The Minnesota Wild have been one of the biggest surprises in the National Hockey League (NHL) this season, running out to a 12-5-2 record in their first 19 games—good for second place in the ultra-competitive Central Division, where just nine points separates six of the seven teams in the standings. But sometime in the next week, the State of Hockey will have the NHL’s best hockey team.
Last season, the Minnesota Wild had a brutal start to the season simply due to scheduling. They played five of their first six games on the road, but worse yet, they didn’t play for five days between their second and third game—both of which were on the road. There were six days off between their fourth and fifth game, too. Despite limping out to a 2-2-2 start, the Wild managed to make the playoffs and lose in the first round, as usual.
This season the Wild started on the road at Colorado in a rivalry matchup, but played four of their next five games at home. They again spent five days off between their second and third game, and the results were the same: a 2-2-2 start. But playing three of their next four at Xcel Energy Center helped the Wild to a five-game winning streak, including wins over Tampa Bay and Colorado.
Now the Wild get a week of teams they should beat, and they kicked it off by kicking the crap out of a Canucks (10-9-2) squad finishing a grueling, six-game road trip. Next up for the Wild is a visit from a Buffalo Sabres team (10-6-2) coming off a game against the unruly Jets (they lead the league in penalty minutes per game) in Winnipeg the previous night. Then the Wild visit the lowly Blackhawks (7-8-4) before returning to St. Paul to host lowly Ottawa (8-8-3).
Meanwhile, the Western Conference leading Nashville Predators (13-5-1) just dropped a one-goal game to the surging Coyotes (9-8-1), but more importantly, will be without two of their best players for quite some time. Nashville lost its second-leading goal scorer in Viktor Arvidsson for six to eight weeks, and P.K. Subban was placed on injured reserve as well. They host the sinking Kings (5-11-1) desperate for a win, followed by a visit from the East’s best Tampa Bay Lightning (13-5-1).
The Lightning, meanwhile, are at Philadelphia (9-9-1) on Saturday before visiting Nashville on Monday. They host Florida (7-6-3) on Wednesday and Chicago on Friday, but will likely be without top goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is out indefinitely with injury.
It takes some luck to score goals, stop goals and win hockey games. The Minnesota Wild have been relatively lucky when it comes to goal scoring, and they are going to need that luck to continue. They’re a team that scores ugly goals. They rely on deflections like this one Eric Staal scored against the Blues for his 400th goal. They rely on redirects like this one by Nino Neiderreiter scored against the Canucks on Thursday night. Basically, unless the opposing goalie is standing on his head, the Wild are going to win games if they get a lot of shots on goal, because their defense doesn’t allow a lot of clean shots on goal, and their goalie hasn’t allowed much to get past him.
Devan Dubnyk hasn’t been lucky. He’s simply been pretty good at stopping goals (.926 save percentage is 13th overall), and he’s been pretty good for a long time (tied for 15th overall in goals allowed per game since 2014-15 season). But the Wild haven’t had to go without their goalie like the Lightning will. Dubnyk’s 18 games played this season is eighth amongst goalies, and since the 2014-15 season, he’s eighth overall in games started by goalies. The Wild have been extremely luck in this regard.
The Wild beat the Canucks without 34-year-old Zach Parise on Thursday, who took ill prior to game time. He’s expected back for the Wild’s next game against the Sabres. But to give you a sense of just how lucky the Wild have been health-wise, take a look at the injury report for the entire season. Not one of the eight reports has been to place a player on injured reserve. Two reports were simply to activate players coming off IR.
With the Wild entering a three-game homestand over American Thanksgiving where they’re 6-1-2, it’s not inconceivable for them to be the NHL’s best hockey team in the near future. A three-game tour of Canada in the first week of December as part of a five-game stretch against strictly Canadian teams will test their resolve and let us truly know what to expect from the Wild. The best test of that stretch will come against the second-best team in the East, Toronto (13-6-0) on Dec. 1.
