DETROIT – Jim Hiller cracked a bit of a smile as a reporter finished asking how he sees a healthy lineup translating into a productive season for the newly revamped Red Wings’ power play.
“Lot of times you really have a top-heavy power play group and then the second group isn’t so heavy,” Hiller said. “I think the strength of this team is we’re going to have two strong groups. I think we have lots of depth of scoring up front, so I think that’s really going to be a strength of ours – boom-boom coming at you two-strong.”
A former right wing, Hiller played 63 games in the NHL, including a short stint with the Red Wings during the 1992-93 season. He returned to Hockeytown in the offseason to coach a power-play unit that features Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen.
All three forwards, when healthy, have been phenomenal power-play performers for the Red Wings. Zetterberg (91), Datsyuk (81) and Franzen (65) are among the top 10 power-play goal scorers in franchise history.
Hiller joins Tony Granato and Andrew Brewer as new assistant coaches on Mike Babcock’s staff.
Last season, the Red Wings’ power play finished ranked No.18 in the league, scoring 50 goals on 282 opportunities, which was 17.7 percent. In their playoff series against Boston, the Wings managed just two PP goals in five games.
“Last year I think we had all kinds of trouble,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “There were times when the entries didn’t work. Other times the entries worked but we couldn’t get a lot of motion, couldn’t get pucks to the net. It was too stationary.
“So far, getting into the zone and creating some zone time and creating some chances has all been there.”
Babcock is excited to see the new-look power play in action once the curtain rises on the upcoming season. Detroit opens the 2014-15 campaign next Thursday against the Bruins at Joe Louis Arena.
Through six exhibition games this preseason, the Red Wings are 4-for-32 – that’s a 12.5 percent success rate – on the power play. Not great by any stretch, however, everyone seems happy with the direction that the unit is taking with the new schemes.
“I really like the power play but it hasn’t added up to goals, so we got to get that fixed,” Babcock said. “I still think they’ve had great looks and I like what we’re doing on it. I like what we’re doing on the penalty kill. The power play’s been as good as the penalty kill. The penalty-kill numbers show, the power play numbers don’t. That’s all part of the process of going through it.”
The changes that Hiller has instituted are small in nature, but, hopefully they can produce big benefits in the long run.
Obviously, power-play success is judged by goals, but even the best units in the league scores at a 20 -23 percent clip, which is why quality zone time and puck retrieval are so crucial.
“We want to be aggressive at their net front,” the 45-year-old Hiller said. “When the puck gets to their net we want to have more players (there) than they do. We’ve created a lot of chances, haven’t scored enough, but to create more chances you have to get the puck back once you’re there. We feel we have people down by their net, the puck usually ends up in or around their net somewhere.
“The second part of that is for us to get to it first, because we have people there. Get it back and then start it all over again. So it’s out-numbering at the net for your goal-scoring chances, out-numbering so we can get it back and start all over again.”
Zone entry was an issue last season for the Red Wings, but Hiller doesn’t plan to tinker much with how his special teams unit crosses the blue line.
“That ebbs and flows, but I don’t think we’ve changed too much. We’ll give a little bit of a different look, but I think the principles of when you hit the blue line with speed and have options, I think those are the same.”
Hiller spent the past eight seasons coaching in the Western Hockey League, the last five as head coach in Tri-City, where the Americans produced 40-plus winning seasons four times with a strong power play.
“We had good success,” Hiller said. “If you go back over the years and look, we had a pretty strong power play. Definitely over the five-year span we were certainly in the top three.”
As the preseason comes to a close, Hiller is getting a better idea of what the Wings’ power play will look like beginning with Thursday’s season opener.
“As the numbers get smaller,” he said, “you get more time with each player, more interaction, more reps with the groups that will be playing in the regular season, so that will help us all.”