Welcome back to WingsNation’s 2017-18 Detroit Red Wings season review! Yesterday, I dove into offense and defense, taking a look at what went wrong, what went right, and providing a grade for each. If you haven’t already, I recommend checking it out before proceeding here.
Today, I examine two more important, but lacking, aspects of Detroit’s game: goaltending and special teams.
So without further ado, let’s dive in!
The Wings had three goaltenders suit up for them this year at various points of the season. Jimmy Howard was the undisputed starter after stealing the job back in 2016-17. Petr Mrazek subbed in for 22 games before being traded to the Philadelphia Flyers right before the trade deadline. Finally, Jared Coreau was called up to fill the post-trade deadline void and started in seven games.
To evaluate this department, I decided to look at their all situations stats and then break them down at 5-on-5 by looking at their save percentage and high danger save percentage. Let’s start with their all-situation stats from NHL.com:
The goaltending battle this year really came down to Howard and Mrazek and they put up similar stats. Both were below their career average save percentages (Mrazek only slightly), but pretty much performed to the level of an average NHL goaltender (average save percentage in 2017-18 was .912).
The problem with these performances is that when your defense is as bad as the Wings’ is, your goalies need to be performing far above average for the team to be successful. Last season, Howie was carrying the team as he was putting up a Vezina-calibre performance before falling to injury. This year, he never got that kind of momentum going. Breaking the season down into 10-game stretches shows the inconsistencies in goaltending.
Howard actually got off to a decent start to the year, posting a 7-4-1 record and a .926 save percentage through his first 20 games. From there, though, it was a picture of inconsistency as he dipped below the .900 mark in the following ten games and rose above the .934 mark in the ten games after that.
Mrazek was no better in this regard, but his swings were far more extreme, swinging from .931 in January to .891 in February. Of course, we’re working with a much smaller sample size when speaking about Mrazek as he got little opportunity to find consistency throughout the season.
Breaking down their games even further with Corsica.hockey’s advanced goaltending stats paints an even better picture of mediocrity.
By combining the location of a shot with the quality of the shot, Corsica’s model gives us a better idea of how the goalies performed against medium and high danger scoring threats.
It’s important to note that in larger sample sizes like this, most NHL goalies put up similar low and medium danger save percentages. This is true of Howard and Mrazek, both of whom put up a medium danger save percentage only slightly better than league average (league average MDSv% if 91.5).
Where we start to get a better idea of a goalie’s true skill is in his high danger save percentage. This is a metric where Howard under-performed relative to the rest of the league, meaning teams were scoring on him a lot from right in front of the net. Especially when playing a close game on the scoreboard, this is where teams were able to squeeze out that extra goal and steal the game. Surprisingly, Mrazek’s HDSv% was right in line with the league average.
As for Jared Coreau, the 26-year-old has played 21 games in the NHL over the last two years and only has a .880 save percentage to show for it. His performance through the 7 games he started in 2017-18 cemented the fact that he cannot perform at the NHL level.
It’s disappointing based on his performance in the AHL, where he has a career save percentage of .918 and backstopped the Griffins to the Calder Cup in 2016-17. With his contract now up, I anticipate Ken Holland to look towards the free agency market to find a cheap back-up for Jimmy Howard next season.
As for Howard and Mrazek, both put up painfully average seasons for the Wings. Mrazek’s athleticism contributed to his impressive 5-on-5 high-danger save percentage, but his weak positioning and tendency to over-commit to shots led to many easy goals being scored on him from the outside.
Howard, now 34-years-old, has rarely put up elite numbers over his nine year career with the Red Wings. He is a good starting goalie, but needs the support of his defense in the dirty areas around the net, which he never got this year.
The Wings lost 30 games by one goal in 2017-18. It’s certainly a sign that they are lacking a gamebreaker offensively, but it also tells me that they are lacking one in net, too.
I do still question whether moving Mrazek was the right move, especially with Howard going into the final year of his contract and no succession plan in place. That being said, looking at Mrazek’s stats, both regular and advanced, suggests that he won’t reach elite status in the NHL.
Ultimately, the fate of a game doesn’t rest solely on the shoulders of your goaltender. They need help defensively to clear the front of the net of bodies and pucks. They also need help offensively, on the scoreboard. Detroit’s goalies didn’t get a lot of help in either of these departments, which makes it difficult to be too hard on them.
Howard and Mrazek both played admirably, though inconsistently. No level of elite was going to save this team, anyways.
Special teams are an important part of a team’s game. Though 5-on-5 makes up most of the playing time in a game, power plays offer short windows to take advantage of an opposing team’s mistake and steal a goal. On the flipside, the penalty kill gives the same opportunity to your opponent.
Penalties are going to happen. They are part of the game. What a team does with their special teams time can dictate the outcome of a game. Let’s take a high-level look at how the Wings did on special teams this year.
