Why history shows Zetterberg’s better off playing defense-first in the playoffs

Henrik Zetterberg is a different kind of player in the playoffs than the regular season. Or rather, I should say, Henrik Zetterberg has been played differently in the playoffs than he has in the regular season.

Much like his Eurotwin Datsyuk, Zetterberg is a great two-way player, but Hank has been relied upon much more defensively in the playoffs than in the regular season. Since 2007-08, Zetterberg has been deployed in the defensive zone an average of 3% more in the playoffs than the regular season. Doesn’t seem like much, but after digging a little deeper, I found that the years where Zetterberg was deployed more in the defensive zone, the team went further in the playoffs.

Now, there’s no definite answer that Zetterberg’s is THE reason why the Wings advanced. But it certainly doesn’t hurt to return to what’s been effective before, as every coaching change can make an impact between winning and losing.

From 2008 – 2010, Zetterberg started his shifts in the Red Wings zone on average 22.45% more in the playoffs than in the regular season. These are some of the seasons where Detroit performed best in the last ten years, winning a Stanley Cup and going to the Stanley Cup Finals.

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While you can attribute Detroit’s greatness in these years to team captain and perfect human being Nick Lidstrom, it’s hard to argue with Zetterberg’s numbers here. Other than in 2010-11, when Zetterberg’s been used less in the defensive zone, the team has not performed as well into the postseason.

So let’s dive a little deeper into 2011 to see what happened there. The Semi-Finals were a very exciting series. For the second year in a row, Detroit was facing San Jose in the second round and they were ready to exact revenge after the Sharks downed them four games to one the year before. Well, it didn’t start well for Detroit as they dropped the first three games to the Sharks. But they didn’t give up. Detroit fought back and won the next three to force game seven. They almost had the reverse sweep complete, but San Jose took the seventh game. So how does this tie back into my point about Zetterberg?

In first three games of the series – the games that Detroit lost – Zetterberg was deployed more in the offensive zone than he was in the defensive zone. Once Mike Babcock started using Hank more defensively, the team started to win. And this is a trend, I discovered, that was happening all over the place. Against Nashville in 2012, the only game that the Red Wings won was the one where Zetterberg was deployed more in the defensive zone. Against Chicago in 2013, the games that Detroit won coincided with games where Zetterberg was being used more defensively.

What’s most amazing about this period of Zetterberg’s career is that despite being deployed more in the defensive zone, his offensive stats either didn’t take a hit or improved in the playoffs.

Despite starting most of his shifts in the defensive zone, Zetterberg’s corsi improved and he still managed to put up more points per game played in the playoffs than he did in the regular season. What this tells us is that Hank is great at breaking out of the defensive zone and creating scoring chances.

These were, without a doubt, Zetterberg’s peak years. Starting in 2012, his offence didn’t just decrease in the playoffs, it was negative compared to what he was putting up in the regular season. Both visibly and statistically, Zetterberg cooled offensively as the playoffs rolled in. All that being said, his defensive stats continued to improve in the playoffs. So while he maybe wasn’t driving possession, and therefore offense, as much, he was still shutting teams down defensively in his own zone.

But enough about the past. The Wings are in the playoffs for the 25th consecutive season and they’ve only survived the first round once in the last four years. They are facing a tough, but beat up, Tampa Bay Lightning team. A lot of people on the internet have picked Detroit to beat Tampa Bay in the first round, due to the long-term injuries of Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman and the fact that Tyler Johnson and Viktor Hedman have been rushed back from injury. And I have to say that, for once, I agreed with the internet on this one.

But Tampa Bay, so far, has proved us wrong. They downed the Red Wings 3-2 in game one.

Zetterberg was held pointless through 25 shifts and 19:25 of ice time (includes 3:41 on the powerplay). Despite only getting one shot on goal, Zetterberg’s possession metrics were positive (54% CF%), but he was deployed mostly in the offensive zone this game. Why? Well, Jeff Blashill had him lined up with Datsyuk, certainly hoping the Eurotwins would click for some goals, which is something the Wings have had a hard time coming by during the regular season. But the playoffs are a different beast and therefore require a different approach. For the last three seasons, Zetterberg has had an OiSV% of 93.7%, 92.3%, and 87.2% in the playoffs. He plays well in the defensive zone and, as a result, the other team scores less goals when he’s on the ice.

As a veteran and team captain, he can certainly handle the pressure and responsibility of being this team’s go-to defensive solution. One could argue that due to his age and past injuries, his body can’t take the grind of a highly defensive role in the playoffs, which requires a strong physicality and quick instincts, but Zetterberg still led this team in points during the regular season. He may not be at his peak anymore, but he is most certainly one of the best players on this team. He can handle it.

This series is not going to be easy. Even if Zetterberg is deployed more defensively from here on out, there’s no guarantee that the Wings will win it. But they’ll certainly have a better chance.

What do you think? Should Zetterberg be deployed more defensively or focus on his offense to snap his scoring slump? Let us know in the comments below. 

All data from war-on-ice.com.