With the points the Wild have already amassed (27) and the way in which they’ve earned them (12 points won on the road) puts Minnesota in an enviable position. They don’t have to be great on the road given their success at home, so down the stretch they can lean on their home crowd to collect enough points to make the playoffs. Whether the Wild are hosting an opening round series of the Stanley Cup Playoffs will depend on their health, and specifically, the health of Parise, whose PDO of 105.3 (his team’s shooting percentage plus save percentage with him on the ice) leads the team. Translation: with Parise on the ice, the Wild are at their best on both ends.
The Minnesota Wild parted ways with general manager Chuck Fletcher on Monday after a nine-season tenure that saw the Wild reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for six consecutive seasons, but fail to get out of the second round.
Joe Bouley over at Hockey Wilderness tabs Toronto’s Kyle Dubas, Tampa’s Julien Briesbois, Nashville’s Paul Fenton and Pittsburgh’s Bill Guerin as potential replacements. Regardless of who takes the Wild reigns, they’ll inherit quite the mess from Fletcher.
According to Sportrac, the Wild have just over $10 million in cap space to work with next season. Jason Zucker, Matt Dumba, Nick Seeler and Ryan Murphy are all restricted free agents. Zucker made $2 million in 2017-18 and will demand a considerable raise. He was third on his team in relative Fenwick at even strength and fourth on his team in relative Corsi at even strength. Dumba made $2.55 million and will also demand a raise, setting career highs in just about every category. He even matched his career-high plus-minus of 15 set last season.
The new Wild general manager won’t likely let Zucker or Dumba go, and Murphy and Seeler were both positive contributors in 2017-18, too. Murphy’s relative Fenwick at even strength of 1.4 was a career high, and Seeler’s relative Fenwick of .9 was respectable in his first season. Murphy earned $700,000 in 2017-18, and Seeler made $717,500.
So if Fletcher’s replacement signs all four of the Wild’s restricted free agents to contracts, there won’t likely be money to spend on unrestricted free agents, which means trades will have to be made in order for the Wild to improve the roster. Luckily, the Wild have a whole bunch of picks in the 2018 NHL Draft and some trade chips worth something.
The Wild have a first-round pick, three third-round picks, two fifth-round picks, and a sixth- and seventh-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft. Whether the incoming general manager is of the opinion that it’s time for the Wild to blow it up and rebuild or just a few pieces away from contending for a championship will determine how the Wild’s ammo will be utilized. But it’s hard to blow up a team that’s paying more than $15 million annually to two players who can’t be traded (Ryan Suter and Zach Parise).
The Wild might have the most valuable trade chip on the table, though, in center Eric Staal. Staal, at 33, finished fourth in goals scored and 26th in the league in points, and he’s owed just $3.5 million next season -- the final year of his deal with the Wild. Staal has said he and his family are comfortable in Minnesota, but a long-term extension is unlikely this offseason given the Wild’s lack of salary cap flexibility. Stall might have to be traded just to remedy the situation.
One of Fletcher’s most recent offseason acquisitions just didn’t pan out. The Wild needed a guy who could deliver hits, sure, but his average time on ice dropped more than four minutes, resulting in 34 percent fewer hits than his monster season last year when he delivered 279 hits for Buffalo. And while his possession metrics were the best they’ve been since 2012-13, left wing has become a position of depth for the Wild with the addition of Jordan Greenway and Parise recovering from back surgery (only to enter another offseason with an injury).
The Columbus Blue Jackets need a third-line left wing with Matt Calvert’s contract coming off the books, and Marcus’s older brother Nick is already the center on the Blue Jackets’ third line. Dumping the $2.875 million the Wild owe Foligno each of the next three seasons would be a good place for the new Wild GM to start cleaning up Fletcher’s salary cap mess. The Wild could always sign free agents Patrick Maroon (+1, 4.2 relative Corsi, 4.1 relative Fenwick) or Jussi Jokinen (+7, 0.8 Corsi, 0.8 Fenwick) to fill the left wing position on the third or fourth lines.
The Blue Jackets have one draft pick in each of the first, second, third, sixth and seventh rounds, but packaging Foligno with, say, Mikko Koivu, could really go far in clearing the cap space necessary to extend Staal.
