Why Detroit’s Biggest Problem Is Not Their Defense – It’s Offense

As the trade deadline approaches, there have been numerous rumors floating around regarding which defenseman the Detroit Red Wings should target. Our friends over at Winging It At Motown have weighed the pros and cons regarding trading for various defensemen such as Marek Zidlicky, Keith Yandle, Cody Franson, and Tyler Myers. Pierre LeBrun over at ESPN discussed how the Red Wings might be interested in dealing for Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf. However, I think we all have it wrong. While the Wings defense corps is not the strongest it’s ever been, they have been serviceable this season. The offense on the other hand has been a puzzling problem. How do the Wings fix it?

(Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)
Gustav Nyquist’s offense has dried up of late. How can the Wings get him going? (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

The Wings’ Problem On Offense

If you take a quick glance at the NHL team stats page, you might not notice a problem. Prior to their game against Montreal, the Wings ranked 9th in the NHL with 2.87 goals per game. Their powerplay is tops in the league at 26.0%, more than 2% better than the next best team. Even if you look at 5v5 Corsi For%, you’ll find the Wings are 4th best at 53.9%. Where’s the problem you might ask. Well, scroll over to the 5v5 goals per 60 minutes column and you’ll find that the Wings rank 25th in the NHL at 2.0 goals per 60 minutes.

At 2.0 5v5 goals per 60 minutes, the Wings are the lowest ranking team of the 16 teams that are currently slated to make the playoffs. In the last 11 years, only two teams have won the Stanley Cup with a 5v5 goals per 60 minutes rate lower than 2.1 and they were the 2011-2012 and 2013-2014 Los Angeles Kings. In fact, since 2002-2003, only 30% of the teams that have scored 2.1 goals or less per 60 minutes at 5v5 have qualified for the playoffs. Just 17.4% of those teams have advanced to the 2nd round, 7% to the conference finals, and 4.3% to the finals.


When we compare that to teams that have scored >2.1 goals per 60 minutes at 5v5, we find that 59.4% of those teams make the playoffs, 29.1% advance to the 2nd round, 14.9% advance to the conference finals, and 7.3% advance to the finals. This should be intuitive, but what I’m trying to illustrate is that Detroit is not in a good position right now. Only the Kings have managed to win the Cup while scoring less than 2.1 goals per 60 minutes at 5v5. The next lowest Stanley Cup champion was the 2007-2008 Detroit Red Wings at 2.43 5v5 goals per 60 minutes, and we all remember how dominant they were.

Fixing The Wings’ Offense Internally

There are a few things Mike Babcock can do to try and jumpstart the Wings at 5v5. This year, Babcock has been somewhat reluctant to juggle his lines. As of late, Babcock has been rolling with the following four lines:

Line 1: Gustav Nyquist – Henrik Zetterberg – Justin Abdelkader

Line 2: Tomas Tatar – Pavel Datsyuk – Darren Helm

Line 3: Stephen Weiss – Riley Sheahan – Luke Glendening

Line 4: Drew Miller – Joakim Andersson – Tomas Jurco

While there has been some real chemistry with Tatar and Datsyuk, these line combinations are not the best that the Wings can field when thinking about puck possession. For example, we’ve all talked about the chemistry that Henrik Zetterberg and Gustav Nyquist have, but when you look at their numbers, you see that they aren’t the most effective tandem.


Player With Zetterberg TOI GF60 GA60 CF60 CA60 CF% With CF% When Apart
Gustav Nyquist 365:26 2.13 1.64 53.2 50.73 51.2 57.3


From this table we see that when Zetterberg is with Nyquist, they have a 5v5 ZS-adjusted Corsi For% of 51.2%, but in the 306 minutes that Zetterberg has been away from Nyquist, he’s posting a drastically better 57.3% 5v5 ZS-adjusted Corsi For%. Similarly, in the 75 minutes Riley Sheahan has been with Luke Glendening, he is posting a paltry 39.8% 5v5 ZS-adjusted Corsi For%. Put Sheahan with Jurco (as they have been for 155 minutes this season), and his 5v5 ZS-adjusted Corsi For% jumps to an incredible 62.5%.

