The Malik Report
by George Malik on 03/07/11 at 10:00 AM ET
The Detroit Red Wings finished their last extended road trip of the season with a 2-1-and-2 record thanks to a 4-3 shootout loss to the Phoenix Coyotes on Saturday, and as the Wings slunk back into an early-February-style slump based upon a lack of attention to defensive detail and an almost panicky, frantic and unfocused offensive game, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock let it be known that his team cannot continue to allow complacency slip back into their game simply because the Wings aren’t making a frantic push to simply make the playoffs, as they were last year at this time.
The Free Press’s Helene St. James reports that the Wings get to take Monday off as the team played four games over the course of the past six nights and ten games over seventeen nights since the middle of February, but Babcock didn’t sound happy about giving his team two days’ worth of rest given the fact that his team’s experiencing a bit of an identity crisis:
“We came on this road trip and we went 2-1-2, so that’s a point over .500, so it’s a good road trip when you look at it that way,” Babcock said. “But I know how we played. So there gets to be a point in your season when you’ve got to decide if you think you’re a championship-caliber team, that there’s a right way to play. And unless you get 23 guys doing it the same way and wanting to do it, nothing is going to happen.”
Babcock has spent a good deal of his nearly six seasons in Detroit instilling the Wings with a mind-set that sometimes it makes sense to dump the puck in and give chase. Times such as Saturday, for example, when they had a 4-1 lead after 40 minutes even though they had been outshot 22-14, and still had a two-goal lead after 54 minutes.
“Why do you need to make a play when you’re up 4-2, stick-handling at their blue line,” Babcock said. “Why wouldn’t you put it behind them, go get it, and then wear them out down low? What would be the point? But we’ve been around enough winning for long enough that every guy in this room understands. But obviously I’ve got to do a much better job to get them all to do it, because we’re not doing it.”
The Wings’ attack has stifled itself thanks to a near-2002-level of back-passing and looping back before sending one puck carrier into 4 or 5 opposing players stacked up at their blueline, resulting in innumerable turnovers and odd-man rushes against a team whose forwards seem set on doing nothing less than cheating toward offense to the point that back-checking is no longer in their job descriptions, and captain Nicklas Lidstrom isn’t particularly amused by the Wings’ tendency to let their inner artiste run amok:
“We’re shooting ourselves in the foot by just trying to be too creative late in games when we have the lead,” he said. “We were in command of the game and we don’t have to continue to make plays, we don’t have to force plays when they’re not there. We can keep it more simple.”
Henrik Zetterberg offered a different take on the Wings’ plight to MLive’s Ansar Khan:
“It’s easy to say we were fancy when we’re losing,’’ Zetterberg said. “If we’re winning the game, we’re playing well, we’re holding the puck. We shouldn’t lose it. It’s easy to focus on the negative.’‘
Johan Franzen didn’t have any issues with how his team played the first two periods.
“I think we mostly played hard, played well,’’ Franzen said. But, he said of the third period, “Doesn’t matter how it happened, we can’t give up that lead in the last period. … When you’re leading 4-1, you can’t do the mistakes we did. But sometimes that happens.’‘
Jimmy Howard, who played valiantly on Saturday night (he helped the Wings overcome a 10-1 shot disadvantage in the second period), and was repeatedly victimized by teammates essentially setting up their opponents’ goals, had this to say about the team’s 3-game winless streak…
“We started off the trip really good,’’ Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard said. “Maybe we did run out of gas, or I don’t know what it was. I don’t want to make excuses, but that’s not pleasant when that happens out there.’‘
Babcock insisted that he will tell his team to simplify its game and pay more attention to detail…
“We’ve been around enough winning that every guy in this room understands,’’ Babcock said. “But obviously I got to do a much better job to get them all to do it, because we’re not doing it.’‘
And while the Detroit News’s Ted Kulfan offers the following take on the Wings’ losses of late...
The only other game I could compare Saturday’s third period collapse was one to Nashville, I believe it was the season before the lockout, at Joe Louis Arena, with the Predators doing the same, exact thing. Rallying with three or four goals in the third period, stealing a victory over the Wings. It was startling.
