May 25, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock addresses the media after the game against the Chicago Blackhawks after game five of the second round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the United Center. The Blackhawks beat the Red Wings 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

Can the Detroit Red Wings and New Coaches Improve Their Special Teams?

Today the Detroit Red Wings announced the hiring of Assistant Coach Jim Hiller and Video Coach Andrew Brewer,who along with the recently hired Tony Granato now make up Mike Babcock’s coaching staff.  As the off-season marches on towards training camps these men are all going to come together and start formulating plans and ideas that they have been gathering over the off-season and will begin working out how to apply the knowledge they possess to make the Red Wings a better team in the up coming 2014-2015 season.

Jim Hiller‘s experience as coach of the Tri-City Americans, who went 210-124-26 in his tenure and earned him Coach of the Year honors in 11-12′, will be in charge of the offense and a key component of their power play. Tony Granato has several years of Head Coaching and Assistant Coaching experience, including going 32-11-4 after taking over for a then fired Bob Hartley and turning a dismal start into a 1st place finish in his division, will be coaching the defense.  Add in the knowledge  of Andrew Brewer who was team Canada’s video coach under Mike Babcock and you have what could be the makings of an elite coaching team.  At this point it would be worth mentioning that all 4 men are currently on 1 year deals.

While all facets of the game are important there are two glaring issues these coaches are going to want to address. They are the special team play on the power play and on the penalty kill.  Over the last two decades the team has historically finished near the top 10 if not top 5 in both categories, but coinciding with the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom and the departures of coaching personnel such as Paul Maclean and Todd Mclellan, both areas have taken a noticeable drop off and now hover in the mid teens in most categories.  Which by any standards will not be good enough to win the Stanley Cup without amazing five on five play and outstanding goaltending.

The Power Play:

Per, and the statistical pages.  In the lockout shortened season the Red Wings absent Lidstrom did markedly well on the power play.  Finishing with 185 power plays for(2nd overall), 34 power play goals for(5th overall).  While those numbers were good the drop comes at the execution level, with only a 18.38% success rate(15th overall).  In the following season they did not fare much better.  Scoring 50 goals for over the course of 82 games dropped them to 12th best in the league.  While they drew 295 penalties (7th overall) they continued to have problems executing capitalizing on only 17.73% good enough for 18th overall.

While those power play numbers are not the worst in the league, it also proves that there will be a lot of work for the quartet of coaches to do to get their team back in the top 10 and being something other than a playoff bubble team.  It is worth noting the drastic  catastrophic amount of injuries limited the play of the entire first power play line, it’s still stands to reason that if the Wings want to compete in the east they MUST  improve special teams play.

The first area they have to improve in is getting more out of their defensemen not named Niklas Kronwall.  In the 2014 season only Kronwall scored more than one goal with five goals on the power play, while Danny Dekeyser and Brendan Smith each had one, and that is not going to cut it.  While it is hard to score as a defenseman, it is not unreasonable to ask for more than 7 goals on the power play from the whole core combined.

Next the Wings have to get healthy and stay that way.  Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen all missed a serious amount of time.  Combine that with Stephen Weiss, who was supposed to be the 2nd power play unit center never getting off to a good start and then missing all but 20 games, and you have a recipe for a 17.73% success rate.  With those four being healthy and the rise of young players like Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist and Riley Sheahan Mike Babcock and company are going to have to plenty of options to give their team a much better chance on the power play, and in result a much better chance of not only making the playoffs but actually making it out of the first round as long as they can utilize their talent effectively.

The Penalty Kill:

February 9, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Edmonton Oilers left wing Taylor Hall (4) celebrates a goal on Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard (35) by Nick Schultz (not pictured) as Detroit defenseman Kyle Quincey (27) reacts in the first period at Joe Louis Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

On the other side of the rink the Red Wings have not fared much better on the penalty kill.  In the lock out season over 42 games played the Wings were sent to the box 164 times(19th) and allowed 34 goals against(12th) for a penalty kill rate of 81.71%(12th).  Those numbers like the power plays were not to shabby considering the loss of Lidstrom.  In the 2014 season the penalty kill took a marked drop.  Allowing 50 goals against(18th) on 295 opportunities(27th) for a success rate of 83.05%(12th).

Just looking at those numbers the coaching staff is going to have to figure out how to keep players from cutting ruts to the penalty box.  It again has to be noted that the Red Wings played more rookies this season than any other season since the early 90’s.  Rookies make mistakes, it happens and is to be expected.  With a lot more playing time and lessons learned from those numbers should drop, but more worrisome would be veteran players like Kyle Quincey(88 p.i.m. in 14′) and sophomore Brendan Smith(66 p.i.m. in 14′) taking penalties like it’s operated by Tim Hortons.  Babcock is going to have to hold a shorter leash on his players and with the growing number of prospects fighting for a spot on the team there should be ample motivation for those two and the rest of the team to keep their discipline in check.

As with any team the penalty kill starts and ends with solid goal-tending.  A good goalie who is positionally sound can make a world of difference, they can be the difference between being a good team or a great team.  With this season coming for  the Wings it will be no different, they must get better play out of net minder Jimmy Howard, he himself admittedly declared last season a an unacceptable.  Howard has proven that he can win 35 games a season and can be an effective goalie when the team needs him, but thanks to a rash of injuries to him and the injuries to the rest of the team he just didn’t show up and at times it could have been argued that Howard lost his job to back up Jonas Gustavsson, a good case had Gustavsson managed to stay healthy himself, and invited more calls from fans for the already eagerly anticipated Petr Mrazek.  Bottom line:  For 5.29 million a season, per, Jimmy Howard can not afford to have a season like last least he lose his job to Gustavsson or Mrazek.

Finally, the defense and forwards on the penalty kill need to do one thing more than any other.  They must get the puck out of the zone in the most efficient way possible.  They have to stay positionally sound and communicate much better then they have over the last 2 seasons  As a fan its frustrating to watch the Wings be hemmed in their own zone for the majority of a penalty kill.  More so for the tired players who get stuck on the ice and become more and more prone to mistakes as the seconds tick by.  Somewhere, some how the team is going to have to develop a system to allow them to retrieve pucks efficiently and not be caught out of position or out muscled in a puck battle.

At the end of the day  Mike Babcock and his new charges are going to have to make improvements to the special teams.  They should get a boost in the form of health to their first line and second line units and have more options to roll out on the penalty kill.  But if they can not stay healthy or compete with the rest of the Atlantic, then they are going to have to find a way to keep the production on the man advantage and the penalty kill up at high levels.  Otherwise come April next year, all four men, who are at the time of this writing on one year  deals that expire at the completion of the season, might be competing against each other for jobs on other teams.

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