Before you read this piece, everyone take a deep breath and acknowledge the following statement:
This piece is not intended to be a condemnation of Jeff Blashill. This piece does not mean that Blashill will never succeed in Detroit. This piece does not mean that the results of this season are entirely his fault.
Now that that's out of the way, we can begin. At the time of this piece, the Red Wings are 32-23-11 with 75 points and are clinging to the last wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference. The 75 points are 10 points fewer than what the Red Wings had through 66 games last season. From a visual standpoint, many have felt that this is one of the worst on-ice products we've seen in years. This has led to many fans questioning whether or not Jeff Blashill is the right head coach for the Detroit Red Wings.
@iyer_prashanth I really thought he had what it takes to successfully coach this team but starting to doubt that.— Keith Devita (@DevitaKeith) March 7, 2016
@iyer_prashanth yes this would be best, it would become the beginning of the end for the worst coaching staff in the league— Daniel Kremer (@DanWKremer5) March 7, 2016
@iyer_prashanth Do we dislike Blashill yet? Or are his hands tied cuz of those heinous 52 & 55 contracts?— Aras Butkunas (@But_Aras) March 8, 2016
I, myself, haven't been Blashill's biggest supporter as you can see from the tweets above but by no means do I believe he should be fired. No, in all honesty, I think there was only one man who could have outperformed Blashill with this roster and that man is Mike Babcock. Yes, I believe that Mike Babcock was the perfect coach for this year's team.
Recognizing Your Limitations
After being eliminated by the Nashville Predators in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Red Wings defense was rocked by the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom. Just a season prior, Brian Rafalski had retired. In the span of two offseasons the Red Wings lost a generational all-world defenseman, and one of the smartest offensive defenseman the game has ever seen. Recognizing the relative youth and inexperience of his new defense, former head coach Mike Babcock took it upon himself to adjust his defensive system. In the 2010-2011 season, the last season with both Rafalski and Lidstrom, the Red Wings had a 5v5 Corsi Pace/60 of 111.3, ranking 11th in the NHL. The next season, the Wings were down to 103.2, good for 28th in the NHL. By 2014-2015, it was down to 98.5 good for 29th in the NHL. Take a look at how the Red Wings 5v5 shot attempts for and against, scoring chances for and against, and high-danger scoring chances for and against have changed over the last nine seasons.
5v5 Shot Attempts For And Against Per 60 Minutes
5v5 Scoring Chances For And Against Per 60
5v5 High-Danger Scoring Chances For And Against Per 60
The vertical line you see in these images marks the 2011-2012 season, the last season with Nick Lidstrom. You'll notice that prior to this line, the offense held stable but defensively, the Wings were slowly allowing more chances against. The Wings were willing to make this tradeoff as their offense was dynamic and largely unmatched when compared to the rest of the NHL. Following the retirement of Rafalski and Lidstrom, Babcock recognized that he was going to need to protect his defensive corps. Heading into the 2012-2013 season, this was Mike Babcock's defensive group:
|Player||Age||Career GP||Career Points|
Given this relatively inexperienced group, Babcock elected to tighten up the Red Wings system by reducing the frequency of pinches by defensemen in the offensive zone, reducing the frequency of defensemen joining the rush, and by increasing the frequency in which the third forward stayed high in the offensive zone to prevent odd-man rushes. Going back to the graphs above, you'll see steady declines in 5v5 shot attempts against, scoring chances against, and high-danger chances against. However, you'll notice that the tradeoff was a significant decrease in offense. Granted, some of that is due to the loss of Rafalski and Lidstrom in successive years, but a large part of that is due to the systems changes made by Babcock. Thanks to NHL.Tv taking away all historical games, I can't show you as many clips of the Babcock-era teams, but shown below are a few examples of what I mean when I talk about Babcock's "low-event" hockey.
Adjustments To The Forecheck
The first adjustment made by Babcock was to decrease the aggressiveness of the forecheck by playing his weak-side winger outside the blue line, almost in a soft "1-2-2" formation. Take a look at the animation below to see how this works.
In this example, the Red Wings are blue (sorry in advance). Pay special attention to how deep the blue "C" is in this animation. This forward is playing deeper to prevent a stretch pass or quick breakout pass on a team's motion or lane regroup. This is considered a "soft" 1-2-2 forecheck that provides strong neutral zone support to your defensemen. Essentially, the Wings are able to keep everyone in front of them defensively. This helps mask any potential weaknesses in skating for your defensemen by relying on sound positioning and strong skating from your forwards. Watch the video clip below to see this in action.
You can see here how the Wings keep everybody in front of them and Dallas has to come through the neutral zone with little speed. This allows the Wings defensemen time to appropriately gauge Dallas' oncoming speed and adjust their skating accordingly. Ultimately, Babcock was able to hide many of the deficiencies of the Red Wings' defensemen by playing sound positional hockey.
The other thing to note in this video is how deep the defenseman is playing off of the oncoming forward. By playing off of the forward but ahead of the blue line, it gives the defenseman an added bit of space to turn and chase the puck if the forward elects to dump the puck in. Many teams like to have their defensemen press up on the forward receiving the puck to force a neutral zone turnover or force a tip-in to the offensive zone. However, Babcock preferred his defensemen to play a little off the high forward, giving his defenseman the opportunity to still force a turnover with his stick, but also have an extra bit of space if he needs to turn and chase a dump-in.
In conjunction with this, Babcock stressed having his third forward play high in the offensive zone. Below is an image depicting what that looks like.