Saturday’s loss in Phoenix, albeit in a shootout at the end, had that same disbelieving feeling to it.
The Wings simply don’t lose games like that. But the defensive carelessness, we’ve seen glimpses throughout this season of that. At times, they just haven’t had the clamp down team defense they’ve normally had the past five or six seasons.
Usually, the Wings have been able to overcome the defensive hiccups this season. This time they weren’t.
It’s something that needs cleaning up over the next month, before the playoffs. And judging from coach Mike Babcock’s unhappiness after the game, it will be a topic touched on often in the days ahead.
I can only suggest that the year spent on the Pistons beat might have unaccustomed Kulfan to the Wings’ slightly schizophrenic tendencies when it comes to playing sound defense.
On every Wings team for the past fifteen or so seasons, they’ve either been able to shut the door defensively with no difficulties whatsoever, or they’ve had a helluva time keeping the puck out of their net, and one rule tends to apply: the more offensively talented the Wings’ team is during a particular season, the harder it is for them to focus on playing sound defensive hockey, because, very simply, their offense can bail them out.
This issue doesn’t have anything to do with who’s coaching the team or who’s in charge of the team’s defensive corps (I’m talking to you, Brad McCrimmon Conspiracy Theory Brigade). It’s all about offense. The Wings won a Stanley Cup in 2008 because they could keep the puck out of their net, and with Marian Hossa in the lineup in 2009, they lost the Cup because, in the finals, their offensive players weren’t healthy enough to remedy their defensive mistakes.
The same can be said for the 2002 team which somehow managed to win despite sometimes giving up a silly number of goals versus the depleted 2003 team that couldn’t overcome its mistakes, especially in the playoffs against a team whose coach exploited the hell out of the team’s defensive lapses (what was that guy’s name? Bab something?).
With Mike Modano getting up to speed on the third line of a team that was nothing less than a machine during the first 20-something games of the season, the Wings could roll over their opponents despite having trouble keeping the puck out of the net, especially when Jimmy Howard was struggling to deal with the fact that opposing teams’ coaches had picked his game apart via video scouting, and the Wings were struggling to deal with the fact that Howard couldn’t provide them with a defensive edge (the fact that Brian Rafalski got injured didn’t help the Wings, because he’s a much better defensive defenseman than we tend to assume), never mind Jonathan Ericsson’s issues, Ruslan Salei adjusting to the team, Jakub Kindl’s occasional hiccups and even Lidstrom, Stuart and Kronwall adjusting to new defensive partners as Babcock chose to break up the Lidstrom-Rafalski and Kronwall-Stuart pairings after two seasons together…
The Wings established a style of play in which they allowed themselves to play an over-complicated style of hockey, looking to encourage artistically-inclined offensive flourishes and force the kinds of rushes that they didn’t have the personnel to support when the injury bug struck in December, and now that they’re back to full strength, or nearly so, the tendencies which the team incorporated into their identity in October and November have returned because the Wings assume that a style of play which cannot be sustained in March, when teams are battling for their playoff lives and mistakes are pounced upon with relentlessly vicious intent, should be able to hack it when the team gets into bad habits and assumes that its firepower can make up for not working hard or playing fundamentally sound hockey on a particular night.
So the Wings have gotten burned pretty regularly of late and are learning the hard way that they’ve got to forge a slightly different set of habits and a harder-working identity over their last 16 regular season games.
As Jimmy Howard told Kulfan, it all starts with stifling the opposition’s forecheck—which is the foundation of any fundamentally sound style of defensive play—because the Coyotes’ forecheck forced the Wings to commit turnovers…
“It was a combination of things,” Howard said. “Diving in and letting them (the Coyotes) come through the neutral zone with fast speed. They were able to get in our defense. It’s tough for our defensemen to make plays when they’re turning and having to look at the glass and go back and get pucks.”
Including a particularly egregious error committed by Jakub Kindl and Darren Helm, which Babcock defended:
“The first goal in the third period, two guys (Darren Helm, Jakub Kindl) made a mistake (misplaying a pass) in good spots. I’ve got no issue with that,” Babcock said. “But there’s a way to play to be successful.”
