Red Wings Playoff Preview: Defense Comparison

As far as I know, no team has ever won a Stanley Cup scoring 0 goals, so as far as I'm concerned, offense wins championships. However, your offense can suck pretty hard if your defense doesn't allow any. We already know Tampa has a damn good offense and that Detroit's defensive corps has been questionable all season long. Let's take a look at how the two defenses stack up.

Team Comparison

When it comes to discuss the defense, it's always pretty hard to separate out what the blueliners do from what the forwards and goalies do. By purest definitions, defense means allowing the fewest goals; if we stop there, Tampa allowed 211 and Detroit 221 (204-210 if you throw out the empty-netters). If you just go by 5-on-5 play, Detroit was the 5th-best team in the league at preventing goals, allowing 11 fewer. Clearly there are other factors here.

I want to look at defense more from a shot suppression standpoint, as you can have a goalie who stops a million shots without having a good defense. I also want to look at the score-close events to correct for score effects. The following chart shows Corsi, Fenwick, and Scoring Chance numbers for 5-on-5 play with the score close.

CA/60 CF/60 Corsi Diff/60 FA/60 FF/60 Fenwick Diff/60 SCA/60 SCF/60 Scoring Chance Diff/60
Detroit 46.3 53.6 +7.3 36.5 39.6 +3.1 22.2 25.9 +3.7
Tampa Bay 48.6 56.6 +8.0 35.7 41.3 +5.6 25.5 28.9 +3.4

The Corsi, Fenwick, and Scoring Chance against/60 numbers, as well as the differentials are all top-10 in the league. Scoring Chance for/60 for each team is also top-10. Both teams are middling when it comes to Corsi and Fenwick for pace. I wanted to show the for and against differential because although you might consider possession events for a team to be the opposite of defense, they put the suppression numbers into context for us.

When it comes to keeping other teams away from their own goalie, both of these teams are very good.

Personnel and Usage

These are the 5-on-5 Close usage charts from, starting with Detroit:

Mike Babcock's defenseman deployment is a not-uncommon usage with a little bit of a twist to it. It's almost too obvious to say the top pair plays the toughest minutes while the 2nd and 3rd pairs play the 2nd and 3rd-toughest deployments. You will notice that the drop from 2nd to 3rd in TOI is much more severe than the drop from 1st to 2nd though. Detroit essentially uses two 2nd pairs and a 3rd.

Now Tampa:

I've cut Tampa's chart down to ignore the guys with fewer than 300 minutes played. I'm probably cutting out guys we're going to see in this series, but we're here for general usage hints (also, Braydon Coburn's usage is marred by him playing most of the season in Philly, so he's off this chart as well). Jon Cooper's usage doesn't vary too different from the norm, except you can see that he clearly favors Victor Hedman in offensive zone situations. This isn't a case of sheltering though. Hedman is Tampa's most heavily-used defenseman and he plays both PK and PP. This is partially a case of Cooper using "aces in their places" and partially a case of Tampa having a +239 differential in zone starts, giving him fewer opportunities to use his best defenseman in more defensive zone roles.

The Health Factor

A wise Wings fan once said that injuries and officiating will have a huge say in how a playoff series goes. We can't help the officiating thing, but on the injuries front, Detroit has ten defensemen who have played at least ten games for them this season and all of them are as healthy as you can expect anybody to be at this time of year.

Tampa on the other hand is a little more beaten up on the back end. Anton Stralman is the only defenseman on the team who played more than 71 games. Victor Hedman played only 59 games this season and recently missed time with a lower body injury. Jason Garrison got into 70, but he was injured in Tampa's last game against the Wings as he was hit awkwardly into the boards by Justin Abdelkader. Braydon Coburn's return to the lineup is expected during this series, but he hasn't played a game since March 10th. Andrej Sustr also recently missed time. Overall, the Lightning dressed 12 different defensemen this season and are not entirely healthy.

Anticipated Pairings

Detroit Pairings Tampa Pairings
Niklas Kronwall Jonathan Ericsson
Danny DeKeyser Alexey Marchenko
Kyle Quincey Marek Zidlicky
Victor Hedman Anton Stralman
Matt Carle Braydon Coburn
Andrej Sustr Mark Barberio
Extras/Callups: Jakub Kindl, Brendan Smith, Xavier Ouellet, Brian Lashoff Extras/Callups: Luke Witkowski, Nikita Nesterov, Slater Koekkoek, Jason Garrison (Injured)

I reached out to John Fontana at Raw Charge and asked him for input on the Tampa pairings. He had Witkowski on the 2nd pair with Carle because Coburn had yet to return and the third pairing was Nesterov-Barberio due to the Sustr injury. He also had an alternate setup that uses Barberio alongside Hedman and moves Stralman down to Nesterov's pair, presumably to more evenly spread the talent among all three pairs. Finally, John tells me that he'd assume Garrison would join Sustr on the third pair and that a healthy Lightning defense likely moves both Nesterov and Witkowski down to the AHL with Koekkoek. I'm making the assumption that Coburn and Sustr will be good to go.

Scouting the Defensemen

We know the Bolts have a good defensive corps. We can see in the usage chart that they do a good job supporting their deep forward corps as well. Now we'll look just a bit more at the individuals.

Victor Hedman: Tampa's best defenseman and a true #1 guy. The 24-year old former 2nd overall pick will be the best-skating defenseman on the ice. If he made mistakes, his skating would help make up for them. Since he doesn't do that very often, all his elite-level skating does is make him a nightmare to deal with in transition and cycling. Also, at 6'6" and 230 pounds, he's a bit hard to get around when he's defending in his own zone.

Anton Stralman: Probably the jewel of last season's free agent class, Stralman has been Tampa's most-consistent defenseman this season. He plays well on any pairing. He's got an economy of motion that makes you hardly notice him, but his vision and outlet pass are deadly.

Jason Garrison: If this guy is healthy, he'll be in charge of the blue line cannon. Garrison has a very heavy shot and isn't shy about using it. He's quietly solid in his own end, taking few penalties and rarely getting caught out of position.

Matt Carle: This guy is kind of a funny case in that he's an occasionally game-changing defenseman who gets completely overlooked. He's good for a few mistakes a game, but he's got good mobility. The knock against him is that he's not physical enough and can turn the puck over under pressure. We know what that looks like as Red Wings fans, except our guys who do that have never put up 40 points.

Mark Barberio: Young puck-moving type defenseman who still needs to round out his game, but does well enough in sheltered minutes. I'd like to say he's essentially their Brendan Smith, but I'm not that far down on the guy and he's not nearly as likely to take a penalty.

Andrej Sustr: 6'7" and 220 pounds gives Sustr the range to keep rushing forwards honest and the size to keep people away from the net-front. Sustr was signed the same time as DeKeyser was and the Bolts hope he turns out to be a Chara type. From what I've seen of him, I think he's more of an Ericsson type. I'm not at all sold on his ability to consistently deal with skilled forwards rushing in on him as I've seen him get turned around plenty of times. I think he might be the key to taking advantage of Tampa's defense.

Luke Witkowski: If he plays at all, it'll be interesting because he was Danny DeKeyser's teammate at Western Michigan.

Wrapping Up

The Lightning and Red Wings have gotten similar defensive results this season. The difference in their blue line corps is that Tampa's defensemen have provided much more offense and more consistent puck-moving. With the Bolts' injury issues, it helps even things out, but Tampa will be carrying the defensive advantage into this series. The Wings' forwards will need to take advantage of mistakes where they can force them, especially on the lower pairs while limiting their high-end defensemen.