Patrick Kane signing doesn’t address Red Wings’ most pressing problem

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports /

The consensus is the Detroit Red Wings are much better than last season. Why such optimism? It’s the offense. Even though last year’s team and this year’s version have the same number of points (27) after 22 games, the current edition has much more firepower. And their offense hides flaws.

After whipping the Chicago Blackhawks 5-1 on Thursday, the Wings have 81 goals and a +17 goal differential. Last season’s group, through the first 22 games, was +2 in goal differential (72 GF, 70 GA).

And adding Patrick Kane, signed by the Wings to a one-year deal on Tuesday, is designed to provide more offense. And perhaps cover more of the Red Wings’ flaws, especially up front.

Given the lean free-agent crop in the offseason, general manager Steve Yzerman did a neat job of plugging holes in the forward group by bringing in Alex DeBrincat, J.T. Compher, Christian Fischer, Daniel Sprong, and Klim Kostin. There’s a good mix of scoring, playmaking, size and grit.

Enhanced scoring has helped the Detroit Red Wings hide flaws in the forward group.

So far, the enhanced scoring has been most noticeable. With 87 goals, the Wings rank fourth one-quarter into the season; last year, their 240 goals put them 24th among the league’s 32 teams.

The biggest flaws, which could be increasingly difficult for the offense to hide over 82 games, are a lack of grit and defensive awareness. Teams that miss the playoffs are easy to play against, give up too many scoring chances, and create an almost unbearable burden for their defense and goaltending.

Too often last season, this doomed the Detroit Red Wings. And it’s still noticeable this season. Winners of five of their last six, the Red Wings enter a critical point with Tuesday’s game against the Sabres in Buffalo. At this same juncture last season, the  Red Wings pretty much dropped from the playoff hunt with a 2-6-1 stretch.

How do they avoid such slumps? By shoring up their defensive play, especially among the forwards. Their lone loss in the past five games was 3-2 against the Rangers in New York on Wednesday.

The game highlights show sloppy defensive play and indecision in the third period by the Red Wings, primarily by forwards Robby Fabbri and Andrew Copp.

On K’Andre Miller’s goal at 9:14 that tied the game at 2-2, the Rangers entered the offensive zone with three players. The Detroit Red Wings look to be in decent shape, with all five skaters inside the blue line.

From there, Fabbri and Copp may as well be Laurel and Hardy on skates. Both turn to follow Chris Kreider’s pass from the left-wing boards to the right point. That puts all three Detroit forwards above the faceoff circle. In this instance, a defensive no-no.

The puck quickly goes back to the left-wing boards to Mika Zibanejad, and the slick center attacks the middle, with Fabbri making a weak effort to stop him. If Fabbri stops on the puck instead of circling away from Zibanejad, there’s a chance to make a strong defensive play.

Now, Zibanejad has a clear path to the net. Copp, the center on the line who doesn’t seem to communicate with Fabbri about staying low in the zone so the Wings aren’t outmatched 3-2 below the circle, frantically rushes at Zibanejad. With a tiny move, Zibanejad has Copp tumbling to the ice, then slides a pass in the high slot to Miller, whose one-timer beats Ville Husso. Pray tell, why is Jonatan Berggren not playing tighter on Miller?

On the decisive goal, at 15:45 by Jimmy Vesey, it’s more of the same, specifically confusion and poor shift management. The goal on a rebound comes as a New York penalty expires. Three Wings are back, including Daniel Sprong, who had rotated to the right point on the power play. Again, Fabbri and Copp are victimized, this time because they’ve stayed too long. And Fabbri also allows a 3-on-2 by getting beat by the puck carrier at center ice.

Fabbri and Copp are also finishing shifts of 1:15 minutes apiece. They’re gassed and can’t get back to help clear a rebound that Vesey bats past Husso for the winner.

Sprong’s shift was over a minute, too. If any one of the three had gotten off perhaps 10-12 seconds earlier, a fresh body might have been able to get to the rebound before Vesey.

Wait, how does this relate to the Kane signing? Well, in Chicago, on all those successful teams, Kane was never known for defense, winning puck battles, backchecking, or being defensively aware.

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Adding Kane means the Red Wings have too many forwards who, if they don’t score, don’t help much. You can have a few of these players because scoring is so important. But with Fabbri, DeBrincat, and Copp already lacking in defensive awareness, is there room among perhaps the top six for another one-trick pony?