Thursday, September 28, 2006

It's The Defense, Stupid

Brendan Shanahan, last season, scored goals for the Red Wings at the rate of one every two games. A 40-goal man. The numbers of only the most elite of goal scorers in the NHL. It's not too trite to say that forwards that can deposit the puck in opposing goals with that frequency don't grow on trees.

Shanahan is gone now, fled to the bright lights of Broadway, although for not any more cash than what the Red Wings were offering him this past summer. We are still left to wonder what the real reason was for his flight. It hardly matters now, of course. Shanahan is a New York Ranger, which means he must really have wanted out of Detroit pretty badly. The Rangers haven't exactly been hockey's Shangri-La in recent years.

Where the Red Wings hope to find those 40 goals that Shanahan scored for them last season is one of the questions that faces the team as it gets ready to start yet another quest that can only be called a success if the franchise wins another Stanley Cup. That question, in fact, is one of nine that we pose in the October issue of Motor City Sports Magazine. Writer and online editor Ian Casselberry does a marvelous job in garnering some local and national NHL observers to help answer the questions, the answers to which should go a long way in determining how the Red Wings will fare in this season of transition.

The Red Wings have to find someone, or several someones, to muster up 0.5 goals per game this season. Johan Franzen might be one of those someones. Greg Johnson was a candidate, until recent health issues have put his season on hold. Seems like a large part of this task will fall on the shoulders of one Jason Williams.

Williams, who scored a career-high 21 goals last season, is being counted on heavily by coach Mike Babcock to ratchet that total up, maybe closer to 30. An improvement of nine -- 20% there already. Williams scored twice in last night's 5-3 exhibition victory over the Minnesota Wild.

But it can't be just Williams, or Williams and Franzen, or any other combination of folks. Forty goals aren't going to be easy to replace. So it says here that the Red Wings better get things in order in their own zone, and their own goal, if they want to compensate for Shanahan's departure. Meaning? Cut down on the goals against.

I maintain that it'll be the Red Wings' defense, and not their offense, that will determine how far they go on that annual quest for Lord Stanley's Cup. So quit worrying so much about replacing Shanahan's 40 goals, and start to work on cutting down the opponent's goals by that 0.5 per game. Or somewhere close.

Lidstrom is the "kid" among the Red Wings' top three defensemen

Dominik Hasek in goal is a good start. Or rather, a good ending. A good last line of defense. Despite his age, Hasek is still one of the very best goaltenders when his groin isn't going poof and his head is sitting evenly on his lanky shoulders. The top three Red Wings defensemen, however, are Nick Lidstrom (35 years old), Mathieu Schneider (37), and Chris Chelios (44; will turn 45 in January). So the four men being most counted on to keep opposing shots out of the net have a combined age of 157. That's almost 40 for those of you sans calculator.

So it's a daunting task, and one that should finally remove the Red Wings from the spectre of being a leading Cup contender, and in turn maybe taking some pressure off them. Which is never a bad thing, when you play in a league where lower playoff seeds tend to play in May and June with the magic pixie dust sprinkled upon them.

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