think despite the personnel questions, Detroit's blueliners have shown they're capable of playing well in their own zone. It will be up to them to simply spend less time there. Everything else will take care of itself.