NHL Analysis: Why Detroit Is In Trouble

The Detroit Red Wings have been a playoff fixture. They’ve been in the postseason every year since 1990, a period that includes four Stanley Cup championships. But with six days left in the compressed regular season of 2013, the Red Wings are on the outside looking in, a point out of the 8-seed in the Western Conference.  Today we’ll look at why.

Detroit’s problems are as follow

  • Lackluster offense, specially the ability to finish shots.
  • Surprisingly mediocre goaltending
  • A penalty kill that’s subpar

That’s a pretty good recipe for mediocrity, and we’ll start with the goaltending issue, since it has obvious ripple effects into the penalty kill. It’s not that Jimmy Howard is having a bad year—with a 92.1% save rate, he ranks in the middle of NHL goalies. It’s about the same as Washington’s Braden Holtby, a  young goalie that I praised in the Eastern Conference version of this week’s NHL analysis.

But Holtby is a kid for whom being average is a good starting point. Howard is an established goalie and the Red Wings had every reason to expect he’d be among the league’s best. It’s his potential to turn things around quickly that make Detroit a scary opponent in the playoffs. The defense does an excellent job at limiting shots, and if Howard lifts his play, the Wings can go on a tear…if they get the chance.

By rights, the Detroit offense should be productive. They generate a decent volume of shots. But that’s not showing in the bottom line. This team has a lot of good passers—Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zutterberg, and great puck movement has always been a hallmark of this organization. But no one’s lighting the lamp this time around. Johan Franzen, along with Datsyuk, have been adequate at scoring, but not nearly enough to carry a team.

Detroit trails both Minnesota and Columbus by a point right now and catching either one will put the Red Wings in the playoffs. Detroit has the further advantage in that they’ve played one fewer game than Columbus, meaning the Wings effectively control their postseason destiny. If they beat Los Angeles, Nashville and Dallas, they’re in. The Kings are the only playoff team in that group, and the finale in Dallas is the only one on the road. Detroit’s endangered playoff prospects are more a product of the shortened season than anything else, but that won’t make anyone in this proud hockey town feel better if they come up short.


Detroit’s playoff push was emboldened last night when they beat Phoenix 4-0. The result pushed the Coyotes four points behind the Red Wings, and in all likelihood, last year’s Pacific Division champ and conference finalist is going to be home for the e playoffs.

Last year Phoenix was carried by goalie Mike Smith. The combination of Smith’s extraordinary effort and the lackluster play of his teammates, led me to advocate his case for the Hart Trophy, given to the league MVP. Smith has played through a lower body injury this year and his performance has suffered badly. The Coyote netminder ranks 27th in the NHL, and his defense is not good enough to protect him.

Furthermore, Phoenix’s offense is the mirror image of a team like Washington. The Capitals get a low number of shots, but the talent of players like Alex Ovechkin ensure that the goals keep coming. Phoenix gets its chances—they’re in the league’s upper third when it comes to shot volume. But there’s no one who finishes.

The lack of offensive talent on this team makes me think this is not some fluke, a statistical disparity that would work itself out if the regular season had its usual 30-plus games to go, instead of being in the final week. Give the coaching staff credit for creating a structure that generates shots, but they need more talent on the offensive end for it to pay off.

On a final note, Nashville is another contender from last year that’s going to be staying home in 2013. The Predators made the second round a year ago, but goalie Pekka Rinne is having a horrible year, and Nashville has never been seriously in the postseason discussion for the Western Conference.