There's been a lot of talk lately about the mounting evidence that we as Red Wings fans have been hoping would go away soon, evidence that the Red Wings are simply just a pretty average or slightly above-average hockey club. We know, the cap sucks, the last CBA's strike back at loopholes suck, the inevitable march towards old age sucks, and the lack of top-ten draft picks suck. The Wings got here naturally by stomping mud-holes in the NHL for two decades and now they're being forced to lie in it or to try the chicken's way out with a rebuild.
The good news is that there are hints things could turn around. Hell, the standings themselves indicate that there's reason enough to believe it's possible for a team that's caught in the tier slightly above "bubble team" and below "true contender" could move up without needing to move the Earth and heavens to make things align right.
After all, in a world of parity, you're never that far from the top, and the difference can all be in the way you organize your deck. In a simple world, the way things are organized wouldn't matter, just the strength of the whole. Think of a poker hand. Your opponent is holding 5-6-7-8-9, but you're holding J-8-7-9-10. within the rules of poker, you win the hand every time because you have a higher straight, despite the fact that your cards are out of order. Unfortunately, building an NHL roster isn't like playing poker, it's more like one of the more-advanced card games you'll find out there.
This article from Pension Plan Puppets last July likened things to Magic: The Gathering in discussing that the strategy for winning big tournaments in that game can hinge on how you put all the pieces of your deck together rather than simply putting together all the very best cards you can. In an NHL where the margins of victory are getting thinner all the time, being the very best collection of talent is still the best way to do it, but a team below that tier isn't strategically helpless.
Overhaul is a Long Process, Fine-Tuning a Dangerous One
The obvious downside of tinkering with the lineup to get better is the chance you'll end up getting worse, especially against strongly-stacked teams that have been tuning their system all season. This is a concern regardless of whether those changes include reshuffling things within the organization or bringing in outside help. Jeff Blashill himself has mentioned that part of the reason the Wings intentionally play a low-event style is an attempt to mitigate the risks of playing a more wide-open style.
Last week, Blashill told MLive as much when discussing defensive coaching with Jon Cooper and the benefits/drawbacks of line shuffling. Here's what he had to say:
"We've talked lots about trying to add reward without added risk," Blashill said. "Certainly we could create a situation where we probably could generate some more, but we'd give up a lot more and it's almost impossible to win in this league that way."
Like most of the fans, Blashill seems certain that the Red Wings are capable of being a more offensively-dangerous team. Also like the fans, Blashill has a lot of concerns about the team's ability to prevent goals. It matches up pretty well with what we've seen: the Wings have an average offense, below-average defense, and elite goaltending. It appears as though Blashill's preferred solution with that mix is to limit all shots to keep the defense from exposing the goaltending more and limiting the advantage of Mrazek being excellent.
I think it's a good plan. I think it works. I also think that it's a lower-reward style that isn't necessarily suited for playoff success and I worry that it's not exactly a switch that can be flipped once the regular season is over. With that in mind, here are a number of key areas the Wings should focus on to make for a team that better takes advantages of its strengths rather than trying to minimize the effects of its weaknesses.
1. Continue the zone cycle, forechecking, and in-zone defensive schemes that have been working
The biggest key is that we don't want the Red Wings to go from low-event to high-event overnight. We want them to increase their shots on goal without giving up any more. Part of the reason they don't give up so many is because they are good at preventing quick-strike transition (zone cycle), good at slowing down the neutral zone and forcing dump-ins (forechecking) and good at preventing quality shot attempts (in-zone defense).
Prashanth has written about two of these three systems. I highly recommend reading about the forechecking and zone coverage:
For the uncovered portion, the cycle, the quick and dirty version is that the Wings will spend a lot of time behind the opposition's net and try to make sure they almost always have a third forward high in the zone to prevent fast or odd-man breakouts. It's a double-edged sword because it does tend to limit how many quality chances the Wings can produce, but the job it does preventing clean transition for the opposition when the puck is turned over is very valuable.
