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Red Wings' Defensive Improvement Begins with Correcting Danny DeKeyser's Usage

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Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

This summer saw Danny DeKeyser ink a 6-year, $30 million deal which will keep him in Detroit through the 2021-2022 season. DeKeyser, 26, was coming off of a career year that saw his scoring totals spike to a personal-best 31 points. Many in Detroit felt as if DeKeyser was ready to take the next step and establish himself as a premier top-pairing defenseman. Unfortunately, DeKeyser is off to a rough start in the 2016-2017 season. Through 10 games, DeKeyser has not looked the part of a top pairing defenseman and at times looks overwhelmed. What's wrong with DeKeyser and how can the Wings go about rescuing him?

Early Season Numbers Are Concerning

Through the first 10 games, DeKeyser has posted a putrid 5v5 score-adjusted Corsi For% of 39.47%. That ranks 186th out of 188 defensemen with more than 50 minutes played at 5v5. This tells us that when DeKeyser is on the ice, the Wings are losing the shot battle, and losing it pretty badly. This becomes a problem as DeKeyser is currently averaging 16:27 of 5v5 time per game, which is 2nd on the Red Wings and in the top 1/3rd of all NHL defensemen.

Bottom-10 NHL Defensemen in 5v5 Score-Adjusted CF% (>50 min)

Player 5v5 TOI/GP 5v5 CF60 5v5 CA60 5v5 ScAdj CF%
Ben Chiarot 10.7 37.3 70.2 34.67
Paul Postma 10.1 38.9 67.5 36.56
Danny DeKeyser 16.5 42.1 64.5 39.47
Michael Stone 15.1 40.7 61.7 39.74
Esa Lindell 13.8 45.6 68.6 39.93
Alex Edler 19.4 44.6 66.4 40.18
Derek Forbort 11.8 41.1 61.1 40.23
John Moore 15.3 40.2 58.3 40.78
Ben Lovejoy 15.5 41.2 59.1 41.11
Dion Phaneuf 16.9 47.8 68.4 41.14

data from Corsica.hockey

Shot metrics aren't perfect when it comes to the evaluation of defensemen given that the defensive structure of the team likely influences the number and type of shots against. Nonetheless, it's concerning to see DeKeyser rooted firmly in the basement.

Another method of player evaluation is Game Score, a measure of single-game productivity designed by Dom Luszczyszyn. Game Score takes into account a variety of statistics tracked in traditional and advanced box scores and weights them based on relative importance. Below is a list of the average Game Score for each Red Wings player through the first 10 games.

From this we can see that Danny DeKeyser is the only Red Wing with a negative average Game Score. In fact, of all the defensemen who have played five games or more, only nine have an average Game Score as bad or worse than DeKeyser's. It's important to note that Game Score does not take into consideration zone starts, teammates, competition, playing time, and other important contextual factors. It's a score designed to answer "who had the best game" and from this we can see that DeKeyser has not had many strong games. So, the $30 million question becomes...why has DeKeyser struggled so much?

Why Has DeKeyser Struggled?

One way to break down a defenseman's shot metrics is to evaluate how well the defenseman does at exiting his zone with possession and defending his blue line on zone entries. Thanks to the work of Corey Sznajder, we have zone entry and zone exit data for the first six Red Wings' games. Let's take a look at how well DeKeyser did relative to the rest of the Red Wings' defenseman at exiting his zone with possession.

Red Wings' Defensemen Zone Exit Data

Player Attempted Exits Successful Exits Exits w/ Possession Exit % Possession Exits % Failed Exit %
Green 73 60 39 82.2% 53.4% 12.3%
Sproul 15 13 7 86.7% 46.7% 6.7%
Ouellet 27 23 11 85.2% 40.7% 3.7%
Marchenko 50 37 18 74.0% 36.0% 22.0%
Smith 51 35 18 68.6% 35.3% 19.6%
Ericsson 51 41 18 80.4% 35.3% 7.8%
DeKeyser 76 50 26 65.8% 34.2% 23.7%

Data collected and tracked by Corey Sznajder. Available at: https://theenergyline.wordpress.com/detroit-red-wings-2/

From this we can see that the Red Wings maintain possession on just 34.2% of DeKeyser's zone exits, which is worst among all Red Wings' defensemen. Failure to maintain possession on zone exits often leads to quick zone re-entries as demonstrated in the video below.

