Last season, the Detroit Red Wings finished 23rd in the NHL in goals-against per game, with opponents averaging 2.89 goals. For a team that has some of the game's best two-way forwards and a Norris Trophy winner, it was inexplicable. To Mike Babcock, it was unacceptable.
When he was filling his two vacant assistant coach positions, he looked for a new direction.
"I've been here six years; I wanted change," Babcock said. "In the interview process, that's what I was looking for. I was looking for as many ideas as I could get. Some of them have led to things."
Change is working in Detroit. Although they've played only four games, the Red Wings are allowing just 1.25 goals per game, best in the NHL. Each goalie -- Jimmy Howard and Ty Conklin -- has a shutout. The Red Wings have played fewer games than anyone else in their division, yet they sit on top of the Central, a perfect 4-0.
"We've changed a little bit in how we think and how we see the game," defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. "So far it's been paying off."
Here are five reasons behind the success of the NHL's stingiest team:
1. Increased pressure on opponents
As a former coach in the USHL and at Western Michigan University, new assistant coach Jeff Blashill brought a different perspective and background to the Red Wings. "I came through the college ranks, and that allows a different point of view," Blashill said. "We did things with a lot of different pressures."
When he was hired, the coaching staff did serious video work while deciding just how it wanted to change schematically and to make sure everyone was on the same page. The resulting focus in Detroit has been increased pressure on the puck and eliminating time and space for the offensive player. "That's something that is very important to Mike," Blashill said. "Any offensive player will tell you they'd like to have space. If you can take their space away, it makes it harder on the opposition's offensive players."
In a veteran team eager to reverse its defensive struggles, the Red Wings' coaching staff found a talented group willing to adopt a philosophy that needs all five guys playing the same way. "We're trying to put more pressure on the puck carrier where the puck is at," Nicklas Lidstrom said. "You have to work as a unit, a group of five. You can't have two guys doing it and then other guys are backing off and not covering their guys. So far, it's been working well."
After the retirement of Brian Rafalski, GM Ken Holland had money to work with in free agency and could have made more dramatic changes to his defense. Instead, he signed lower-profile free agents such as Ian White and Mike Commodore and brought back Ericsson with a three-year contract worth $9.75 million that made even the most ardent Holland supporter squirm a bit. But two of Detroit's youngest defensemen are justifying Holland's loyalty with strong play early on this season. Ericsson (27 years old) is at plus-5, and Kindl (24) is at plus-6.
"They've been playing real solid defensively, moving the puck and making plays when they're there but not getting themselves in trouble by holding on to the puck too long or looking for that extra pass," Lidstrom said.
There's risk in pairing the two most inexperienced defensemen on the roster, but it has worked so far, with Ericsson playing the role of the cagey veteran. "Yeah, I kind of feel like that sometimes," Ericsson said. "[Kindl is] young, and he's asking me some things I've been asking Nick [Lidstrom] about. We have a lot to learn from each other, getting to know each other more and more. Right now, it's working well. Let's just hope it keeps working."
In explaining the success of the team defense, nearly every player interviewed stopped and made sure to point out the strong play of Howard and Conklin. "That goes without being said, but that's reality," Blashill said. The goaltending in Detroit was a bit of a mess last season, when Howard was inconsistent and Chris Osgood battled injuries. The uncertainty led to an attempt to sign Evgeni Nabokov, who was claimed on waivers by the New York Islanders. This summer, Holland made an offer to sign Tomas Vokoun, although it wasn't a particularly aggressive pursuit. According to an NHL source, Detroit's best offer was $1 million, even less than Vokoun's discounted deal with the Washington Capitals.
The biggest difference this season from Howard's perspective has been Detroit's ability to control the puck more than last season. The Red Wings allowed just 14 shots in their comeback win against the Minnesota Wild on Oct. 15. "The other night against Minnesota was probably the best defensive play I've ever seen in my career," Howard said. "If you keep a team to 14 shots in the NHL, you know you had a great game playing D." It's worth noting that Howard started last season 4-0-1 with a 2.14 goals-against and .925 save percentage. After that start, his save percentage dropped to .908 in November, .902 in December and .894 in January, so consistency will be important for the 27-year-old.
4. Ian White
Rather than trading for the rights of James Wisniewski, as the Columbus Blue Jackets did, or offering Ed Jovanovski more years than he probably deserves at this point in his career, Holland quietly added White on the second day of free agency with a two-year deal worth $2.875 million per season. White was a player Lidstrom, who prefers playing with a right-handed shot, identified as a potential partner when he chatted with management after the season. The Red Wings have a long history of successfully bringing in veteran players who have bounced around in their career, providing an environment of stability in which to settle their games.
White is looking like this year's version. He has two goals in four games and is a plus-4 in replacing Rafalski as Lidstrom's partner on defense. "It's been a good fit," Lidstrom said. "It's a matter of knowing how he reads plays, how he reads 2-on-2s, 3-on-2s, how he wants to play in his own zone. It takes some time, but so far it's been working out well for us."
5. A friendly early schedule
Let's face it, the Red Wings haven't exactly been facing the 1977 Canadiens. Aside from a nice win against the red-hot Colorado Avalanche, Detroit has played the Wild, the road-weary Vancouver Canucks and the last-place Ottawa Senators. The Pittsburgh Penguins have played twice as many games as Detroit. "At the same time, it's not as easy as you'd think to play two games a week," Kronwall said. "It's almost harder to do that. The good part about it is we've conserved a lot of energy and we've been able to get that out during games."
The Red Wings' defense will get a nice test against the Capitals (Oct. 22) and the San Jose Sharks (Oct. 28) before the end of the month. Detroit's next game is Friday against Columbus after nearly a week off. The Wings are ready to get at it. "It's painful for the players and painful for me," Babcock said. "We like to play games. That's just the way it is."
• Count Blashill among those in favor of hybrid icing in the NHL. He had it in the USHL and college ranks and agreed that making the switch is a no-brainer. "I loved it; I lived it for three years," he said. "It makes it hard on the linesmen; they're going to make judgements a little bit more. So you have a few miscalls -- who cares? It's better than the one [major] injury you may have."
• Scott Arniel and Scott Howson got a vote of confidence from team president Mike Priest, according to The Columbus Dispatch. Priest is waiting until the full roster takes the ice before making judgments on the team. Between injuries and Wisniewski's suspension, Columbus has played all of this season short-handed. "We hoped we wouldn't be where we are," Priest told the Dispatch. "We have to keep pushing through this, but we also need to see our team. We don't have our team." Give GM Howson credit. He's not using the injuries as an excuse. He pointed to the Penguins as a team that has overcome even more injuries than Columbus and is still finding ways to win.
• Maybe we shouldn't be too surprised by Phil Kessel's hot start. He has more career goals in October (27) than any other month (besides April) despite playing the fewest games then. Since 2008-09, Kessel has the highest goals-per-game rate in the NHL at 0.77. Marian Gaborik is second at 0.67.