Red Wings’ Struggles Cast Spotlight on Coaching & Team Defense

If there’s one stat to takeaway from the Detroit Red Wings’ recent shellacking at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins, it’s this one:

The salary cap era began in the fall of 2005. The NHL has seen all sorts of poor team performances between then and now; the Buffalo Sabres drew the ire of many during their obvious tank job turning the 2014-15 season, the Colorado Avalanche were far away from the juggernaut they are now when they struggled their way through the 2016-17 season, and even the 2019-20 Red Wings put on a spectacle of mediocrity on a nightly basis. These three teams are some of the biggest and best examples of a team dragging their feet through a whole season, whether it was for draft positioning or simply due to a lack of talent (or both).

And yet none of those teams, or any that came before them, “accomplished” what the 2021-22 Red Wings did.

An 11-2 loss will make you look at a team in a whole new light. If the Avalanche, who sit atop the NHL standings right now with 98 points, lost like that, a barrage of questions would fill sites like this one: is their goaltending good enough? Is their coaching good enough? Are they mentally tough enough? Is their defense strong enough? All of those questions would be valid.

When a team that currently sits 24th in league standings suffers that kind of loss, it begs those same type of questions. However, it’s not as easy to find hope that a loss like that was simply just an unhappy accident – a one-off that that won’t be repeated between now and the conclusion of the season.

Red Wings’ Team Defense Has Let Them Down

Last season, in a pandemic-shortened 56-game season, the Red Wings were not great by any stretch of the imagination. Fans hoping to see the team take a leap forward in their development were left disappointed as the Red Wings took just a step or two forward. They managed to win more games than they did the prior season, but almost everyone on the team had a down year offensively, and goaltending ran hot and cold depending on who was in the net on a given night.

Jeff Blashill Detroit Red Wings
Jeff Blashill, Detroit Red Wings head coach (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

One place of solace was in the team’s overall defense. In the 2020-21 campaign, the Red Wings committed to a low-event style that put an emphasis on bend-don’t-break hockey. The Red Wings and head coach Jeff Blashill knew that they didn’t have the firepower to go toe-to-toe with the beasts in their division, instead opting to dull the game down and hope to sneak away with a 2-1, maybe 3-2 victory. To their credit, the Red Wings finished the season with a goals-against average (GAA) of 3.05, a massive improvement over the previous season where they finished with a GAA of 3.76.

Through 66 games this season, however, the Red Wings hold a GAA of 3.83, worse than their GAA in arguably the worst season in franchise history. Maybe you can contribute some of that regression to the team playing a bit more open offensively; the Red Wings have a goals-for average of 2.86 this season, a noticeable improvement over last season’s rate of 2.27. Even if their more open play this season holds some blame for their defensive atrocities this season, it should not carry the entire blame. Defensive regression like the kind we’re seeing this season is almost never because of one single thing. There are plenty of individuals who should shoulder their share of the blame.

The Blashill Situation

If you look up the Red Wings on social media, it will not take you long before you come across a tweet, a post, or something about how the team should move on from their head coach. Beat writers and team reporters’ replies are filled with fans who want to see change behind the bench. Things have escalated to the point where the hashtag #FireBlashill is gaining more and more traction across social media.

To state it simply: Blashill is not a popular guy in “Hockeytown”, and he hasn’t been for quite some time.

As Prashanth mentions above, the 2021-22 Red Wings have allowed the most seven-plus goal games in the last 25 years. They’ve allowed eight or more goals in four games this season. On top of those debacles, the Red Wings have a problem with starting on time this season. In the month of March alone, the Red Wings have surrendered a three-goal lead or more before the halfway mark of the game five times. That does not reflect a team that was ready to go at the opening whistle. Whether it’s a player issue or a coaching issue, the fact remains that it is the coach’s job to ensure that problems like this reach a resolution. This is a season where the first half was filled with so much promise, and it is very frustrating for all parties involved to watch that promise get wiped away by the same bad habits that plagued this team in the two prior seasons.

