Red Wings Possession: Re-Examined

Travis Yost wrote a solid post the other day about the divergence of Detroit and Toronto's possession numbers this year, and it set off a bit of a stir in some of the Red Wings community. Here's the key quote:

You are reading that correctly. Detroit’s possession through the first eight games of this season is 45 per cent, good for 29th in the NHL. The only team they’re ahead of right now is Colorado, but that low bar is cleared very easily.

The part that’s really concerning though is how many times Detroit has been this bad in the past eight-and-a-half years. The answer to that is, well, never. They have never posted this poor a shot differential for as long back as this graph goes, which kind of rejects the idea that ‘small sample variance’ is unilaterally killing this team.

The Wings game last night resulted in Detroit moving from 29th all the way up to..... 28th. So things are still rough. Yost wisely followed up by injecting some caution in proclaiming the Wings dead:

My long-term concern about this Red Wings team grades out about a four on a scale of one to 10. Losing as much talent they have to the aging curve has to sting, but they’ve done really well to replace it through the draft-and-develop phase.

This whole possession saga has been especially interesting to me. Detroit is returning a very similar team, so I don't think this is a less-skilled team. It's missing Datsyuk for sure, but as Yost points out in the article, Detroit was able to keep their head above water much better than this in the past without Datsyuk. I'm hesitant to really blame Blashill, because while there are subtle things he does differently than Babcock, stylistically the Wings are not a whole lot different. However, there is one big thing that is different that isn't getting much attention: scheduling! Specifically, I want to look at back-to-back games. Detroit has started off their first three weekends with three back-to-back games, and they're got a fourth in four coming up this weekend.

What we're interested in is how much does this affect possession, and how have the Wings been affected by this start to the season? This post (I recommend you read the whole thing) breaks it down nicely. Here's the key chart that I'm modifying the format of a bit to make it easier to understand:

Team playing B2B B2B Team CF%
Road 45.6%
Home 46.3%

What we're looking at here is how a team performed on the second half of a back-to-back game. The answer: very poorly! A team playing their B2B on the road did even worse, but it's pretty ugly either way.

There's more to it at that link (it delves into other scenarios like when both teams are on B2B), but given that Detroit has played in four games where one team was on a B2B, that's the scenario we're interested in here. The takeaway is that if one team is on the second half of a B2B game, they're majorly disadvantaged. Teams in that situation play like a bottom-5 team for that game, especially if it's on the road.

Fortunately, the average team plays around 14 B2B games during a season (1 every 6 games), and several of those are home-and-homes which makes things a bit more fair. Unfortunately, Detroit has played in 3 of these already (1 every 3 games), and all 3 of them were against rested teams. On the flipside, they've only gotten one game against another team on a B2B to take advantage of (Tampa Bay).

Let's go game-by-game with some commentary. Context is crucial for possession metrics. If you need a primer/refresher on the basics of these numbers, check this post out. For simplicity sake we're going to look at raw corsi and simply note games in which score effects played a role. We aren't looking for exact numbers here, we just want to put the raw ones into their proper context. These numbers won't factor in special teams, goaltending, or defensive blowups - we're only looking at the concern that the Wings are fundamentally broken at 5v5 because of their terrible possession metrics so far. I'll use CF (corsi-for) and CA (corsi-against) at 5v5 only. I'll make a note of PP shot attempts in noteworthy cases, but they're not included in the final tally.

Game Log

Game 1 Toronto: 32CF-31CA: Both teams rested. Led the whole way, so this is despite fighting off score effects, not to mention that Toronto has been pretty good at possession under Babcock so far. Positive result.

Game 2 Carolina: 35CF-63CA: Detroit on B2B on the road, Carolina rested. The ugliest one of the season which was likely made worse by this being only the second game of the season. We wrote it off since Detroit managed to steal the game which was fun. Note: Carolina PP also out-attempted Detroit PP 26-0 in this game which isn't even factored into these lopsided numbers.

Game 3 Tampa: 43CF-34CA: Detroit rested, Tampa on road B2B. The one time Detroit catches a team in this situation, they capitalize and control the game. Wings led the entire 3rd period, so this was despite fighting off some score effects too.

Game 4 Carolina: 32CF-46CA: Both teams rested. No excuses here, just a mediocre game.

Game 5 Montreal: 32CF-49CA: Detroit on B2B on the road, Montreal rested.

Game 6 Edmonton: 38CF-32CA: Rested on road. Did get a score effects boost as the game went on, so this was close. Worth noting that Detroit out-attempted Edmonton's PP an astounding 32-11 and yet came out -1 on special teams. Pretty unlucky to not get a PP goal out of that performance.

Game 7 Calgary: 43CF-50CA: One day rest. Dominated 1st period, then got score effects-ed to death, so this was also close.

Game 8 Vancouver: 27CF-43CA: Second half of B2B on road against rested team

Game 9 Carolina: 36CF-32CA: Two rested teams at home. Hyper low event game that was essentially a 1-1 tie given that you can't really blame the skaters for Mrazek's goof.


Here's my tally:

Game CF CA CF%
All 318 380 45.6%
Without Detroit B2Bs 224 225 49.9%
Without All B2Bs 181 191 48.7%

What's the point of going through all this? The reason is to acknowledge the Wings haven't played up to their usual standard, but things aren't as bad as they appear. Yet another back-to-back is coming this weekend, but at least this time it's a home-and-home with Ottawa, so both teams will be on equal footing for rest on Saturday.

So after all this, all we know for certain is that Detroit's played just 5 games in which both teams had at least 1 day of rest, and the end result is they're 10 shot attempts away from playing 50/50 hockey. This isn't exactly impressive, but it isn't terrible either. What is clear is that even if Detroit is going through some growing pains while adapting to a new coach, the scheduling so far has taken a small problem and blown it up into something that unfairly resembles a big one. The scheduling quirks will even out as the season goes on so this problem should self-correct a bit, but the question remains if Detroit can pick up the rest of the gap by outright playing better. Fortunately, they have 73 games left to do so.