Detroit Red Wings 12-13 Preview: Life After Lidstrom

Jonathan Willis
August 15 2012 01:31PM

For years, the demise of the Detroit Red Wings has been popular to predict. With an older core, the idea that the team would fall into decline after it lost Yzerman, Fedorov, Shanahan, Hull and the rest was a popular one. It didn’t happen.

Now, Nicklas Lidstrom, the man who has arguably been the most important Red Wing for the last decade and a half, has finished his NHL career. Is the decline and fall of the Red Wings about to become reality?

The Defence

Nicklas Lidstrom (Michael Miller/Wikimedia Commons CC-by-SA 3.0)

The Red Wings find themselves dealing with the loss of two top-four defensemen: Nicklas Lidstrom and Brad Stuart. To date, they have not addressed these losses through free agency; as things stand the most likely replacements are Brendan Smith, making the jump after a two-year AHL apprenticeship, and Kyle Quincey, added late last year via trade. Based on last year’s ice-time, the depth chart will probably look something like this:

  • Niklas Kronwall: heavy minutes in all situations
  • Kyle Quincey: heavy minutes in all situations
  • Ian White: heavy minutes at even-strength, on the power play
  • Brendan Smith: even-strength usage that increases as the season goes on, a fair amount of power play time
  • Jonathan Ericsson: second/third-pairing even-strength work, lots of time on the penalty kill
  • Jakub Kindl: third-pairing even-strength work, not much else

Last year the team could use Kyle Quincey in a third-pairing role in the post-season and not play Brendan Smith at all; now they’re counting on both to play regular minutes. Ericsson, who I have listed as fifth on the depth chart, probably won’t start there – I expect that Smith will be eased into the lineup and Ericsson’s the most likely candidate to eventually cede minutes to him. With that said, the gap between Quincey at number two and Ericsson at number five is not a big one – all four guys will undoubtedly see extended time in the top-four.

I’d be shocked if the team didn’t add at least one more defender. They lack depth, and if they run into injuries there will be serious trouble.

Goaltending

Jimmy Howard (LAX/Wikimedia Commons CC-by-SA 3.0)

In a move that defies explanation, the Red Wings added perpetually mediocre goalie Jonas Gustavsson to their rotation. Gustavsson, signed to a two-year contract in the summer, has played three seasons in the NHL and posted a career-best 0.902 save percentage last year; he’s been a 0.900 save percentage goalie over 107 career games. Thirty-seven goalies have played at least 100 games over the last three seasons; the 27-year old Gustavsson has the second-worst save percentage of that group.

Fortunately for Detroit fans, Jimmy Howard will get the lion’s share of the starts, and his 0.917 save percentage over the last three years is the 13th-best mark among goalies with more than 100 games played – comparable to people like Jonathan Quick, Ilya Bryzgalov, Cam Ward, Carey Price and Jonas Hiller. He’s a legitimate starting goalie.

Also in the mix is Joey MacDonald, signed to a one-year, one-way contract. Assuming the Red Wings don’t keep three goalies (something which is at least theoretically possible), he’d probably wind up in the minors. His presence is another reason why the signing of Gustavsson is surprising – based on what MacDoanld has done over his career, the two are comparable talents.

Forwards

Up front, not a lot has really changed. The retirement of fourth-liner Tomas Holmstrom is relatively minor, and while the loss of Jiri Hudler is more serious it’s probably not a significant blow to Detroit.

The Red Wings contain the nucleus of two brilliant lines. Last year, Henrik Zetterberg played with Hudler and Valtteri Filppula, while Pavel Datsyuk played with Johan Franzen and Todd Bertuzzi. Hudler’s gone, but with the addition of Mikael Samuelsson and the possibility of Damien Brunner or Gustav Nyquist emerging as a legitimate scoring forward the Wings could be better off up front than they were one season ago. Between Dan Cleary, Darren Helm, and Justin Abdelkader, the depth up front is in pretty good shape too.

At this point, there’s no way of knowing how Mike Babcock will array the team’s talent, aside from saying it’s highly likely that Zetterberg and Datsyuk will once again play on different lines, giving the Red Wings two groups for the opposition to try and shut down. Some combination of Filppula, Franzen, Bertuzzi, Samuelsson, Cleary, Nyquist or Brunner will play with them, with the discards going to a capable third line.

Numbers

Having surveyed the changes to the lineup, how do we quantify the impact?

Firstly, the addition of Gustavsson probably doesn’t matter a lot to the team’s bottom line. It would be better if the backup were capable, but Detroit got 15 terrible games from Ty Conklin last season, so last year’s results already have a built-in cushion for ‘lousy backup goalie.’ If Gustavsson’s really bad, MacDoanld will take his job; if he’s just decent it will give Detroit the kind of goaltending they got in 2011-12.

The impact of losing Lidstrom is harder to measure.

The simplest method is using goals-versus-threshold, or GVT. GVT is a unified statistic created by Tom Awad that expresses a player’s contribution to his team in terms of goal differential, and it’s a handy shorthand for measuring an individual’s impact. According to GVT, Nicklas Lidstrom was worth 10 goal differential last season, a hair under two wins. I suspect the actual total is a little higher, though.

Another simple way is to look at the team’s record without Lidstrom in the lineup. When Lidstrom missed 11 games with an ankle injury, the Red Wings went 3-6-2. They won a game back in January when Lidstrom was out with the flu. Unfortunately, 12 games – the only 12 Lidstrom has missed in the last three seasons – is not only too small of a picture but fails to take into account other variables (such as the fact that Pavel Datsyuk also missed time during that span).

The Red Wings will need to compensate for the 3.5 minutes per game of power play time that Lidstrom will not be playing. Last year, with Lidstrom on the ice the Red Wings’ power play out-shot the opposition 56-to-5 in an average hour; with him off the ice they out-shot the opposition 47-to-11. Of course, Lidstrom typically played on the top unit, so that effect isn’t all him, and in two of the last three seasons he’s actually been out-scored (relative to ice-time) by Kronwall on the power play. There will undoubtedly be an impact, but there’s no way to know how large and it seems at least plausible that the Red Wings will be able to counter much of it.

More difficult to replace will be Lidstrom’s 18 minutes per night of even-strength ice-time, always played against the best available opposition. With Lidstrom on the ice, the Red Wings possessed a heavy edge both in shot and goal totals, despite the quality minutes he was playing, and it seems implausible to suggest that Kronwall and some combination of White, Quincey, Ericsson and Smith will be able to make up the difference.

Ultimately, it’s impossible to know how much difference losing Lidstrom is going to make. GVT measured his impact at 10 goals this year but the season before put it at 16. If we assume that’s somewhere in the ball park, that reduces Detroit from a plus-45 team to a plus-30 to 35 club.

Outlook

One man – not even one man as talented as Lidstrom – does not make a team, and so I don’t think we will see Detroit implode in 2012-13. The forward corps is still one of the deepest and most capable in the league; it should continue to provide high-end play and drive the team’s results. Starting goaltender Jimmy Howard is highly competent, and should provide at least league-average goaltending – perhaps even a little better than. The defence, if all goes well, has the personnel to take a by-committee approach and Niklas Kronwall is a solid anchor to build around.

Still, the decline has started. For the first time in a long time, Detroit should just be a good team.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including the Edmonton Journal, Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.