Our season previews so far have dealt with individuals and the expectations we have of them going into next season when they suit up for the Detroit Red Wings. Today, we take a step back a bit, trying to see the forest for the trees and how the individual parts become the unit that makes up Detroit's offense next season.
This is ostensibly supposed to be a post about the future. But to see what that future might hold for the Red Wings offense next season, we need to look at the past.
The Red Wings offense finished at a respectable 10th position in the NHL with 231 goals total, meaning the team scored 2.82 goals per game. Included in that total were 138 goals at 5-on-5 even and 63 goals at 5-on-4 power play strength. Detroit had four 20-goal scorers — Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, Pavel Datsyuk, and Justin Abdelkader — and eight double-digit goal-scorers to go along with the 20-goal guys — Henrik Zetterberg, Darren Helm, Riley Sheahan, and Luke Glendening.
The Red Wings finished 10th in the NHL in goals on the strength of the power play. The 63 goals at 5-on-4 led the league, while the meager 138 even-strength 5-on-5 tallies clocked in seventh from last. Of the team's leading goal-scorers, Tatar led the team by a lot with 18 goals at 5-on-5; Datsyuk and Abdelkader tied with 13; and Nyquist brought up the rear of the team's best scorers with 11 even strength 5-on-5 goals.
In one sense, the lack of offense should be concerning. This is a team that's supposed to be transitioning from an aging core to a new group that will carry the team when Datsyuk and Zetterberg retire or are no longer able to carry the team the way they have been. Tatar and Nyquist have done admirably. Justin Abdelkader finally had a breakout season which helped carry the team in March last season, but questions remain about his ability to maintain that kind of production. Guys like Sheahan, Helm, and Glendening contributed, but they also have questions about whether they can sustain — or improve, in the case of Sheahan and Glendening — that kind of production.
The nuance about last season, however, is that Detroit actively tried to be a very low-event team. In their attempts to suppress opponent shot attempts — Detroit was one of two teams that totaled fewer than 100 Corsi events per 60 minutes last season — they also passed up some opportunities to generate more offense than they did create. The Red Wings were a good possession team, and they also had the individual players who were driving the puck in their favor, but the offense essentially became victim to a numbers game. Fewer shots attempts generated led to fewer shots on goal, which led to fewer goals.
None of this talks about the contributions of the defensemen to the offense. In general, defensemen don't contribute goals as much as the forwards do, so the Red Wings' 5-on-5 goal totals from defense were fine as they were about league-average. Niklas Kronwall, even as he gets older, still has great instincts in the offensive zone. As high as Danny DeKeyser's assist totals were, it still feels like there's another level he can hit offensively. These two are currently the cream of the crop for Detroit in terms of offensive production from the blue line.
Where the offensive contributions of the defense suffered most was in transition. Detroit has had trouble getting out of their own zone and letting the forwards create a rush opportunity for a few seasons now.
Enter Jeff Blashill
This problem is where the hiring of Jeff Blashill has been most talked about, especially in contrast to his predecessor Mike Babcock. Whereas Babcock held the reins quite a bit, Blashill is known as a coach that wants his defensemen to get involved in the offense. While the exact mechanisms of that system have yet to be fully realized at the NHL level, it still provides a healthy dose of excitement, especially because Detroit added one of the most potent offensive blueliners of the last decade in Mike Green.
Assuming everything runs well and goes according to plan, the change in approach should lead to more offensive opportunities for the Red Wings. Green should help spearhead a rebirth of transition offense, getting the puck out of the zone quickly and efficiently. Perhaps one or both of Brendan Smith and Jakub Kindl realize their potential and hit their offensive stride under Blashill. Perhaps Alexey Marchenko or Xavier Ouellet or Robbie Russo or Nick Jensen jump into the lineup and fulfill that kind of role.
Either way, the willingness to put more bodies into the attack for Detroit should help increase the production of the most offensive players on the roster. How much it does so is something that can only be answered by the end of next season.
Potential for More
More than the personnel and system changes, perhaps the biggest reason for excitement about the Red Wings' offense is the sheer potential it has for breaking out. One of the themes of last week's Periscope interviews with the players was the excitement everyone had for what could happen next season because there are plenty of young players just waiting to have a breakout season.
Tomas Jurco is probably not going to shoot 2.5 percent at 5-on-5 over 63 games again. Who knows what Teemu Pulkkinen could do with a full season at the NHL level. Perhaps Tatar and Nyquist graduate from being good goal-scorers who lead the Red Wings every season now to elite goal-scorers in the NHL. Maybe Sheahan really does have that true breakout season, contrary to my expectations of him as I wrote in the Top Centers preview piece. Who knows what kinds of contributions Dylan Larkin is going to make at the NHL level next season. Who knows how much Green really adds to the team offensively — even knowing what he can bring, are we still underestimating his potential impact? And like I said, does DeKeyser have another level to reach offensively?
Much has been made of the NHL-wide decline in goals. Detroit perhaps suffered much of that trend in 2013-14 when the team scored a total of 217 goals over a full 82-game season. While the totals improved to 231 last season, it's hard to believe that, with the changes made this offseason, the Red Wings will lag in 5-on-5 scoring again this season. If I had to put numbers to it, I think Detroit eclipses 240 goals this season, taking a bit of a hit on the power play, but significantly improving production at 5-on-5.