Why are the Red Wings still good?

(This post is part of a fundraiser for 826 Boston, a non-profit tutoring and writing center. For a donation of $50 or more, readers can get me to write anything about hockey they want, so donate today to make me say stuff by clicking here. I probably don’t believe the nonsense below, which was requested by Matt Schultz.)


Just about every year since Nicklas Lidstrom retired I’ve said that this would be the one in which the Red Wings finally failed to make the playoffs. A lot of that is playing the odds, especially because the roster seems to have gotten worse and older every year since as well. But that, obviously, hasn’t happened yet, and it’s getting to the point where you have to wonder if it ever will.

The big reason why seems to be that the passage of time has no effect on Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Both are now well past the age at which they should be as effective as they were in their late 20s, and yet here we are. Datsyuk is having his best season since the Lidstrom retirement in terms of just about everything — health, goal production, possession, etc. — at age 36, which doesn’t happen often.

Zetterberg is right there with him in some respects. He’s not scoring as much, nor is he driving play with quite the same effectiveness, but he’s still producing at a near-elite level as a 33-year-old. Whatever secret cryochamber stem cell treatments worked for Nicklas Lidstrom has clearly been imparted to them as well.

But obviously this isn’t a two-player team, and so you have to look at the contributions of others as well. And while there are a few guys worth singling out — Tomas Tatar has been revelatory as has Tomas Jurco; Riley Sheahan is producing at roughly a Zetterbergian level; Danny DeKeyser and Brendan Smith are proving very good on the blue line, etc. — it’s really the contributions of the whole team that’s been so impressive. Detroit right now is having the fourth-best shot-suppression season of any team in the last three seasons (behind lockout-shortened New Jersey, last year’s New Jersey, and lockout-shortened Los Angeles) even as they’re a middling offensive team. They’ve cut three shot attempts per game from their opponents’ totals, and are only taking one more of their own.

I will say, though, that I think they’ve been pretty lucky on special teams, too. Best power play in the league (25 percent), ninth-best PK (82.9 percent). Last year they were 18th and 12th, and the year before they were 15th and 12th. That pops a lot of extra goals onto your goal differential, which is important because they’re only plus-7 at 5-on-5.

Let’s put it this way: With 21 games left to go, the Red Wings already have the seventh-largest power play goal total in the last three years, and it’s because they’re shooting 17.7 percent. No surprise that’s the second-highest number seen in the post-Lidstrom era. (It also helps that they draw the third-most penalties in the league, which is a repeatable skill, but the shooting is very much not).

So I dunno, how long can they keep it up? A few more years? When Datsyuk and Zetterberg retire (whenever that is)? It’s tough to say, but at some point, making the playoffs this many times in a row despite whatever issues you go through has to just be considered good. Continually betting on this much power play success to carry you, not so much.

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