The Red Wings have lost their championship identity

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Since the Detroit Red Wings returned to championship prominence in the 1990s following the hiring of head coach Scotty Bowman, the team has been known for its smothering style of play. In this modern golden age, the Wings won four Stanley Cups– 1997, 1998, 2002, and 2008– with legendary rosters, sure, but also by executing a theoretically simple and highly effective strategy focused on puck possession. Two decades before the concept would even begin to emerge in public hockey analysis, Bowman knew that puck possession led to wins.

In recent years, statisticians have made strides in tracking possession, something I’ve written about here a few times before:

A quick refresher on hockey’s new statistics: puck possession correlates more strongly with winning than do things like goals or shots; measuring possession in a fluid game like hockey is difficult; as a practical solution, Corsi and its less-inclusive sibling, Fenwick, are statistics that track certain, more easily measured events (all shots, including on-goal shots and missed shots, and, in Corsi’s case, blocked shots), thereby serving as proxies for possession and, therefore, indicators of team success. Once you get past the names (as the NHL is in the process of doing), the concept is simple.

The earliest season for which Corsi is available is the 2007-08 season. Fortunately for purposes of this post, that’s the last year Detroit, under the guidance of the Bowman Administration’s successor, Mike Babcock, won the Stanley Cup. Anecdotally, Babcock followed in Bowman’s possession-oriented footsteps, and the statistics agree: the Wings led the league by a wide margin.

cf-2008

Today, though, things are different. Sure, Detroit hasn’t missed the playoffs since 1990, but it’s going to be another uphill climb to keep their historic streak alive, with current projections giving them just a 22.5% chance of earning a postseason berth. (Only three teams have worse odds right now.) It isn’t looking good.

Unsurprisingly (as a factual matter, anyway), puck possession has fallen off steeply this year, as compared with that last championship season. Here’s the same chart shown above for 2016:

cf-2016

Under Jeff Blashill, Babcock’s successor, these really aren’t the same Red Wings. Here’s a broad visual of how well the team has controlled the puck during all seasons for which Hockey-Reference has Corsi data:

cf-2007-16

The season isn’t yet half over, thankfully, but there is a lot of catching up to do if the team wants to leave its hallowed home on a positive note before making the move to the Hot-n-Ready Center next season.

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Related
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There’s no such thing as advanced sports statistics

2015 Detroit Red Wings Playoff Preview

The longest active playoff-appearance streak in American professional sports is alive and well. This is the good news in Detroit, where the Red Wings are preparing for their twenty-fourth consecutive NHL postseason. Their first-round opponent: the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The smart hockey folks predicted a very bad hockey season for the Wings, so the team should take some extra satisfaction in this postseason appearance. (They were right to project improvement by Justin Abdelkader, but less so for Luke Glendenning.) Their reward for consistently above-average production all season long was third place in the Atlantic Division, one spot behind their first-round opponents in Tampa Bay.

The Lightning, who got the better of Detroit in their four meetings this season, present a difficult challenge for the Red Wings.

Two areas where Detroit would seem to have an advantage, goaltending and powerplay scoring, may be mitigated by external factors. April is a bad time to host an internal goaltending competition, but neither of the team’s two primary options, Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek, has been able to carry the load to the satisfaction of coach Mike Babcock, who today announced that Mrazek will start game one. A question mark in net is not part of a winning playoff formula, but this is part of the hand these Red Wings have been dealt.

The powerplay advantage is nice, but powerplay opportunities are at their lowest in at least the last seventeen seasons, which means Detroit is likely to have fewer chances to leverage this advantage, particularly in the playoffs, where penalties already are reduced.

Detroit still has some of the best veteran and young players in the sport, as I was fortunate enough to witness in two wins against top teams (Nashville and St. Louis) this season. By my count, they had a .500 record against other playoff teams this season. They will be underdogs in this round and likely any others to which they advance, but if their defense can hold up, they have a fair shot of doing so.

There’s nothing like playoff hockey – enjoy!