The fact is that right now, the Red Wings are not utilizing their best puck possession lineups. I’d like to advocate for the following line combinations based on their 5v5 ZS-adjusted Corsi For%.

Screen Shot 2015-02-17 at 1.11.04 AM


From this chart you can see the 5v5 ZS-adjusted Corsi For% for each combination of players on the line. On the first line, you have Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, and Justin Abdelkader. Zetterberg and Datsyuk have a 5v5 ZS-adjusted CF% of 62.5%, Zetterberg and Abdelkader are at 56.5%, and Datsyuk and Abdelkader are at 62.9%. Using these line combinations, you see that the Red Wings boast an extremely strong top-3 lines with the lowest puck possession combinations coming from Nyquist-Tatar and Nyquist-Sheahan. However, of all the forwards who have played at least 100 minutes at 5v5 with Nyquist, the combinations with Tatar and Sheahan are his highest CF%.


I don’t know the Red Wings better than Babcock. That’s a given. The man is the best coach in the NHL and clearly has a great feel for his team. However, when you’re sitting at 23rd in the NHL in 5v5 goals/game, it might be time to shake up the lines drastically. The Zetterberg-Datsyuk-Abdelkader line is a proven commodity. The “Kid Line” showed last year that they can dominate the puck. Finally, it’s time that Jurco, whose puck possession skills I’ve discussed in length, deserves the opportunity to play with better teammates in Darren Helm and Stephen Weiss. The way I would spread the ice time would be as follows:

Line 1 ~19 minutes/game

Line 2 ~18 minutes/game

Line 3 ~15 minutes/game

Line 4 ~8 minutes/game

These are rough estimates that will be dictated by how the game is played, but if the Wings follow this, you’re looking at having the puck at better than 55% of the time for more than 52 minutes again. That will eventually translate into a better goal output.

Trading For Offense

If the Wings elect to trade for offense, a plan that I am not a huge advocate for considering the stable of prospects at hand, there are several options. My colleague, Tom Mitsos, discussed a possible scenario where the Wings deal for Toronto’s Phil Kessel. I personally think there are a few options that are better suited for Detroit, with one option in particular being very intriguing.

I’m going to preface this by saying that I am not a general manager, I will never be a general manager, and I, in no way, shape, or form believe that I have the skills to be a general manager. This trade speculation is the last you’ll hear out of me in an article. If the Wings do decide to go after offense at the trade deadline, the guy I think they should go for is…Colorado’s Jarome Iginla.

Before you throw your arms up in the air and complain that he’s 36 years old and on the downswing of his career, hear me out. Iginla can most likely be had at a cheaper price, due to the fact that he’s in a different conference and is a veteran looking to solidify his career with a Stanley Cup championship. He comes at a reasonable cap hit for the next two seasons at $5.3 million through 2016-2017. This season, Iginla has 18 goals and 40 points in 57 games, leading the Colorado Avalanche in scoring this season. Yes, he has more points than Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, and Nathan MacKinnon. His 18 goals would be 2nd on Detroit, and his 40 points would rank 4th. OH, AND HE’S A RIGHT-HANDED SHOT. What if the Wings utilized Iginla on the point on the powerplay, similar to Daniel Alfredsson last season?

As for the price for Iginla, I’d imagine that Colorado would be looking for at least a pick and a roster player. I talked this over with a couple of guys who cover Colorado and discussed this deal as a possible option:

Detroit Receives:

Jarome Iginla

Colorado Receives:

2015 2nd Round Pick

Darren Helm

Jakub Kindl

Colorado gets another pick to add to their rebuild process while adding a great roster player in Darren Helm who can bring depth scoring to that team. The Wings unload Jakub Kindl to a team that can actually use him, thereby solving that problem. I understand that some of you may point out that Detroit is already without a 3rd round draft pick for this upcoming draft, and by trading the 2nd round pick, the Wings are down to just five picks in the 2015 draft.


