Red Wings’ Strong Start Distracts From Weak 5-on-5 Play

In an 82-game NHL season, 14 games is not a large sample, but it can be a meaningful one. 14 games into the season, most fans and pundits can start to identify trends that are happening for specific teams and across the NHL. They also usually have a feel for what each team is all about and where their strengths and weaknesses lie, at least in the early going.

That certainly applies to the Detroit Red Wings this season.

Through their first 14 games of the season, the Red Wings have been able to keep pace with the best teams in the Atlantic Division. They have a record of 7-4-3 – the exact same record as the Toronto Maple Leafs and the same point total as the Florida Panthers – and they have already managed to put together a four and five-game point streak in the early going. While it is still early on in the season, their current standing in the NHL’s toughest division suggests that they are, indeed, a team capable of making some noise this season.

However, despite a promising record and encouraging performances from up and down their lineup, the Red Wings currently hold the worst goal-differential in the Atlantic Division (minus-5), and only the Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators – the two teams at the bottom of the division standings – have allowed more goals than Detroit’s 46 so far this season.

Derek Lalonde Detroit Red Wings
Derek Lalonde, Detroit Red Wings Head Coach (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

While the Red Wings’ start to the season has offered up plenty to be excited about, a closer look reveals that this team is nowhere near where they want to be, at least not yet.

Red Wings Struggle at Even-Strength

While there have been a few exceptions, the Red Wings have generally struggled to control play during five-on-five play. Per Natural Stat Trick, their team Corsi-percentage (CF%) is an uninspiring 43.4 percent (Corsi is a metric that determines what share of offensive opportunities a team or play gets; anything north of 50 percent is considered good.) Furthermore, they are being outscored 31-25 at five-on-five and hold an expected goals-for percentage of just 43.7 percent.

All of that is to say that the Red Wings are generally playing catch-up while the game is at five-on-five. In fact, through their first 14 games, they have posted a positive CF% in just three games, and two of those came against the Montreal Canadiens.

The Red Wings’ have had some individual lines and players that have fared better than others at five-on-five, but every player that has played at least half of their games this season has a “negative” Corsi rating. So then that begs the question: how are the Red Wings still winning games and collecting points if they are being outplayed more often than not?

Red Wings Receiving Top Notch Goaltending & Special Teams

If there has been one clear improvement over last season’s team, it is the Red Wings’ special teams. The numbers don’t necessarily reflect it, but both the power play and the penalty kill have played with a renewed energy that has led to some exciting plays over the course of this young 2022-23 season.

The Red Wings already have half as many shorthanded goals (2) as they had all of last season (4), and it genuinely seems like Dylan Larkin or somebody else gets a shorthanded breakaway opportunity in every game. Under new head coach Derek Lalonde and associate coach Bob Boughner, Detroit has adopted an aggressive penalty kill that forces quick puck movement that oftentimes lead to turnovers, especially up top near the blue line. Last season, the Red Wings finished with a 73.8 percent success rate on the penalty kill. Through 14 games this season, they have a 81.4 percent success rate.

Meanwhile, their power play percentage of just 17 percent is only .7 percent ahead of last season’s finish. That being said, this season’s power play features an elevated talent pool, and they have routinely been able to create chances thanks to quick, decisive puck-movement and their ability to get the puck into the scoring areas of the ice. The goal scored by Lucas Raymond in the video below is a play that has been made more than once this season, and it may be the first time since the Red Wings’ rebuild began that the power play has had a designed play that they can go to that has yielded consistent results.

Finally, the Red Wings are enjoying the fruits of one of their biggest offseason additions. Goaltender Ville Husso has been rock steady to start this season. Even after the recent blowout loss to the New York Rangers in which he allowed a staggering eight goals against, he still sits with a save-percentage (SV%) of .920 and a goals-against average (GAA) of 2.54. He has both of Detroit’s shutouts this season, and he holds a high-danger SV% of .882.

Related: Red Wings’ Husso Has Earned the Starting Role (For Now)

Husso was in net for five of the Red Wings’ seven wins so far, a fact that is representative of the impact the 27-year-old goaltender has had on his new team. Prior to that blowout against the Rangers, his numbers were better than the numbers Igor Shesterkin put up last season to secure the Vezina Trophy. While those numbers were always going to come down eventually, it just shows that Husso was stopping virtually everything that came his way. That’s a big reason why most consider him to be the Red Wings’ bona fide starter, and it’s also a big reason why the Red Wings have been able to win games despite their inability to control the game at five-on-five.

Red Wings Have Room to Grow

The fact that hasn’t been mentioned yet is that the Red Wings are dealing with a number of factors that may be contributing to their lackluster five-on-five play. They have an entirely new coaching staff and the team is likely still adjusting to the new systems and expectations put in place by Lalonde and his staff. Further exasperating the problem is the fact that Detroit’s lineup has been in flux since the third game of the season. That is when both Tyler Bertuzzi and Jakub Vrana – two of the team’s top forwards – became unavailable, and the lineup has only taken more and more hits since then. As the lineup continues to get depleted, the less likely the team is to carry the play – it’s no longer about dominating, it’s about surviving.

And to this point, the Red Wings have done a great job of surviving. Their offensive depth has been put to the test, and the fact that they are where they are in the standings right now should make people excited about where this team could be as the season goes along and bodies return to the lineup. Their power play looks better than the numbers suggest, and goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic should see his play level out after an inconsistent start to the season.

But in the meantime, there’s little way around the fact that the Red Wings are spending way too much time in their own zone when both teams have five guys on the ice. To this point in the season, they have proven that they can overcome that fact. However, if they want to take the next step and become legitimate playoff contenders this season, they have to figure out how to spend more time in the offensive zone.