Babcock was frustrated and bewildered by the Wings’ reluctance to make the simple play.
“Why would you need to make a play when you’re up 4-2, stick-handling at their blue line? Why wouldn’t you put it behind them, go get it and then wear them out down low?” Babcock said. “What would be the point? We’ve been around winning here long enough that every guy in this room understands. But obviously, I’ve got to do a much better job to get them all to do it, because we’re not doing it. So if we want to be successful in the end we got to get it fixed. It’s that simple.”
Either stifle the opposition’s forecheck or stand up at the blueline to prevent the opposition from winding up and skating the puck through the neutral zone with speed, employing positional defense in both situations to force turnovers by getting sticks and skates in passing lanes while forcing the opponent to the outside with wingers supporting defenders instead of chasing after the puck carrier. Then, when you get the puck, slow the pace of play down for a moment or three, get fresh bodies on the ice, get your puck-moving defenders who skate the up ice to back off a trapping opposition defense, have them fire the puck up to multiple forwards skating up ice with speed, get the puck in deep, start cycling it to sustain possession and control of the puck in the offensive zone, get bodies to the front of the net and either set them up for slot chances and/or get the puck back to the point to pump shots at the net and retrieve any rebounds to generate secondary or tertiary scoring opportunities.
It’s not simple or easy, but that’s the way the Wings have to play to be successful.
So Babcock wants his team to get back to basics after a very disappointing road trip…
We went 2-1-2, that’s a point over .500, so it’s a good road trip when you look at it that way. But I know how we played,” Babcock said. “There gets to be a point in your season where you got to decide, if you think you’re a championship-caliber team, that there’s a right way to play. Unless you get 23 guys doing it the same way and wanting to do it, nothing’s going to happen.
Or, put simply, at least regarding Saturday’s game…
“Let’s be honest, the score early in the game flattered us,” Babcock said. “We weren’t very good without the puck and we didn’t break out of our zone very fast. But we were in a great situation (leading) 4-1. The team that worked the hardest, and the longest time, won. I really do (think that).”
In the end, fancy talk aside, that’s the bottom line. You have to work hard to win hockey games, and if you’re assuming that skill will beat will, you’re gonna get burned.
Red Wings notebook-type-stuff:
• I’ve tended not to assume that Darren Helm’s going to become a 20-goal-scorer, but his evolution into a player who can be counted upon to generate offense on the penalty-kill has made the Wings a much more dangerous penalty-killing team, as RedWingsCentral’s Sarah Lindenau notes on her “Left Wing Lock” blog:
The former fifth round selection in the 2005 NHL draft has developed into a solid bottom six forward for the Red Wings. He is also a staple on Detroit’s penalty kill where his speed routinely results in shorthanded opportunities. Thus far this season, he’s converted just two of these chances.
Helm is one of those players whose game isn’t measured in statistics alone. He provides a stable defensive presence and is counted on to play a gritty two-way game. The occasional timely goal is a bonus for the Winnipeg, Manitoba native.
While Helm’s offensive totals - 9 goals and 28 points - are only slightly above last season, his confidence level is soaring. The 24 year-old forward has seen increased ice time due to the Red Wing’s injury situation and he hasn’t disappointed providing stability among the bottom six forwards.
Helm isn’t counted on for offense, but his speed and defensive play generate plenty of scoring opportunities. He’s shown glimpses of what he can contribute when he simplifies the chances he gets by putting the puck on net. The hardworking forward will likely never develop dazzling offensive skills to match his skating, but his defensive game will keep with the Red Wings for years to come.
• As MLive’s Ansar Khan suggests, despite his ups and downs this season, Jonathan Ericsson has rebounded from an awful 2009-2010 campaign, and Khan spoke to the free agent-to-be about his evolution into a defenseman who’s holding his own while playing alongside Niklas Kronwall or Brian Rafalski, earning top four minutes:
“I learned a lot from what happened last year, couple of rough months there,’’ Ericsson said before Saturday’s game in Phoenix. “It’s all about confidence. If you play with confidence, everything comes natural. When you think too much you have to try to get back to basics again. It’s been a lot better year.’’
