Given his track record and how highly regarded he is as a tactician, it was to be expected that there’d be an adjustment period of sorts for the Detroit Red Wings as they got accustomed to life without Mike Babcock. He’d earned that sort of respect through years of sustained excellence, establishing himself as one of the true difference-makers that exist at the coaching position in this league.
The prevailing sentiment in hockey circles heading into the season was that the organization’s familiarity and existing working relationship with his successor — along with a roster that was returning from the previous season relatively intact — figured to ultimately make the transition process as seamless as possible on the fly.
That’s not exactly how things played out early on.
Despite staying afloat in the standings thanks to some exceptional goaltending play, the Red Wings looked like a shell of those past teams we’d become familiar with over the years. It was genuinely alarming to see how thoroughly they were being outclassed at even strength on a nightly basis by whichever opponent they happened to be playing.
These were the Detroit Red Wings, the franchise that was emphasizing the importance of puck possession long before it recently came into the public eye. The following is a quote from their General Manager Ken Holland, all the way back during the spring of 2011 in a Sports Illustrated interview:
“When Scotty Bowman put five Russians on the ice at once, they did things differently. If they hit a wall at the blue line, they didn’t shoot the puck around the boards; they circled and tried it again, but they didn’t give the puck up. In the offensive zone they cycled and didn’t give the puck up. They had skill and balance, and they frustrated people. Soon our energy players, our grind lines, they could hold on to it, too.”
Unsurprisingly, the data that we have at our disposal spanning the past decade shows that the consistent control of territorial play is something that the Red Wings have made their hallmark. In the ten seasons under Babcock from ‘05 to ’15, they never finished worse than 9th in score-adjusted possession rate, routinely sitting in the mid-50s.
That just made the early returns to start the season all the more unbecoming. It was simply odd seeing them scrambling around in their own zone, bleeding shot attempts and scoring chances against at rates that were in the Colorado Avalanche stratosphere.
The one silver bullet they retained in the chamber was the impending return of Pavel Datsyuk, who missed the first 15 games of the campaign with an injury. Despite fully acknowledging his excellence, I have to admit that I was still somewhat wary of putting that much of an emphasis on one single player, and the ripples his impact could make across the team. Given that even the most heavily relied upon forwards play only rough a third of the game, that leaves more than enough time for the pre-existing issues to resurface and manifest themselves. There’s only so much ground one individual can cover, particularly one that’s in his late 30s and has a growing laundry list of nagging injuries that have been accumulating.
If the early returns are any indication it turns out that I was wrong, because Datsyuk’s established wizardry apparently knows no bounds. The splits for the Wings since he returned to the lineup on November 13th against the Sharks are night and day:
It’s difficult to precisely pinpoint just how much of the jump in overall play is specifically attributable to Datsyuk, and how much of it has to do with the team finally coming together under Jeff Blashill as Mike Green and Brad Richards returned from injury themselves. But considering Datsyuk’s past as a possession dynamo and his current sparkling 58.71% shot rate, it seems fair to work under the assumption that he’s been the driving force.
Intuitively, it makes sense. Beyond his own personal output, his mere presence in the lineup provides a trickle-down effect of sorts. Everyone else now falls into line behind him, getting to fill roles that their respective talent levels are more properly suited for.
In the last game that the Wings played prior to Datsyuk’s return, Luke Glendening was on the ice for 21:33 and was absolutely caved in by the Capitals top line. Since then, Glendening has yet to play more than 15:27, settling back into that low teens ice-time for the most part. The say effect also applies to the blue line, where the Danny DeKeyser-Jonathan Ericsson pairing has gone from being pasted with their catastrophic 40% possession clip without Datsyuk on the ice to thriving in the ~63% range with him thus far. The list goes on and on, because every single player that has at least 20 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time next to Datsyuk has seen a marked spike in their underlying data.
The Wings have only won 3 of those 7 games since his return, but if they continue trending in this direction the wins figure to inevitably come. They’ve gone up against 3 of the top 4 possession teams in the league during that stretch and showed that they can more than hang with them. A couple of unfortunately timed goals against have done them in along the way, but there’s no reason to believe that their goaltending tandem won’t bounce back and continue to be one of their overall strengths over the long haul.
The way things currently stand they’re in the middle of a dead heat with the Bruins and Lightning in a suddenly wide open Atlantic. Beyond Montreal, there doesn’t appear to be anything resembling a given in that division and it’s easy to imagine that there’s plenty of jockeying for position yet to come between now and early April.
Now that they’re back to full health and playing the brand of hockey they’ve been known for over the years, at the very least the Red Wings have legitimately thrown themselves back into that playoff mix. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the mark of insanity. Given the past 24 years of evidence we have to work with, counting on anything else from them would be just that.