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Season Preview: Special Teams

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Former Red Wings' coach Scotty Bowman once said that if you added a team's powerplay ranking and a team's penalty kill ranking and the sum was 10 or less, then the team was in great shape. Last season, the Wings powerplay finished the season 2nd overall at 23.8% and after their PK's hot start, they finished 17th at 80.9%. The powerplay numbers in particular were the best the team has compiled since the 2008-2009 season when they finished first overall at 25.5%. Ironically enough, the last time the Wings PK was worse than 80.9%, it was the same 2008-2009 season. Regardless of the finish, both units demonstrated sustained periods of brilliance. Without further ado, let's take a look at how each of those units dominated last season, where the failures occurred, and what we can expect for this season.

The Penalty Kill

Last season, Tony Granato (penalty kill) did a masterful job leading his unit in the early part of the season. The Wings started the season by killing the first 21 powerplays they faced and 67 of the first 75 (89.3%). When the Wings penalty kill was operating at it's best, it was a thing of beauty to watch. Check out this gif below illustrating how well the Wings penalty killers were able to get in the passing and shooting lanes.

From this gif you can see initially how well the Red Wings forwards and defensemen rotated to maintain the box, take away passing lanes, and make it impossible to get the puck through cleanly. At the start of the gif you can see how aggressive Drew Miller is in pressing the point and how the Red Wings players overloaded the side with the puck. This can be dangerous if the team is able to get the pass through. However, you can see that Miller initially took away the passing lane before moving to the high point when the puck was moved there. Once the puck arrives to the right boards, Kyle Quincey comes out a bit to challenge, but not too far as to open up a passing lane down low. Additionally, his stick is positioned in the middle of the ice to take away any potential tip play to the middle of the ice. These are all hallmarks of a good penalty kill and this sequence was from the October 18th game against the Leafs where the Wings spent nearly seven minutes shorthanded but yielded just 7 shot attempts and only 4 shots on goal.

The penalty kill system the Wings used last year is known as the "1-2-1" or the "diamond" penalty kill as shown below.

This system is designed to take away the high point shot from the center of the ice as well as protect the cross-ice pass at the top of the faceoff dots. As the puck moves from side to side, the two forwards will work in sync to change roles. If the puck goes to the left side, then the forward playing that side will move down while the other forward will move to the top of the diamond and vice versa. The weakness of this strategy is when teams move the puck down towards the goal line. What this does is setup a 2-on-1 from below the faceoff dots. Therefore, your defensemen must play the percentages and take away the cross-ice pass and allow the goalie to take the shooter at the bad angle. Additionally, if the puck gets through to the net and a rebound is kicked out, the powerplay unit can often outnumber the penalty killers quickly and pounce on an opportunistic rebound. An example where this weakness is exploited is shown below.

As you can see, Philadelphia Flyers' captain Claude Giroux plays this powerplay perfectly. As soon as Quincey and Glendening move forward to assume the "2" spots, Giroux sees that the Flyers have 2 guys in front of the net and only Danny DeKeyser is within an arm's length of them. Giroux puts a quick shot on goal and Brayden Schenn is able to beat DeKeyser to the puck and knock it into the empty net.

I expect the Red Wings to employ a very similar penalty kill system this year as Tony Granato will be back and the Wings did have success with the system when played appropriately. Towards the end of the season, there were far too many miscommunications that resulted in players being out of position. Additionally, the Wings penalty kill gave up far too many shot attempts in the second half of the season. The Wings will have to do a better job of taking away the high point shot and doing a better job of collapsing back to the net when a shot does get through.

First 7 Games Final 75 Games
Shorthanded CA/60 88.2 101.2

I expect the Red Wings to employ the following line combinations for their two main penalty kill units

PK Unit #1

Luke Glendening - Drew Miller

Danny DeKeyser - Kyle Quincey

PK Unit #2

Riley Sheahan - Landon Ferraro

Niklas Kronwall - Jonathan Ericsson

The PK units will be interesting this season because I do not expect Joakim Andersson to make the team. Therefore either Sheahan or Darren Helm will be asked to play key penalty kill minutes. I've mentioned before that I would ideally like to see Helm assume that role because in my opinion he is one of the top-10 penalty kill forwards in the league. However, it will all depend on the role that new head coach Jeff Blashill puts him in. If Blashill returns him to the bottom-6, then I expect Helm to earn the minutes on the PK ahead of Sheahan. Either way, both are smart and capable penalty killers. I expect the Red Wings penalty kill to improve, if only because they have a second full year to work with Granato.