Ericsson has three goals, 11 assists and — most importantly — a plus-11 rating that ranks third on the club. Last season, he was a team-worst minus-15, plagued by turnovers and bad decisions. Coach Mike Babcock said Ericsson “is going in the right direction in his career’’ and attributed his improvement to confidence, which comes from experience. Ericsson, the final player selected in the 2002 NHL entry draft (291st overall), didn’t start playing defense in his native Sweden until he was 17.
“He’s 26 (turned 27 on Wednesday), but he’s a kid in the league,’’ Babcock said. “He’s a big, talented guy who has to play a simple, hard, physical game to be successful. The more simple he plays, the better he plays. It’s real straight-forward. Sometimes with his skill level he tries to be a little fine with the puck. All he’s got to do is watch Nick (Lidstrom). The best plays are the simplest ones. As long as he keeps his game simple, he’s a real good player for us.’’
Ericsson admits that he would like to add a more consistent physical edge to his game, but at present, that’s simply not his top priority:
“I want to be better at penalty killing, be a force for us there, be a guy they can count on every night,’’ Ericsson said.
Khan says that Ericsson’s agent and Ken Holland are at least talking now and then about a contract extension, but I’m guessing that he won’t be re-signed until after the season, and he won’t be re-signed unless he accepts a salary in the $1.5 million range, probably on a short-term contract.
• Also of note from Khan, Johan Franzen had this to say about breaking through a long scoring schneid on Saturday night:
“It’s been a while,’’ Franzen said. “I heard it was (14) games, I didn’t know that. I haven’t been counting the games. Definitely felt like a long time, but what can you do?’‘
Franzen leads the team with 27 goals.
“We needed him to get going and we needed him to score a goal,’’ Lidstrom said. “He had some other chances, too, so it was good for our team and good for his confidence.’‘
• In the prospect department, from the Grand Rapids Press’s Michael Zuidema, Grand Rapids Griffins forward Joakim Andersson hasn’t posted much in the way of offense, but the big Swede (he’s 6’2,” 205 lbs and still growing, at least horizontally) has impressed his coach and teammates while putting in yeoman’s work as a defensive forward and penalty-killer. He happened to register 3 assists while playing as a winger with Cory Emmerton and Francis Pare, who had a hat trick, on Saturday night:
“He’s another guy that doesn’t get a lot of credit for the hard work he does,” Fraser said. “He’s an excellent penalty killer, excellent defensively, and we stuck him with Emmer and Junior tonight. Boy, the three of them connected right away. He played really well, but you know what? Andy has been really good all year.”
Andersson, 22, has assists in four of his past five games, and his passing was a big reason why Pare was able to record a hat trick. On Pare’s first goal, Andersson redirected a long shot from Brendan Smith that Pare converted into a wide-open, easy tap-in. Andersson then set up the third goal with a pass that Pare one-timed from the right circle. Andersson was happy to help his teammate.
“It was fun that he got his hat trick,” he said. “He’s got a good shot and he’s got a good feeling to find the net, so it was no surprise.”
Andersson has four goals and 12 assists in 62 games this season. His play Saturday also helped bring his plus-minus rating to even. His primary role has been as a defensive forward, but now he’s flashing his offensive potential and strong passing skills.
“I’ve had a little bit of points here lately and it’s about time,” he said. “My production hasn’t been as good as I want to this year, but it’s fun to produce a little bit.”
Andersson’s just 22, but he hasn’t really had to deal with the usual “dip” in production or play that European juniors experience in their first seasons in the AHL because he played a significant role for the Frolunda Indians in the Swedish Eliteserien last season.
• Speaking of Sweden, Expressen’s Victor Melander reports that, despite playing as HV71’s starting goaltender this season, Daniel Larsson’s going to sit on the bench when HV71 faces AIK in the first round of the Eliteserien playoffs as Andreas Andersson’s supplanted Larsson as HV’s go-to netminder;
• And, in the alumni department, the Dallas News’s Mike Heika reports that former Wing Jason Williams has fit in nicely with the Dallas Stars.
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The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.