In the clip above, you see first how a failed zone entry by Tatar and then later DeKeyser resulted in quick transition plays from the Tampa Bay Lightning. While neither play amounted to much, these types of failed exits can be dangerous as the quick neutral zone regroups allow the offense to catch the defense flat-footed. We see from the numbers that DeKeyser has the highest percentage of failed exits as well as the lowest percentage of exits with possession. This is likely resulting in him having to be on the ice for more of these transition plays, leading to more shots against.

On the other side of the blue line, defensemen are tasked with preventing the opposition from cleanly entering the offensive zone. Check out how DeKeyser performed in the first six games relative to his teammates.

Player Targets Carry-In Dump-In Break-Up Carry-In% Break-Up% Shots/Target
Smith 20 10 5 5 50% 25% 0.4
Sproul 12 8 3 1 66.7% 8.33% 0.5
Ericsson 25 15 8 2 60% 8% 0.24
Ouellet 26 10 14 2 38.5% 7.69% 0.58
Marchenko 31 17 12 2 54.8% 6.45% 0.39
DeKeyser 52 30 19 3 57.6% 5.77% 0.5
Green 39 26 13 0 66.7% 0% 0.44

Data collected and tracked by Corey Sznajder. Available at: https://theenergyline.wordpress.com/detroit-red-wings-2/

Again, we find DeKeyser toward the bottom of the table, ranking 4th in carry-in% allowed, 7th in break-up%, and 7th in shots allowed per target. Essentially, when he's been on the ice, he's had a tough time preventing the opposition from entering his D-zone and an even tougher time trying to exit his zone cleanly.

How Can The Wings Help DeKeyser?

At this point, the Wings have made their bed. DeKeyser is locked up for the next six years and has either a no-trade clause or a modified no-trade clause through the rest of his deal. He'll be in Detroit for the duration of the deal so the Wings have to find a way to make him a productive player. Here are two suggestions that I've come up with:

Play Him With Better Players

Sounds simple enough, right? One of the big changes for DeKeyser in the early season is that he's spent more time with the Wings bottom-six and less time with the top-six players.

Image from hockeyviz.com

We know that quality of teammates can impact a player's on-ice results. As such, head coach Jeff Blashill may want to continue playing him with Mike Green, but instead of playing DeKeyser-Green behind the Steve Ott-Luke Glendening-Drew Miller line, he may elect to play them behind Tomas Tatar's line.

Reduce His Responsibilities

Over the last two years, the Red Wings have slowly increased DeKeyser's workload, pushing his ice time into the bonafide top pairing range.

Image via: hockeyviz.com

However, as the Wings have pushed up his ice time, DeKeyser has not been able to maintain his positive impact on shot differential. Take a look at how DeKeyser's 10-game rolling 5v5 score-adjusted Corsi For% has changed in the context of the increase in minutes.

Image via: Corsica.hockey

From this we can see that as DeKeyser's minutes have increased, he's struggled to maintain a positive impact on 5v5 shot differential, culminating in his atrocious start to the 2016-2017 season. The Wings might be best served to cut down on DeKeyser's minutes and perhaps take the gamble on shifting them over to Xavier Ouellet/Ryan Sproul who have played very well in their reduced role.

Without making a trade for a true #1 defenseman, the Wings might be able to maximize what they can get from DeKeyser. Ultimately, they cannot afford to have such a negative impact player on the for ~40% of the game. Obviously the Wings are in a bit of a pickle as many of their defensemen would benefit from being sheltered. However, if the Wings continue to use DeKeyser in his current role, it will be tough to correct their early season struggles in the shot differential department.