Sunday, April 5, 2009

Breaking Down the Problem Areas

There have been a lot of reasons lately for me to be skeptical about our chances of repeating as Stanley Cup Champions. So many in fact that I am scared to make a prediction beyond first round. And here are the five reasons why I'm not making that prediction but also an upside to each:
  1. Goaltending
  2. Defense
  3. Penalty Kill
  4. Playoff Matchups
  5. Drive to win
I'll start with goaltending as it seems to be the biggest problem we face by far. We have two very capable goalies in Chris Osgood and Ty Conklin. However, how good are they going to be when the playoffs hit? I know I know, Ozzie did incredible in the playoffs last year but can he do it again? I hope so. Last season, Ozzie and Dom combined to win the Jennings Trophy for least goals allowed. When one would struggle, you could count on the other coming in to play lights out, no goals allowed hockey. Nine times last year, following a loss by Hasek/Osgood, the other goalie came in the next game and got a win. I know that's a very circumstantial stat but it does show the effectiveness that they had as a duo. Now I'm not writing off the Conklin and Osgood duo as one inferior to Hasek/Osgood, but somehow we've seen a worse performance. Osgood is playing well but at times he has let in goals that he knows there should be no excuse for him pulling the puck out of the net. Conklin, on the other hand looks like the seasoned vet and in fewer games than Ozzie he has one more win. Our goaltending though, as many around the league have noted, is not what it needs to be to repeat. The good part of this though? Osgood can catch fire at anytime and so can Conklin. Given the healthy competition for starting goalie in the playoffs, I think both of these guys will step up their game for the run to Stanley.

On to the enigma of the year, our defense. I don't know what has changed since last year but for whatever reason we are not the same team defensively. Last year, we gave up a league low 184 goals. This year? 230. That's 46 more than a year ago and there are still games to play. We've gone from +73 goal differential to +53.Granted a lot of that is probably Hasek/Osgood in net but the defense has been very questionable at times this year. It certainly does not look like the same defense as last year that had 2-3 Hall of Famers on it, yet its the same lineup. Maybe Babcock changed the way the players are matching up with opposing forwards or maybe teams around the league have just become wise to the Wings' ways. Or maybe it's just a half-hearted effort. I don't know the reason really and I don't know enough to break down tape other than the fact that our defenders are simply just out of position a lot of the time. I've also noticed a lack of blocking shooting and passing lanes this year in comparison to last year. Our defense is suspect, and teams are starting to realize that. They're finding the creases in our back line and finding ways to get to the goal. The good news? Nick Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski (having his best offensive season), and Brad Stuart are continuing to play well. Kronwall is still evolving as a player and I think he's our next Lidstrom (hence his nickname Nick Jr.). He shows excellent knowledge of the game,shows great positioning, has offensive skills that are growing with time, and as every team that faces him will tell you, he can hit with the best of them. Brett Lebda, Derek Meech, Andreas Lilja, and Jonathan Ericcson are all also big parts of our defense and will play a big role in the playoff run. Lebda contributed big in the postseason last year and will likely need to step up in the absence of Lilja. Also, its a good thing our offense is the most productive in the league.

Guh. The penalty kill this year is awful, and I don't know why. Here's the thing. Last year, we took 933 penalty minutes, 2nd fewest in the league and had a 84% (8th) kill success rate. This year, we've taken 765, 2nd fewest in the league but have only a 77% (26th) success rate. It doesn't make much sense to me as to why we've had a dropoff in penalty killing ability with 160 less minutes than last year.The weird thing is that percentage of total goals allowed that are powerplay goals allowed are the same this year and last year at 30%. So it still makes me wonder what's going on. Maybe it's just who is taking the penalties that makes our PK worse this year. Granted we didn't have him last year but Marian Hossa is a good penalty killer but his PIMs have nearly doubled from last year. I still can't figure out why we're so bad on the PK but the good news? We have the best powerplay in the league. So I guess you have to give a little to gain a lot.

The fourth thing is who could be matched up against in the first round of the playoffs. Most likely the Blue Jackets won't fall down to the seventh/eighth seed and I hope that they don't. I don't want to play against Steve Mason&Co. in round one, they've played us really well this year and could easily take the series. Another possibility is the Anaheim Ducks, which I also don't like. Anytime you have to face JS Giguere in the first round, you're gonna be frustrated y the end of the series because he can transform into a brick wall in the playoffs. A third potential matchup is intra-division rival Nashville. This would be a rematch of last year's opening round. Yet another team I don't want to face. The 6'5" Pekka Rinne has become a formidable force in net and the Preds are a physical team that knows how to play us and ruffle our feathers, thanks to Barry Trotz. A fourth potential matchup would be the Minnesota Wild. I do not like this matchup either because of their goaltending star Nicklas Backstrom. The Wild are weak in many areas so this is one of the few that I would not feel too uncomfortable with. The last and very likely first round matchup is with the St. Louis Blues. Although they recently made our defense look like a joke last time out, we're 5-1-0 against them this year and Chris Mason has some very exploitable flaws in his game. The good news? All of my fears for playoff matchups are based on goaltending, but we score the most goals in the league.

The fifth worry that I have is probably the one that I need to worry the least about. It's just hard to envision at times how some of our players will have the same drive and motivation that they did last year. Except for two players (Hossa, Conklin) all of the current roster had their name etched into the Cup last year. There've been times this year that I've questioned the drive of the team but in the end I think it comes down to professionalism and passion for success. Every player has put in their heart and soul and I think their passion is only going to increase as the Finals draw closer and closer. I think Hossa and Conklin will help contribute to this having been on the losing end of it last year after coming so far.

Don't get me wrong. I know teams around the league would kill to have the problems that we have but they are still problems nontheless. But coming off a Stanley Cup win and signing one of the most dominant offensive forces in the offseason in Marian Hossa, expectations are only for excellence and another banner in the rafters, anything short would be a failure in a city that's seen a little too much of it lately.

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