Interestingly, the Wings’ power play and penalty kill percentages match their offensive and defensive improvements year-over-year. Though the team improved on the powerplay, it wasn’t enough to make any significant jump in the rankings.
In 2016-17, the Wings put up an abysmal 15.08 power play percentage, which was their worst since their 1982-83 season. In 2017-18, it would seem that Detroit improved, but they really didn’t. They got off to a really strong start, posting a top-10 power play percentage of 21.8% through October and November. Then, they crashed, posting a 14.5 PP% from December to April.
In an article for The Athletic in January 2018, Prashanth Iyer points out what changed in the Red Wings powerplay that sparked such a dramatic decline in conversion. He brings three theories to the table. The first is that the team’s high-danger chances per 60 minutes dropped, the second is that their first unit is noticeably weaker and gets more playing time, and the third is that their zone entries have become predictable.
In addition to this, the Wings certainly don’t shoot enough on their powerplay, generating a bottom-6 51.7 shots-per-60 with the man advantage. The lack of shots is a combination of not trying to shoot (they had a bottom-5 CF-per-60 of 94.62 on the power play) and failed zone entries.
On the failed zone entries, the Wings employ the drop pass tactic, which involves a player exiting the defensive zone with control of the puck dropping it back to a second player. Player two is supposed to have built enough speed that they can carry the puck into the offensive zone and set-up the power play formation.
The Wings would use one of their speedy weapons, like Dylan Larkin or Andreas Athanasiou, to carry the puck in, but they rarely were able to set-up, either being stopped at the blue line or smothered in the offensive zone.
When they did gain the offensive zone, the Wings cycled the puck far too much, unwilling to shoot or even attempt a shot.
Their best performers on the powerplay were Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall, both of whom recorded over five points-per-sixty, and Anthony Mantha who scored a team-leading 3.15 goals-per-sixty.
Notably absent here is Martin Frk, who was supposed to be Detroit’s power play weapon. Frk saw a lot of power play time, but only managed to put up 1.67 G/60 and 3.33 P/60. He had the most power play shot attempts on the team by far (92), but only hit the net on 54% of them. Frk’s slap shot, his most dangerous weapon, has been called into question before for its lack of accuracy. It’s something he worked on all year, but never seemed to improve.
Overall, the Wings’ powerplay was lackluster, but their penalty kill was even worse. A whole two points below the league average, their 77.61 penalty kill percentage ranked 23rd in the league. Again for The Athletic, Prashanth Iyer went into Detroit’s penalty kill strategy back in October 2017.
They employ what he calls a “Wedge +1” formation. This means that a triangle is formed around the slot with three of the four penalty killers. The fourth penalty killer, a forward, attacks the puck as it moves around the point. The two forwards will rotate attacking the puck as it changes sides of the ice.
While this protects the slot directly in front of the net, it allows for a lot of open space at the top of the faceoff circles, which is where the majority of shots came from.
As the hockeyviz.com heatmap shows, teams were favouring the left side of the ice for getting shots off. The Wings had two primary pairs of forwards who played on the penalty kill. The first was Luke Glendening and Dylan Larkin. The second was Frans Nielsen and Darren Helm. The left side on each of these units was the responsibility of Glendening and Nielsen, neither of which has the speed that Larkin or Helm has. They also had more blocked shots on the penalty kill than any other forward.
Putting speedy players like Larkin and Helm on the penalty kill also gave the Wings a chance to create some offense. Using their speed to attack the puck, these players were able to create turnovers. As a result, the Red Wings had 9 shorthanded goals, which was top-10 in the league.
It wasn’t enough to offset the 55 scored against them, though, as their opponents peppered them with 56.17 shots-per-60 and 108.11 shot attempts-per-60.
Ultimately, a combination of poor defense and average goaltending led to a poor penalty kill performance in 2017-18. One possible solution is to simply take less penalties next season, but with their inability to keep up with other teams’ best players at 5-on-5, it may not be possible unless they want to give up more goals.
Overall, Detroit’s special teams leave a lot to be desired. Outside of the first two months of the season, their power play was actually worse than it was in 2016-17. Their penalty kill format is okay, but they don’t have the personnel to properly execute it. As the team transitions ice time to its younger players, the special teams tactics will have to evolve to lean into these players’ strengths.
With John Torchetti’s departure from the bench, we could be looking at a revamped powerplay going into 2018-19. It’s sorely needed.
Special teams are too important in hockey to be failing in this manner. Especially with Detroit’s lack of elite scoring talent at 5-on-5, they need to take advantage of the power play to net some extra goals. As for the penalty kill, it’s inevitable that the team is going to take penalties. They need to start picking apart the opposing team’s powerplay to keep themselves in games.
I hope you enjoyed part two of our 3-part 2017-18 season review. Let us know your thoughts on the Red Wings season in the comments section below and stay tuned for part three, which will hand out awards to the best players of the season.