Mike Babcock didn't mince any words after the Detroit Red Wings' most recent loss.
"Unacceptable," Babcock said of his team's performance in his post-game interview with Fox Sports Detroit. Babcock proceeded to tell the gathered media that his team would work hard in practice if they're not going to work hard in games.
Those are pretty harsh words from any coach, let alone one from the most successful NHL team in the past two decades. But nonetheless, Babcock is right. There is something up with the Red Wings, and it's not a good thing.
Detroit dropped its third game in five tries since play resumed from the All-Star break, losing 4-1 to Nashville on Wednesday. Over the weekend, Detroit suffered back-to-back shutouts at the hands of Columbus and Nashville. Last week, they needed a five-goal performance from Johan Franzen to beat the lowly Ottawa Senators.
Is it the offense's fault? You could certainly make that argument after watching the Red Wings' last four games, which they combined to score four goals. It's hard to imagine just one week ago Detroit was busy putting up seven goals on the Senators.
But the defense can also shoulder some, if not most, of the blame. Jimmy Howard got pulled from Detroit's 4-1 loss to Nashville on Wednesday, but it was certainly not his fault his team was behind 4-0 when he left. If anything, Howard's departure was a message to the team that they weren't playing up to Babcock's standards. Detroit has given up 17 goals in five games since play resumed from the All-Star break, an unsightly average of 3.4 a game.
When you're giving up three or more per game, it's a tough task to win even in the "new" NHL.
For a while, injuries played a role, but that excuse is wearing thin right now too. Though Detroit just lost Valtteri Filppula and won't have Brad Stuart back until at least next week, the Wings are healthier than they were before this funk started. Pavel Datsyuk and Tomas Holmstrom were both in the lineup against Nashville, but Detroit could only solve Predators goalie Pekka Rinne once.
Is it a lack of motivation? That seems to be the popular choice right now in Motown. If you asked Babcock, he'd probably agree (or just stare at you until your soul melted).
Detroit has struggled all season with starting games on time, and it was evident again on Wednesday as they fell behind 2-0 after the first period. What led to that deficit? Turnovers in the defensive zone and a lack of pressure in the offensive end are usually good indicators that the team isn't ready to go.
Even more maddeningly, it's the same players that are making the same mistakes that are leading to scoring chances. Public enemy number one on that list right now is rookie Jakub Kindl, whose first-period turnover led directly to Nashville's first goal. Niklas Kronwall has been a turnover machine this season. Jonathan Ericsson had a strong middle of the season, but has struggled lately.
Part of the bad defensive equation can be attributed to the absence of Stuart, who is still recovering from a broken jaw. Prior to going down he was one of the Wings' best shut-down defensemen, and was a solid veteran presence on the team. Kindl is the one who took his spot in the lineup, and it's safe to say it's not the same back there anymore.
But one man can only do so much. This team's problems run deeper than one player right now.
The offense, on the other hand, has no excuse. With Datsyuk and Holmstrom back in action this team should not struggle as badly as it has to score goals, even with Filppula and Mike Modano out of the rotation. They especially shouldn't get shut-out in back-to-back games against teams that, talent-wise, are inferior to this club.
The power play has been particularly atrocious. Detroit failed on all three opportunities on Wednesday and has converted just twice on its last 32 tries. The Red Wings are having trouble gaining the zone with the man advantage, and when they do the puck usually ends up 200 feet the other way with little pressure on the opposing defense.
Unacceptable, Babcock says. That about sums it up at this point.
As the FSD crew pointed out on Wednesday, losing games in February is not as big a problem as it was last season. Detroit currently has 70 points on the season and leads the Predators in the Central Division by five. They won't have to win eight out of ten games to make the playoffs, which is exactly what they had to do last season.
Still, it's not encouraging to watch a supposed Stanley Cup contender score four goals in three games at home.
Detroit is not going to win the Stanley Cup if they continue their current level of play into the playoffs. Stanley Cup teams don't cough up the puck on a simple outlet pass and allow an odd-man rush the other way. Stanley Cup teams don't make those mistakes in April, May and June.
What can be done to fix the Red Wings' woes? The first step is plain, old-fashioned effort. Detroit needs to outwork its opponents from the opening whistle. Hard work forces opponents into mistakes, and that usually leads to scoring chances. It's exactly what teams have been doing to the Red Wings lately.
Detroit has become famous for being able to flip a switch and "turn it on" when the games start to mean something. I hope that switch hasn't shorted out, because they need to flip it on soon.