Related: Key Takeaways From Steve Yzerman’s 2022 Trade Deadline Presser

This is a coach whose entire reputation is built on the fact that he has won everywhere he has been, and his capabilities of developing young talent. While there is evidence of his developmental abilities, regression is hitting this team HARD, and while Blashill will forever be known as the first coach to lead the Grand Rapids Griffins (the Red Wings’ American Hockey League affiliate) to a Calder Cup championship, the fact remains that he holds a 198-253-70 record through almost seven seasons with the Red Wings.

There are some very extreme takes out there in regards to Blashill, written by people who would most-likely look a lot worse behind the Red Wings bench given the talent pool that this coach has had to work with. What aren’t extreme, however, are facts, and the fact of the matter is that this team has gone from overachieving this season to underachieving in embarrassing fashion.

Shortly after Blashill’s recent extension was announced, general manager Steve Yzerman had this to say:

You need a good team, and if I think our coach at some point is holding us back, I’ll address it at that point.

– Steve Yzerman

While this year’s Red Wings don’t fit the description of a “good team”, it is more than fair to wonder if the coach is holding them back.

Red Wings’ Goaltending Woes

Goaltending in any sport that has it is a stressful job. Fans will love you one night, and then two nights later, they’ll want your head on pike. There’s a reason why their teammates never say they expect their goalie to secure a shutout on a given night; instead they talk about how they just ask that their goalie makes the saves they’re supposed to and “give us an opportunity to win the game.” With that in mind, a strong start is crucial for a goalie and their team. Falling behind quickly can shatter a goalie’s confidence, and their teammates will feel the burden of having to make up for their goalie’s shortcomings.

In five of his last seven appearances, Thomas Greiss has been pulled from the game and replaced with Alex Nedeljkovic. While his most recent pull on Mar. 24 was due to an injury, he wasn’t exactly a brick wall in that game either. In the month of March, Greiss has faced 91 shots and made just 75 saves. That’s a save-percentage (SV%) of just .824. Regardless of coaching, overall team talent, or whatever else you can come up with, that kind of goaltending isn’t going to lead to a ton of wins, if any.

Thomas Greiss Detroit Red Wings
Thomas Greiss, Detroit Red Wings (Photo by Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images)

If you think that simply riding Nedeljkovic will solve all the Red Wings’ problems, that doesn’t seem to be the answer either. Since December 2021, “Ned” has a .891 SV% (892 saves on 1,001 shots) over a stretch of 34 games. While that is substantially better than Greiss’s numbers, an .891 SV% isn’t good enough, regardless of the talent in front of him.

This just goes to show that on most nights, the Red Wings’ defensive play almost solely rests on the back of rookie Moritz Seider. While the other five-to-seven defensemen the Red Wings use on a regular basis have had their moments over the course of this season, none of them have made a defensive impact like the young German has. If the Red Wings aren’t going to have a goalie that can overperform and steal the show, they need a strong defense that can make up for their goaltenders’ shortcomings.

They’re a long ways away from having a defensive group that is capable of such a feat.

Red Wings’ Rebuild is Far From Over

The hardest part of a rebuild is staying the course once there are signs of progress. In today’s culture of instant gratification, it can seem so obvious that a team should start going for it as soon as a special player or two joins the team. While Seider and Lucas Raymond have added credibility to Yzerman’s rebuild, the work is far from over. Goaltending remains a question. The defense features one star player and five other guys that are hit and miss depending on the night. The coaching has been questionable for years. Even the offense, which has taken a step forward this season, could be liable for some regression next season given the team’s defensive regression exhibited this season.

Related: Red Wings’ Success Won’t Change Yzerman’s Plan

My advice: buy into the hype, but don’t be blinded by it. There is plenty to like about this season’s team, but it is not a couple of tweaks and additions away from becoming a perennial playoff team. It all hearkens back to Yzerman’s introductory press conference as the team’s new GM. His message then was patience, and this year’s team is evidence that patience is still required.

But in the face of the Red Wings’ latest implosion, you can’t blame fans if they’re starting to grow a little impatient. Something has got to give.

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