Red Wings Possession Numbers: Better players and better usage behind the Wings' turnaround

The Blashill Effect seems to be taking hold.

Hockey is a real tough game to predict in ten game segments. If you were to look at the Red Wings numbers just ten games into the season, you'd see a 4-5-1 team with just 9 points on pace for about a 74-point season. The team looked very bad and their possession numbers showed it. at the 10-game mark (just after the October 30th loss to Ottawa), the Wings had a score-adjusted Corsi percentage of 46.3%

For the sake of scale, if you took a ranking of every team between 2005 and 2014 (300 total teams), that number would be about midway through the worst quartile.

Reasons for the problems were numerous: The adjustment to Jeff Blashill's system was named pretty heavily as one of them, as was the back-to-back heavy schedule. Injuries to Pavel Datsyuk, Danny DeKeyser, Kyle Quincey, and Mike Green have also contributed to the Wings' problems with the puck. Fortunately, as it turns out, judging an entire season based on the first ten games is a bit premature.

Which is why I'm essentially about to use the next 13 games to tell you why things could be ok for the Wings.

The Turnaround

Using data from for score-adjusted team Corsi numbers, we can see that intense cratering going on for the Wings to start the season. We can also see them pulling out of it and jumping over the 50% mark for the season (The overall score-adjusted Corsi% for the Wings right now sits at 50.1%, which is about as average as you can get). Game-by-game is always going to be a roller coaster and best-fit is going to show a very slightly positive slope, but the 5-game rolling average shows us a good in-between to see where the trend goes.

Sure enough, over the last ten games, the Red Wings have run at 54.3% in score-adjusted CF%, having just one game below the 50% line in that time (the 3-2 win over Los Angeles on the 20th being the culprit there).

Essentially, the Wings in the last ten games have been more above-average than the Wings of the first ten games were below. Cruelly, the two points on that graph above with the largest peaks are both losses for the Wings (Nov. 13th against the Sharks and the 25th vs. Boston). Still, their point pace over the last ten is 98.

Sample Sizing

Clearly, it's not responsible to cut things into ten-game segments and say "this is the team we have!", whether positive or negative. As of right now, the Wings are 23 games into the season and they're a pretty average team; this is borne out just about any way you look at the numbers, and also fairly heavily supported by many fans' eyeball test.

However, there are promising things about this more-recent sample which could end up very positive. Let's look at the chart again with a bit of key context added in:

The roller coasters are the exact same, but now we've got an overlay that looks a bit like the flags of Nigeria and Ireland had a regrettable night together about nine months ago.

What we've really got here is an overlay of the games played by Mike Green and Pavel Datsyuk. Green's games are in the only color that makes sense for him, while the Datsyuk overlay shows both of them playing in the last eight games for the Wings.

This may come as a surprise to many, but adding two very good players back into the Red Wings' lineup seems to have improved the way the Red Wings play overall. Who knew, right?

In all seriousness, the return of Datsyuk and Green has had two effects on how Jeff Blashill uses the team:

1. The Green-Kronwall pairing

Not only has this usage (which wasn't present for the beginning of the season when the Wings were suffering with Green in the lineup) separated Niklas Kronwall from Jonathan Ericsson, it's also separated Kronwall and Green from the toughest assignments.

This chart and more great stuff is available at War-on-Ice. Seriously, it's an invaluable piece.

Essentially what Blashill is doing right now is very similar to what Joel Quenneville did with his defense in the last few years. Jonathan Ericsson and Danny DeKeyser are the Wings' shut-down pair, taking the toughest assignments both by how much TOI their opponents get and how many more times they start in the defensive zone. Kronwall and Green play good competition too, but you see they get put into a position to succeed at creating offense more often. DK and Riggy aren't a great enough pairing to come out of this usage with positive possession numbers, but they're getting the job done.

2. The end of "Glenny Magic" usage

The game before Pavel Datsyuk returned, Luke Glendening played a season-high 21:33 against Washington in a match that saw Alex Ovechkin put 15 shots on goal that were thankfully all saved by Petr Mrazek in a great goaltending performance. Since Datsyuk's return, Glendening has cracked 15 minutes just two times. What's more is that in the time he's been used since Datsyuk's return, Glendening is facing off a lot more against lesser competition rather than being used as a sacrificial shutdown pivot meant to earn easier ice time for scoring lines.

Pavel Datsyuk's return has allowed the Wings to go back to more of a power-vs-power line matchup, and the Wings have been winning those matchups pretty much along all four lines in these last eight games.

Keeping Cautious

While we can't say for sure what's going to happen with the Wings and we have only 23 total games with lots of complex pieces at play to look at, it does indeed look like they're a good team with a potential to be very good. The danger assuming that nothing is going to change going forward is in the likelihood that things will change. Specifically, the Wings right now have a PDO of 100.9. While that's not an extreme number, it does hint that the Wings have been a bit luckier than average (specifically in goaltending). If the goaltending drops off, the Wings could quickly go with it.

Another consideration is that the Wings' turnaround here looks like it has a lot to do with how healthy they've gotten recently. Unfortunately, the Red Wings have been among the most-injured teams for several years running now and it's incredibly difficult to trust that they can stay that way. As with any team, having your best players hurt tends to make you play worse.

Looking Ahead

I don't want to end this on doom & gloom. I think the Red Wings are very good. They're a deep team with good goaltending. If I had to play buy-or-sell with them right this moment, I'd be looking to buy the type of player who can make a shutdown pair play with positive possession numbers rather than sacrificial and I'd probably be a bit more willing to start developing the depth from Grand Rapids so they can be ready to step in if the injury bug strikes again. The Wings aren't going to get called "elite" anytime soon, but there's nothing wrong with being a bit under-the-radar at this point in the season.

[once again a very special thanks to War-on-Ice for the score-adjusted numbers used in this post and the defensive usage chart]

How good are the Detroit Red Wings this season?

They're pretty bad6
They're mediocre-to-middling; bubble-team at best179
They're low-key pretty good: decent playoff threat735
They're great and nobody knows it: a lion in wait171