The key to the improvement of the penalty kill will be improving their faceoff percentage. At all strengths, the Red Wings ranked 10th in faceoff percentage at 51.5%. However, in shorthanded situations, the Wings won just 43.8% of their draws, good for 24th in the NHL. Last season the Wings spent far too much time in their zone while on the penalty kill. Winning a higher percentage of draws will help the Wings spend less time in their own zone.

The Powerplay

After a horrendous start to the season where they scored just 2 goals on their first 30 attempts, the Wings powerplay caught fire, finishing the season 2nd overall at 23.8%. Assistant coach Jim Hiller did a fantastic job employing a "1-3-1" style powerplay that features a point person positioned in the center of the blue line, two players positioned along the half boards of each side of the ice, one player in the slot, and one player in front of the net. When it's successful, it works like the gif shown below:

In this gif you see how the Nyquist is able to draw the top of Buffalo's penalty kill all the way down to the faceoff dots. This leaves the points wide open which the DeKeyser and Tomas Tatar exploit.

The 1-3-1 system is very hard for the opposition to defend for a few different reasons. First, there are four different passing triangles available that make it very difficult for the penalty killers to rotate to. Second, this formation allows you to outnumber any penalty kill formation in the slot area as three players are positioned in this area. Finally, this formation allows for the point area to be opened up, which allows for one-timers. With this system, coach Hiller often employed four forwards and one defenseman because only one person was actually stationed at the blue line while the other four players are inside the top of the faceoff circle.

I've drawn the four passing triangles that I alluded to earlier. As you can see, this can be very difficult to defend, especially if you are playing a "box" system, like what Buffalo doing here. You can see that there are passing lines across the middle of the ice, passing lanes to the front of the net, and passing lanes to the point for Nyquist. The options available here are what really allow Detroit's creativity to shine.

This season, Jim Hiller is gone and in comes Pat Ferschweiler, who was an assistant coach for Jeff Blashill in Grand Rapids and before that, an associate head coach at Western Michigan where he coached Danny DeKeyser. Last season, the Griffins' powerplay clocked in at 17.0%, good for 16th in the AHL. The Griffins employed a mix of the 1-3-1 and the "spread" powerplay system, which involves having two forwards below the faceoff dots on each side, one forward in the slot, and two point guys. This strategy worked well for Grand Rapids as you had Teemu Pulkkinen and others firing bombs from the point.

I don't expect the Wings to employ a "spread" powerplay system very often simply because the Wings' strength is their net front presence and this can sometimes be lacking in a spread system. I think Ferschweiler and Blashill will continue the 1-3-1 system that worked so well for the Wings last year and find ways to get Pulkkinen open from the point.

As for forward lines, I expect the Wings to use the following powerplay line combinations:

Line 1:

Henrik Zetterberg - Pavel Datsyuk - Justin Abdelkader

Niklas Kronwall - Tomas Tatar

Line 2:

Gustav Nyquist - Riley Sheahan - Brad Richards

Teemu Pulkkinen - Mike Green

I think Detroit's personnel is far superior to what they had last year with the addition of Richards and Green. If the Wings finish with a powerplay percentage less than 20%, I will be very surprised. The biggest area for improvement in Detroit's powerplay will be zone entries. In games where the Wings powerplay struggled, it was because they never were able to enter cleanly. One option would be for the Wings to move Teemu Pulkkinen to the first PP unit and move Tomas Tatar to the 2nd PP unit. Tatar, Zetterberg, and Datsyuk are by far the Wings most capable players when it comes to entering the zone and right now all of them are on the first PP unit. If the Wings can continue to enter the zone cleanly, this powerplay will be very scary.

Overall, the Wings have the capability to put together a very strong powerplay and penalty kill. The problem is that the Wings have not put both together in the last few seasons. The last time the Wings had a top-10 powerplay and penalty kill was 2009-2010. They certainly will have a decent chance this season to replicate that feat.