Photo Credit: © Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Defencemen, Shoot the Damn Puck!

We all know the Red Wings have a problem on their blueline. It has been discussed non-stop by fans and media alike – how to acquire that perfect top-2 defenceman, or what prospect will surely become that savior this back-end needs.

Rather than looking outward at other players that are either too young or in another organization, the Wings should look at the players that are currently on the roster, to try and fix this problem. There is not just one simple thing that this group of defencemen can do to fix all of their problems, but this could potentially make the team much easier to watch next season.

It can be argued that this is more of a roster creation problem than a roster utilization problem, but Blashill did not do the best he could with the roster he had. The defence and forward groups did not exactly mix well last season – separated on the ice like oil and water for most of the games.

The main concern from last season was just how little the blueline contributed offensively. As we all know, the way defencemen are used in the modern NHL is already much different from the times the Red Wings were winning cups. Much more mobility and shot creation are needed to be an effective player on the blueline now. The Red Wings did not have any of that last season.

from Micah Blake McCurdy, hockeyviz.com

Provided by Micah Blake McCurdy of hockeyviz.com, you can see that the forwards and defensive group are completely separated when it comes to the share of shots as a team. The only reason that DeKeyser and Daley are so high on the goals per shot axis, is that they took so few shots and got lucky with some even-strength goals, a stunning fifteen between the two defencemen.

For comparison, here is the same chart from a team that really had some shots coming from the blueline.

viz via Micah Blake McCurdy, hockeyviz.com


Of course when you have Brent Burns on your team, this kind of stuff will always happen – but a lot of other San Jose Shark defencemen followed Burns’ path. This is more of what a balanced attack can potentially look like. Many more shots for, therefore players are lower on the y-axis but higher on the x-axis. Defencemen are not going to score goals at the same rate as forwards, obviously, so on this chart, there will always be a vertical separation.

But looking back at the Red Wings from this past season, most defencemen are way too high on that left side. Meaning that there are not enough shots taken from the blueline for any of them to be effective offensively. Not only were they not effective, but they were at the very bottom of the league when it comes to shot attempts from defencemen.

data via naturalstattrick.com

It’s not that far of a drop, but when your group of defencemen is in the same range as the Sabres, you have to think there are major problems. Other teams like the Minnesota Wild and Los Angeles Kings were able to have success, while their defencemen did not attempt a substantial amount of shots. But when you have Ryan Suter or Drew Doughty playing just under half of the game for you, that is not a concern.

Not only did the Red Wings have the least amount of shot attempts from the blueline, but they were the only team in the league that did not have a defenceman go over the 200 iCF mark. Meaning that they collectively and individually did not have any shots coming from the blueline.

Mike Green had the most on the Red Wings, with 198 5v5 iCF. When it comes to the rate of individual shot attempts (iCF/60), now former Red Wing Xavier Ouellet led the team with 10.43 iCF/60 at even-strength.

Those numbers do not inspire the most confidence, but there is always the question of context. Maybe the Red Wings defencemen were more focused on passing the puck to the forwards? Not getting open looks for the net and opting to the pass the majority of the time.

Unfortunately, that was not the case.

data via Ryan Stimson, Corey Sznajder, EvolvingWild, and Corsica / viz via Ryan Stimson

Daley and Green were the two Red Wings defencemen leading the team in average TOI (both even-strength and all situations) this past season. It is not a good look when your two most prominent defencemen are mostly in the bottom half of the league in successfully passing the puck. The chart above, by Ryan Stimson, displays all of the different types of passes the player makes, displayed in the percentile that they are in for that category. Click here for an interactive version of this chart.

The one slightly positive outlook is on Green’s chart. Under Shot Creation, his shot assists per sixty minutes (SA60) is at a not bad but mediocre rate. He may not have shot the puck himself enough to make a difference, but he certainly did not fail completely at passing the puck to someone that did have an option to shoot.

The Red Wings defenceman that was most successful at producing shot assists was actually Nick Jensen. He was in the 77th-percentile among all the skaters in the NHL – he probably should have a higher average TOI than 16:15, but that’s a whole other story.

The Red Wings are not going to start winning more games if Blashill tells the six defencemen to try and shoot the puck more, but it’s a step in the right direction.

All of last season, no defencemen really earned the title “offensive defenceman” and it really showed up in the iCF and the shot assist numbers. At even-strength, there was not a lot of solid passing or shooting coming from the blueline last season for the Red Wings. I believe that is more of a system error than a personnel one. To have every defenceman contribute this little has to mean that something overall is wrong and not that the Wings just have a terrible blueline.

The issue is a balance between those two problems – the Red Wings clearly did not have the most mobile blueline, but Blashill might have over-compensated for that fact and restricted those players from showing their offensive capabilities.

I might be reading too much into this, but if the Red Wings attempt to get more shots off from the defence, there can be an increase of scoring chances – therefore winning more hockey games. That is extremely simplifying it, but shooting the puck more usually leads to more goals and therefore more wins – another simplification.

After all…

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