Why Do the Red Wings Suddenly Suck?

The Red Wings have sucked for about a month now. Since the trade deadline, Detroit has played 18 games and won just 6 of them. For those who are more interested in points, that's 13 points in 18 games, good for a 72 point pace. Basically, the Wings have been the Carolina Hurricanes since the trade deadline. The question though is why? Goaltending and overall inconsistent play is the seemingly obvious answer, but I've done a lot of digging, and I'm finding there's a little more to it than that. I'm going to dive into a lot of facets of the Wings game, and I'll take a look at results before and after the trade deadline. That's a slightly arbitrary cut-off date, but as fans, it's a convenient one since it's all about the stretch run, and also 18 games is a large enough sample that you can pick some trends out. It's important to understand that we aren't looking to predict playoff results here, we're trying to understand why recent results have been so much worse than expected. Let's dive in.

Even Strength Play

The first thing I always check when a team is struggling is to see how they're faring at even-strength. Are they controlling play? We're going to look at a lot of mini-charts here and contrast things before/after the deadline. For starters, here's the Wings share of shot attempts adjusted for score effects (puck possession approximation):

Before deadline After deadline
54.0% 52.2%

There's definitely a drop-off here, but this really isn't that bad. You have to consider that the 18 games since the deadline has seen far more injuries than the previous sample of games, so with that in mind, I would consider this to be a fairly minor drop-off. It's certainly not the type of drop-off that sent the Wings from Atlantic division contenders to fighting for their playoff lives in a 1 month span. A small amount of blame lies at the skaters feet at even strength, but if we want to find our big problem, we probably need to look elsewhere.

How about goaltending at even strength? Our goaltending has completely bottomed out, right? It really has been bad, no question about that. So I looked at 5v5 save percentage for the Wings as a team before and after the deadline. The results are... startling to say the least:

Before deadline After deadline
.925 .924

Er, okay. So the goaltending at 5v5 is completely the same as it's been all year. This is genuinely shocking to me. If possession only took a minor hit, and goaltending at 5v5 is unchanged, what's going on? I decided to take a quick look at raw goal differential. Detroit was just a +7 at 5v5 before the deadline and is just -2 since then. Again, that's a dip, but a -2 goal differential expects you to win roughly half your games, not a third of them. Possession and shooting percentages took a very slight dip, and it's very possible you could write all of this off as randomness. Maybe things haven't been ideal, but I think it's obvious that even strength play is not really what's causing this collapse.

Special Teams

The obvious place to check then is special teams. If we're only looking at -2 goal differential at 5v5, the problem must be when special teams takes the ice. I decided first I wanted to look at total special teams output. PPG + SHG - PPGA - SHGA gets us a raw index for special teams results, and here's what we've got for that:

Before deadline After deadline
+24 -6

That's bad. Detroit went from one of the best combined special teams units to one of the worst. Let's look at that exact same split per game:

Before deadline After deadline
+.39 goals/game -.33 goals/game

The Red Wings special teams used to be better than a bonus goal every 3 games, and since the deadline it's been the equivalent of spotting the other team 1 goal every 3 games. Some quick math, and we can estimate that the special teams dropoff alone has cost the Red Wings 13 goals since the trade deadline.

Penalties Taken and Drawn

The first thought I had is that I wonder if the Wings are just taking a lot of penalties suddenly. Detroit has drawn more penalties than it's taken all year, and if that trend reversed, the results might just reverse too. Here's penalty differential before and after the deadline, a positive number meaning more penalties drawn than taken:

Before deadline After deadline
+6 penalty differential +2 penalty differential

Don't let the base number fool you here. +2 in 18 games is essentially the exact same as +6 in 61 games. Since the deadline, Detroit has continued its trend of drawing slightly more penalties than they take, which lines up with the 5v5 possession numbers remaining mostly stable. This is not the problem.

Power Play Results

Before deadline After deadline
53 goals 14 goals
0.87/game 0.78/game

Another minor drop-off here, but this is pretty small in scale. Just 1 more goal would net a rate virtually identical to the rate before the deadline, so the drop in power play results costs only about 1 goal, nowhere near the impact we talked about earlier.

Penalty Kill Results

It's been hilariously bad. We've established that the Wings aren't any worse at penalty differential and aren't much worse on the power play, so it's sheer raw PK effectiveness that is the problem here. Look away, those with a weak stomach:

Before deadline After deadline
36 goals against 17 goals against
-.59/game -.94/game

This is bad, no way around it. As you probably guessed, this is where the goaltending has actually been an issue. We now know the goaltending at even-strength has been basically fine, but the .845 short-handed sv% since the deadline is good for 7th-worst in that timespan, and to make matters worse, the skaters on the PK have been allowing far more shots than usual too - also 7th-worst since the deadline. Good luck trying to divide out which is more to blame - skaters or goaltending - but the truth is the PK as a whole has taken the biggest slide of any unit since the deadline. All the other units we looked at are either the same or close enough to probably write it off, but the gap here is pretty stark.

Final Thoughts

3 short-handed goals against and 0 for since the deadline does also distort things ever so slightly (especially since 2 of those came from 1 player in 1 game), but those types of things tend to be pretty random - the Wings are very average at giving up short-handed goals. I think it's worth noting because it does have an effect on why special teams has been such a big minus since the deadline.

I can't decide if this exercise is encouraging or discouraging. On one hand, it's nice to see that despite a bunch of injuries, Detroit is actually doing a lot of things just fine. I also think stretches of horribly bad PK results can be kinda fluky, which makes some genuinely poor play look worse than it is. That said - this team is built to win games with their special teams, and they're doing the opposite right now. Detroit plays low-event hockey, which results in fewer shots and goals for both teams at even strength than normal. That's a positive if your special teams is worth +.4 goals/game like it was in the first 61 games, but it's bad news if it's worth -.33 goals/game like it has been since the deadline. The Red Wings are like the lights-out 3 point shooting team that suddenly can't buy a shot, and it's resulting in some pain.

So therein lies the challenge for this team. Barring a horrible week, Detroit is probably still making the playoffs. It's also pretty fair to say some poor luck has exaggerated these issues, as it seems unlikely that the true talent of the Red Wings penalty kill is that bad. If the PK is really that bad, they are almost certain to be one-and-done in the playoffs; however, if the PK can revert back to being reasonably solid as it was for much of the season, the other facets of their game are actually good enough right now to make some noise in the playoffs.

Do you think the penalty kill will rebound enough to win a playoff series?

Everything is terrible329