The player I'm focusing on is the red "C" that is circled. This player is playing "high" in the offensive zone, meaning that he is not trapped down low where the puck is. Instead, he is hanging out higher in case the puck is recovered by the defensive (blue) team and they start a breakout. If the play moves in his direction (i.e. towards the near boards in the image above), he can leave his position and jump into the offensive play while the red "R" would drop back into third-man high position. Overall, this player is in better position defensively and slightly worse position offensively. However, Babcock preached this principle in order to limit the number of odd-man rushes his team faced.
Offensive Zone Pinches
To avoid creating races for the puck, Babcock also preached having his defensemen retreat rather than pinch and to only pinch if absolutely certain they could create a play. While some teams like to have their defensemen pinch up in the play to keep possession in the offensive zone, others prefer to have their defensemen retreat in order to prevent odd-man rushes. Babcock was a staunch proponent of the latter, especially over the past three years in Detroit. He was a proponent of this as it created less situations where his defensemen had to skate or be involved in a foot race. He was masking the deficiencies of his players.
The Blashill Era
By masking the deficiencies of his defensemen and forcing the Wings to play a more "low-event" system, Babcock watched his team progressively struggle to score goals.
Following Lidstrom's retirement, the Wings 5v5 GF60 took a sharp nosedive before rebounding slightly in 2013-2014, and then resuming its descent the following season. After Babcock left for Toronto this past summer, new head coach Jeff Blashill stepped in and promised to activate his defense more in order to generate more consistent offense. Many fans were excited as they felt that Babcock's message was starting to fall on deaf ears. However, we can see from this graph and the graphs above, that Blashill's strategy switch has not paid dividends and has actually led to a significant increase in 5v5 high-danger scoring chances against and 5v5 scoring chances against. The Wings are giving up 10.6 5v5 high-danger scoring chances against per 60 minutes, the worst mark for a Red Wings team over the last nine seasons. Essentially, the activation of the defense and propensity to lose the third-man-high contain has unmasked the flaws of the Red Wings defense.
Unmasking Defensive Struggles
The March 2nd game versus the Chicago Blackhawks was a classic example of the Red Wings' defensive flaws being exposed.
As this play starts, watch Mike Green (far upper lefthand corner). As empowered by Blashill, Green recognizes that he has an opportunity to turn a defensive zone turnover into an odd-man rush the other way. There are three Blackhawks players caught and Green joining the rush could create a 4-on-2. However, as the rush progresses, Green and the three Red Wings forwards all get caught below the faceoff dots. Chicago is then able to turn that error into a 5-on-2 rush the other way that results in a goal. Whether or not you want to call this a breakdown of the system or a miscommunicatio amongst players, the Wings did not have a 3rd forward high to counteract a potential odd-man rush.
Take a look at the play below demonstrating what happens when the third forward high loses contain again and jumps into a play to try and create offense.
Here we can see that Henrik Zetterberg is supposed to be the third man high in this situation. In this example, Zetterberg jumps into a chaotic play to try and create something out of nothing without Datsyuk or Abdelkader dropping back to cover for him. Zetterberg ends up losing a puck battle to Jonathan Toews and a 3-on-2 rush goes back the other way. If Zetterberg remains high on this play and doesn't engage, then he is in perfect position to start skating backwards and neutralize Christian Ehrhoff skating down the far side.
Highlighting Brendan Smith's Strengths
Ultimately, Blashill's system hasn't had an entirely negative impact on the Red Wings defense. We've seen the emergence of Brendan Smith, in part because Smith's offensive IQ is highlighted in Blashill's system. Under Babcock, Smith's natural offensive instincts were suppressed in order to play Babcock's defense-first system. He was asked to pinch less, to join the rush less, and as a result he struggled. Whenever Smith did try and force an offensive play, he always seemed to put himself out of position as the rest of the team was not in a position to support his move. This season, Smith's pinches have been far more successful as the forwards expect to drop back and cover up Smith's defensive spot. As result, he has been Detroit's best defenseman at driving offense up the ice.
For the season, Smith leads the #RedWings D in the following:— Prashanth Iyer (@iyer_prashanth) February 4, 2016
5v5 score-adjusted CF%
5v5 individual high-danger scoring chances
Is Blashill's system a bad one? No, not even close to it. The problem lies in the fact that the Red Wings personnel does not matchup with the coach's system. This is not a problem that only applies to Detroit. In fact, this problem applies to a large majority of the NHL and results in "bad" players playing more and "good" players playing less as a coach feels these players fit his system better. Babcock loved Luke Glendening because he was a defense-first player who was very concerned about his positioning. Blashill has gone that route at times because Glendening is not likely to give up his position as third-man high. It's quite possible that this is just an average roster and that within Blashill's system, he is not able to get as much out of them as Babcock.
Blashill's system is predicated on having mobile, high IQ defensemen in combination with positionally-sound forwards. The Wings have very few of these types of players, illustrating why this team has struggled to adapt to Blashill's system. I do believe that a coach is responsible for tinkering his system to match his personnel as Babcock has done for the past few years. However, I don't believe that Blashill deserves all the blame. This is a team that has been harpooned by its horrific powerplay. If the powerplay was operating at it's same efficiency as last season, the Wings would have 17 more powerplay goals and their season goals per game would increase from 2.50 to 2.76 (an increase from 22nd to 9th).
Additionally, having another offseason to work on implementing his system as well as a chance to be heavily involved in roster decisions will give Blashill a better opportunity to succeed next season. The Wings may miss the playoffs, but it will not be entirely Blashill's fault. He just so happened to follow the only coach who might have been able to get these guys in.