Essentially, the other means of preventing fast breakouts for the opposition is to use size to grind down and cancel out players. Detroit doesn't have the lineup for that, so the strategy should be to force errors where they're the most dangerous. Teams trying to break out and turning it over inside their own blue line is one of those key areas.
2. Build the lines for speed
If your offensive zone cycle plan is designed to be a little safer in order to ensure the opponent has trouble getting through center without being forced to dump it in (presumably to your goalie who handles the puck very well), and if you want to increase your scoring, you need to rely more on rush-scoring. That puck-handling goalie should help with that, but the ability of your lines to move the puck and themselves with speed is of supreme importance.
For the most part, the Wings do build their lines for speed transition, but in an ideal world, I think the Red Wings would not have both Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm playing in their top six. Both of those players are defensively-sound players who can add in some scoring, but for the most part, they're kind of on the wrong end of the "two-way player" spectrum to be playing against the best defenders. While both are good at getting the puck up ice with speed, their relative lack of offensive instincts mean that a decent number of rush chances essentially die on the vine. Instead, I think the speedy transition winger role on the top two lines should be filled with any of Gustav Nyquist, Dylan Larkin, Tomas Tatar or Teemu Pulkkinen. Possibly even Tomas Jurco if he can keep up the blistering pace he's shown in the last three games.
3. ...and the defensive pairs for balance
On defense, I think it's key to keep the plan of pairing a net-front guy with a puck-mover and I think the Wings are in a position to take more chances with tougher assignments. To cut to the chase, the Wings aren't going to bench Jonathan Ericsson, but they can limit how much of a liability he is at 5-on-5 and utilize his above-average PK skills from the third pairing.
Elsewhere, the feeling that both the Smith-Green and the Quincey-DeKeyser pairings seem a little redundant remains. Brendan Smith is coming into his own as a good puck-mover, but being paired with Green I'm not sure we're looking at master-apprentice or if we're just wasting the skill of moving the one puck on the ice by playing those two at the same time.
Essentially, if the Wings are going to play as a quick-strike transition team that aggressively hounds the other team through the neutral zone, they need one guy on each pair who moves the puck exceptionally. I don't believe the current pairings at their current deployment do that.
4. Fix the Power Play
Again, I'll defer to Prashanth for the real meat-and-potatoes on how zone entries have largely failed the Red Wings and go with the short version: The Wings power play is not good at establishing time in the zone, they're not willing to collapse the points in order to get better shooting angles, they're not effective at screening the goalie, and they're not quick enough to snap shots off when they get the PKers/goalie moving side-to-side.
This is a case where I don't feel the problem is on the players but rather is on how they're specifically being deployed. Fixing zone entries would help the team get more scoring chances on the rush while focusing more on collapsing closer to the net and getting shots off quicker will allow the natural man advantage to simply work the odds in Detroit's favor.
5. Attack on the PK
Detroit is the lone team in the NHL without a shorthanded goal. Part of that has been luck-based, since there have been chances, but the Wings are the second-worst team in the league at creating shots on goal while shorthanded. Scoring shouldn't necessarily be a top priority, but with shot-blocking genius Drew Miller out of the lineup, aggressively attacking lanes to create shorthanded odd-man rushes can have a big effect on your opposition's willingness to use aggressive power play setups which create higher-quality shot chances.
The plan here should leverage the excellent goaltending of Mrazek to take a few more chances. The idea is to both score shorthanded every once in a while, but also to waste time outside of the defensive zone and to create doubt in the power play.
In the end, the Wings are a good team. They're not a great team. Unfortunately in today's NHL, there are a lot of good teams and the margin between one that's in a position to be dangerous and one that's first-round fodder is quite thin. I don't think a complete overhaul is necessary. I worry that the impact trade pieces that would make the Wings great would be both extremely costly and extremely risky (though I'm not against those risks, I also don't realistically expect Ken Holland to take them). However, I think a few adjustments in style and some hard thinking about personnel could go a long way to improving the Red Wings' chances this season.