Inside the Red Wings’ Historically Bad Goal Differential In 2019-20

Jonathan Bernier facing a breakaway from Conor Sheary

If you’ve been paying any attention to the NHL this season (that is, before the league was put on pause by one global pandemic), you might have heard about just how bad the Detroit Red Wings have been this year. The most casual hockey fan, in fact, would probably be able to tell you just how bad they’ve been. Now, teams have bad seasons every so often, but what Detroit has managed to accomplish (?) record-wise this year is pretty astonishing – in the worst sense of the word. One of the most glaringly ugly statistics for this year’s Red Wings squad is its goal differential.

Goal differential isn’t so black and white, and there’s a lot of layers that go into a team giving up goals during a game. Let’s look at just a few of those layers and try to unpack the true weight of the Red Wings’ goal differential in 2019-20.

It’s worth mentioning that while the NHL has plans to return to play as the dangers of COVID-19 wane in the coming months, the Detroit Red Wings are not in those plans. Any RTP plan was unlikely to involve them anyway, and the Red Wings are one of just eight teams excluded from play-ins and playoffs.

So, for all intents and purposes, while the 2019-20 NHL season isn’t over yet, the Detroit Red Wings’ 2019-20 campaign is. Without further ado, let’s jump right into things.

Detroit finished this season with a -123 goal differential. Surprisingly, that abhorrent mark is far from the worst ever recorded; that honor goes to the 1974-75 Washington Capitals, who recorded a -265.

This -123 mark still ranks in the bottom 20 all-time worst goal differentials, which, for a league with 100+ years of history, really says something.

The Red Wings were the only NHL team this year to have a triple digit negative goal differential, and the next worst team wasn’t even close – the Ottawa Senators finished with a -48. There were 12 teams not named the Red Wings who recorded a negative goal differential, but like I said… not even close.

A -123 from this year’s Detroit squad is effectively the worst recorded in the salary cap era, a record previously held by the 2014-15 Buffalo Sabres, who ended that season with a -113. But that awful Sabres squad tanking for Jack Eichel played a full 82 game season, while these Red Wings played only 71 games.

The Red Wings could have actually had a much worse goal differential had they finished out the regular season. Let that sink in.

I originally wanted to write a piece highlighting the goaltending situation in Detroit about the performance of their two goalies, Jonathan Bernier and Jimmy Howard, and what goalie prospects the organization had in Grand Rapids with the AHL Griffins and elsewhere.

Such a piece wouldn’t be fair to Bernier and Howard, though, and wouldn’t do justice to dissect the Wings’ ailments this season. After all, goalie statistics are typically a reflective symptom of a team’s lackluster performance, not its cause.

In 71 games played in 2019-20, the Red Wings posted a 17-49-5 record, finishing with 39 points in the standings. The next worst team (Ottawa) had 62 points, a whole 23 points more, or to put it in perspective, a whole 10+ wins more.

Jonathan Bernier earned the larger share of starts, through both circumstance and solid play. Bernier played 46 games, and went 15-22-3. He posted a 2.95 GAA, .907 SV%, and 1 SO. All things considered, this is actually a remarkably solid stat line for the Wings’ starter.

A sub-3.00 GAA and a +.900 SV% with a shutout to boot doesn’t exactly scream “I play for the worst hockey team in the salary cap era.”

However, the stat line of Bernier’s counterpart, Jimmy Howard, does.

Jimmy Howard won just 2 of his 27 starts in 2019-20, recording the worst stats of his career
Jimmy Howard won just 2 of his 27 starts in 2019-20, recording the worst stats of his career

In 27 games played, Howard went 2-23-2, with a 4.20 GAA, and .882 SV%. Now that’s what I expect to see from a goalie playing for this team.

Jimmy Howard has never been an immovable force in net, but to be fair, he has had some pretty solid years, at least early on when Mike Babcock was still behind the bench and Detroit was still riding their eternal playoff streak. But these stats are bad. Really bad.

Winning just 2 games in 27 starts is unthinkable, and the 36-year old goaltender has had injuries to deal with, too. While the amount of goals given up isn’t entirely reflective of the goalies on the team, Howard’s play this year was definitely a contributing factor to the lack of success.

Another contributing factor would be special teams. Detroit ranked dead last in league-wide penalty kill, at 74.3%. This means that, on average, the Wings gave up a power play goal once every four kills. Not good. They also ranked 29th in power play percentage, with a lackluster 14.9% success rate.

The only teams worse on the power play were the Anaheim Ducks (14.7%) and the Senators (14.2%).

It’s worth mentioning that the Red Wings gave up 17 empty net goals this year, which does add to the negative goal differential but might not be truly indicative of their quality of play in those situations. However, when weighing the fact that in 35 empty net attempts the team scored only 8 times, this could also show that they were bad in that situation, too.

Plus, their 17 goals allowed during empty net attempts was the most in the NHL, and gave them a -0.257 success rate in that situation.

If their special teams weren’t bad enough, Detroit was also abysmal at 5-on-5. The Red Wings’ share of expected goals at 5-on-5 (xGF%) was 45.84%. This, too, only ranked 29th though, so that’s… good?

The Wings ranked right ahead of the play in/playoff-bound Winnipeg Jets (42.74%) and right behind the also play in/playoff-bound New York Rangers (45.88%). The difference is that both the Jets and the Rangers have stud goalies in Connor Hellebuyck and Igor Shesterkin, and dynamite forwards like Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, Artemi Panarin, and Mika Zibanejad.

A number of teams have finished with worse xGF% metrics than this year’s Red Wings, including the 2013-14 Buffalo Sabres, the 2014-15 Buffalo Sabres again, the 2014-15 Arizona Coyotes, and the 2016-17 Colorado Avalanche.

The worst xGF% mark in history belongs to those 2014-15 Buffalo Sabres (39.26%).

At the end of the day, it probably suffices to say that the 2019-20 Detroit Red Wings were pretty darn bad. Detroit was on pace for (and ultimately finished with) one of the most lopsided losing records and worst points totals in NHL history, both comparative to the worst teams in the salary cap era, and in past eras, too.

The goal differential metric has a lot that goes into it, and a lot to unpack, so I hope that anyone reading this now understands a little bit more about what made this statistic so notable, and what made this Red Wings team so poor.

It’s OK though – the Detroit Red Wings always have the first overall pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft to look forward to (Bonjour, Alexis Lafrenière…).

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