Yzerman identifies Detroit Red Wings' flaw; Lalonde, players have not responded

As his team flounders, general manager Steve Yzerman pleads for better defensive play, but the makeup of his roster is unable and unwilling to comply. The blame lies with them and their coach.
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The man in charge has told you, Detroit Red Wings fans, what's haunting his team in its six-game losing streak. Steve Yzerman has identified what will make or break the Red Wings in their hunt for a playoff berth.

First, in a news conference after the Friday trade deadline and then later that night speaking with Trevor Thompson of Bally Sports Detroit in Arizona, where the Wings lost 4-0 to the Coyotes, Yzerman, the general manager, carefully, passionately urged his team to perform better defensively.

"Ultimately, we need to be good defensively," Yzerman said. It's not just goaltending, but it's "team defense," he explained during the news conference and then later to Thompson.

Since those interviews, when he also expanded on the Red Wings' inactivity at the trade deadline, the losing streak has grown by three more games. In that span of six consecutive losses, Detroit has allowed 32 goals, including seven in Tuesday night's drubbing in Buffalo. Do the math; that's an average of 5.3 goals against.

There are several reasons for this ugly losing streak, of course. Front and center is the injury to captain Dylan Larkin. He's in the midst of a two-week absence because of a lower-body injury he sustained in a 4-0 on March 2 home loss to the Florida Panthers, the second loss in this current stretch. It appears Larkin, the team's best forward, is out for Detroit's weekend games (Saturday against Buffalo and Sunday against Pittsburgh). Hopefully, he returns on March 19 for a road game against Columbus.

The loss of Dylan Larkin to injury doesn't fully explain the Red Wings' inability to embrace the concept of team defense.

But really, Larkin's loss doesn't fully explain 5.3 goals against, does it? Is one player, even a fleet two-way center, that crucial to one team's makeup?

Well, it shouldn't. Team defense is a combination of hard work, recognition, determination and being responsible. Problem is, these ingredients are sorely lacking up front. Which of these Detroit forwards would anyone consider on the plus side of defensively responsible: Robby Fabbri? Alex DeBrincat? David Perron? Andrew Copp? Jonatan Berggren? Patrick Kane? (And, please, can we stop the love affair with No. 88. He's good when the puck is on his stick. Otherwise ...)

We're talking six forwards here who are pretty much defensive liabilities. Plus, as Octopus Thrower editor Bob Heyrman wrote recently, the team lacks a truly effective centerman to pair with Larkin. J.T. Compher is a decent player, but he's a third-line center at best, certainly not the answer to a one-two punch from the middle. And, remember, the NHL is a center-driven league.

As for the aforementioned six players -- that's half the lineup most nights because the Wings often dress 11 forwards -- let's review their shortcomings:

Fabbri is totally unaware, runs around in the defensive zone, and is excruciatingly soft along the wall. DeBrincat is aggressive and spirited. But at 5-foot-8, 180 pounds, he's so often overmatched in puck battles. Perron and Copp are terribly slow in a game that keeps getting faster and faster. Never particularly quick on his skates, Perron, who turns 36 in May, has lost a stride or two to age. Let's face it: Copp, in his second season as a free-agent acquisition, has been a huge disappointment in an attempt to fill the Red Wings' void at center. And Berggren? He's nearing 80 NHL career games but still has that deer-in-the-headlight look.

As for Kane, his offensive skills are obvious from the opponent's blue line to the goal, about 70 feet. As for the remaining 130 feet of ice surface, he is a huge liability.

The makeup of the roster ultimately is Yzerman's responsibility, so some of this is on him. He's failed to deliver a more rounded group of forwards. But coach Derek Lalonde also deserves some blame, too. When has a forward in this group been punished for poor defensive play? When has the coach issued a mid-game benching, reduced ice time, or given a seat in the press box to any number of guilty players?

You've got to think that if Yzerman is urging better defensive play, then so is the coach, right? Lalonde also must recognize this flaw. If we praise him for the ups, he deserves some blame for the down, too. Detroit has allowed 218 goals in 65 games. Nine teams rank worse, so the Wings are in the bottom third of the league in goals allowed. Not good.

Many fans have blamed the team's defensemen for the goals against. Some have pointed to goaltending, especially early in the season. But so often, Detroit's forwards fail to backcheck, lose the puck in bad spots -- particularly making poor passes in the neutral zone that lead to turnovers and odd-man rushes -- and miss assignments in their own zone. These deficiencies leave defensemen vulnerable. Goalies, too. And the flaws of the forwards have reared their ugly heads repeatedly during the current skid.

Sadly, there is no immediate cure. At this level, players aren't often going to change. The Wings' roster has too many forwards who, if they do not contribute offensively, cannot help in other areas.

So why do the Red Wings remain in the playoff hunt? First, the NHL is a watered-down league. Many teams have similar imperfections. Second, in many matchups, the Red Wings' offense—it's pretty effective, ranking second overall in the Eastern Conference—has been able to hide these defensive flaws.

Here's a prediction: Larkin's injury at a key part of the season means the Red Wings will miss the playoffs for an eighth consecutive season. His loss has exposed the Wings for what they really are -- a slightly better than .500 team of peaks and valleys. Unfortunately, the Red Wings won't be able to climb out of their latest valley.

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