I’d argue that the Wings make this deal simply because there aren’t too many years of Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Kronwall left. If I want to put this team over the top, I think sacrificing one pick and the speed of Darren Helm could do it. With Iginla’s contract expiring after 2016-2017, the Wings will have a roster spot open to add the likes of Anthony Mantha, Dylan Larkin, and Andreas Athanasiou if they haven’t already cracked the big club full-time.

Again, this is all speculation and we have no idea if this would put the Wings over the top. I’d much rather juggle the line combinations and hope that provides all the offense Detroit needs. If it does come down to the trade deadline, I think a deal for Iginla could be one that is affordable, cost-effective, and does not mortgage the future.


Data from Hockey Analysis and War-On-Ice

17 thoughts on “Why Detroit’s Biggest Problem Is Not Their Defense – It’s Offense”

  1. I completely agree that Detroit’s problem in the playoffs will be scoring, not defense. And I have also myself thought that Iginla would be a great playoff addition. His grittiness would be a great benefit to the Wings in the playoffs. (People forget how tough the teams were that won all those Cups for the Wings.) Detroit’s number one playoff problem is getting outplayed by bigger, tougher teams. Adding Iginla to the lineup would really bolster them.

    I think however that suggesting the Wings trade Helm, a high draft pick and Kindl is absurd.. They will never make that trade. I think instead they would offer the other goalie they have in Grand Rapids McCollum since they now have three proven goalies ahead of him .

  2. I think you are pretty much correct about the defense. Sure, there have been stupid giveaways but their shots against is usually relatively low. Their defensemen aren’t superstars, but they’ve been solid. Ericsson is really the only one that seems to have taken a step backwards this year (not counting Kindl of course). Quincey has been surprisingly good. Smith and DeKeyser have been steady and the new kids have played well. The problem is the 5 on 5 offense. Some of that comes from the lack of good breakouts, but I think most of it is being too cute in the offensive zone. They have also been very streaky offensively this season. They’ll go 10 games scoring 3 to 5 goals a game, then have 4 or 5 games of drought. They need to find a way to break through and in many cases it’s just a case of getting that first goal. Teams love to clog up everything when they play the Wings and when they don’t score right away, it just gets worse.

    I also don’t think the Wings need to take the mindset of “win now” at all costs. They ARE winning now. Are they are “real” contender, who knows. But we do know that the kids they have are worth keeping around and not trading for aging veterans like Iginla. If we would trade Helm, which I am slightly open to, then it has to be for a guy that will be around for a while. I think the expendable players on the current roster are Andersson, Kindl, Gustavsson, Weiss, and Franzen… but let’s be honest, no one is going to trade for Weiss or Franzen.

    Sure they are on a 3 game losing streak right now, but people forget they just finished a stretch of 11 wins out of 13 games. They also did that with somewhat poor goaltending from Mrazek, so obviously they have some scoring ability. I think this current losing streak has more to do with the fact that they haven’t been playing very often lately. They have looked rusty and off, not tired or slow… just off. That should improve as they go on this extended road trip.

  3. Trades can be hard this time of year because of chemistry issues. I see Smith as expendable as well as Monster or Howard. If a team needs a goalie to get then thru the season, Howard could be an answer to free the Wings from salary cap issues next season. Mrazek’s ability with the stick overcomes the soft goals he gives up. Howard and Franzen contracts really tie the Wings hands in the next few seasons.

  4. You must be kidding! Detroit’s defense is set??? Have you really been watching all the give-aways. Erickson & Kronwall must lead the league. Defense is their weakest position. In the beginning of the season, our defense was strong in front of the net. Now, all they do is screen our goalie (last night Kronwall)

    • Hi Mike, thanks for commenting. I definitely am not a fan of the turnovers, but when you think about Detroit’s defense, don’t focus on the individual players, but recognize the system. The Wings allow the fewest shots against, fewest shot attempts against, and are 6th in goals allowed. I think the team system allows the Wings to hide the individual mistakes of our defensemen and Howard has been very good this season.

  5. It’s killing me how you think your numbers add up… Kindle, Helm and a 2nd…….. FOR IGINLA??????????????????? W O W ……

    • Hey, this was actually a deal proposed to me by a person who covers the Avs. They mentioned that the franchise is looking to unload him to a team that can win the Cup, thus the reduced price.

  6. I wouldnt be completely opposed to that trade but I hesitate at trading Helm because he is finally healthy and contributing. Plus he is only what 27. I would trade Weiss not Helm if they dont take Weiss then I’m content for them to simply ride this season out without any trades and try to pick up Franson and another forward in the offseason. Maybe next year they can bring up one of the young guys if they dont sign a forward. I’m hoping for a cup this year but realistically the Wings have only 1 win against Tampa, Mon, and Bos. That doesnt spell cup. So I say sit tight and make a run next year when things are clearer.

    • Hey thanks for commenting! i’m of a similar mindset, which is why I’d love to have this solved internally. We have plenty of strong offensive players, it’s just finding the right chemistry.

  7. Oh Phil Kessel would be huge to the Detroit scoring. One huge problem though…… Good ol Babs does’t like Offense only type of players. He wants players to play defense first and then score. Lots of free agents won’t consider Detroit for that fact. I personally have the feeling Babs time in Dtown is over.

  8. There is no way they would trade Helm for Iginla, a guy they could have had for free in the offseason if they thought he was worth it. Also, Colorado needs defense, not another center. I could see more like Ericsson, Kindl, and a 2nd. If they want a prospect then Sproul could do the trick.

    • This is a better suggestion, not only because it doesn’t cost us Helm, but because I think it really answers the offensive problem… that the defense isn’t helping to generate any of it. And I don’t just mean defensemen scoring, but rather the transition game. Ericsson’s good for a nice breakout pass once every 3 games, but it’s not enough. He’s a serious anchor dragging down the top line. And in an ideal world he’s a 5th D on a cup winner. I don’t think we’ll solve the problem, but I’d rather Oulette and Marchenko start getting serious minutes to end this season (and Sproul should get a cup of coffee). After all, we’re not winning the cup this year, but with extra experience on D and more tradeable parts… we might be in the hunt next year.

  9. the only problem i have with your trade scenario is including helm in any of it. he is arguably our best penalty killer and his speed opens up the game for many of our other forwards. plus, and this is the most important part of it, how do you think iginla will demand that sort of trade fodder, he is in fact 36 and does make over 5 million the these upcoming seasons. teams are going to know that he is available and the fact that colorado isn’t going anywhere this year only diminishes their trade advantage. i would offer a 2nd and kindl but not a penny more or anyone else. like you said, we can fix the offense internally as it is, but going down to 5 picks PLUS getting rid of helm and another (albeit crappy) roster player doesn’t make the team better.

  10. You forgot to mention that the wings are the best in the NHL for 5v5 goals against. Unless you expect them to be best at both (goals against and goals for) I don’t see the problem. In fact I think it’s the opposite of a problem. If you had continued down the path of research you were on but looked at 5v5 goals against you would notice that the cup winner of each of the past 4 years has been no worse than 2nd in the league in 5v5 goals against. I would not mess with a winning formula in order to chase more offense.

    • Hey thanks for commenting. You’re absolutely right about the GA/60. However, aside from the Kings, the other two champions scored well. Boston in 2011 scored 2.7 goals/60 mins, and Chicago scored 2.8 goals/60. I’d argue that while GA/60 is one component, GF/60 is a similarly equal component. You say don’t mess with a winning formula, but I’m thinking long run that when the playoffs come, and there are fewer PP opportunities…how is this team going to score? I’d much rather Detroit just scramble the lines, trade for a good blueliner, and gear up for the Cup. But if the line shakeup doesn’t work, you might be forced to trade for offense if you are in a win now mode.

    • I agree that we don’t need offense. The two Kings teams are modern cup winning teams. Championship winning formulas evolve. We could use another defenseman to help us protect 1-0, and 2-1 scores. A stout defense, a hot goalie and 1 or 2 nasty looking dirty goals are all you need to be successful in the playoffs.

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