The Blue Jackets have roughly $17 million in cap space for next season, with only third-line defenseman Ryan Murray a restricted free agent worthy of a contract offer. The Blue Jackets’ fourth-line center Mark Letestu will also be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Acquiring Koivu would allow the Folignos to move down to the fourth line and second-line center Alexander Wennberg, 23, to skate third-line minutes. The move would transfer $8,375,000 from the Wild’s books to the Blue Jackets’ for the next two years, and Koivu’s $5.5 million in 2019-20 as well.
Coming back to the Wild could be Columbus’s third-line right wing Josh Anderson, controlled through 2019-20 at the modest price of $1.85 million annually. Currently, the Wild have just two healthy right wings on the roster in Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter. Rookie Kyle Rau was playing on the third line with Parise hurt in the playoffs. Anderson, 23, logged an impressive 3.3 relative Corsi and 3.2 relative Fenwick during 986.9 minutes at even strength, and would be a considerable upgrade to unrestricted free agent Daniel Winnik, who posted a relative Corsi and relative Fenwick of -3.1 as the Wild’s fourth-line right winger.
The Wild should also get a high-round draft pick from Columbus in exchange for Koivu, but probably not the first-rounder. The Wild adding a second-round selection in a draft expected to be deep with talent would be an exceptional return for their captain, Koivu. The trade would leave the Wild with $6.525 million in cap space to extend Staal or do something else if they choose to trade Staal.
Staal is coming off his best offensive season in a decade, so he’s going to demand Parise and Suter money to make up for the measly $3.5 million annual salary he was paid this year and last. But at 33, he might be signing his last contract, so much of his salary could be backloaded to give the Wild some salary cap flexibility in these years they are cleaning up Fletcher’s mess and transitioning to a new general manager.
The smart move would be to hold off on trading or extending Staal this offseason and hope he comes back strong in the first half of 2018-19, attracting interest from contending teams prior to the trade deadline. This would give the new Wild general manager at least a little time to evaluate 20-year-old center Luke Kunin, who will likely miss the start of the 2018-19 season recovering from an ACL tear in his left knee.
Even if Kunin shows the potential to be a top-line center right away, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to retain Staal as a mentor. The Wild could still sign Staal as an unrestricted free agent next offseason even after trading him for something at the deadline. Or the Wild could simply retain Staal, work Kunin into the lineup and make the playoffs again. It’s a nice problem to have, and one of the two moves of the Fletcher era that worked to perfection (the other being goalie Devan Dubnyk).
Regardless, the Minnesota Wild general manager job might not be that attractive to potential candidates, but whoever takes over the Wild not only inherits a mess, but an opportunity to contend immediately or the means to blow it all up and rebuild.
After needing a shootout to beat the Central’s worst team, Colorado, at home just over a week ago, and allowing 13 goals over their next two games, the Minnesota Wild got their two biggest wins of their wild season over two of the Western Conference’s best teams.
The Wild squad on Saturday was better than the team that was eliminated by the Blues in the playoffs last season, despite Zach Parise’s absence -- and the Wild dominated almost every aspect of that series with the Blues except where it counted most. The Wild defense is considerably different than it was last year despite the return of Nate Prosser a few days ago.
The addition of Marcus Foligno to a squad that delivered so few hits last season has resulted in more takeaways closer to their opponents’ goal. The Wild were second to last in hits per game last season and have raised their average per game by more than three so far this year. Foligno had six hits on Saturday -- two more than any other player.
The Wild were also good defensively in the neutral zone on Saturday, and it resulted in six takeaways to St. Louis’s zero. The Blues’ struggles to carry the puck into the offensive zone forced them to alter their offensive zone entry strategy. The Blues resorted to dumping pucks in and chasing more often than they’d like, but that’s what happens when you can’t retain possession of the puck through the neutral zone.
The Wild’s first goal on Saturday was the result of a neutral zone turnover by the Blues. A seemingly unnoticeable step-up by Miko Koivu into Blues center Vladimir Sobotka at the Blues’ blue line forced a turnover to Matt Dumba at center as the Blues attempted a change. What resulted was a carry-in by Ryan Suter, who left a dropback pass to Jason Zucker. Suter then skated into his forecheck ever so innocently and was rewarded with a fat rebound off the slapshot of Zucker, which he bounced off goalie Jake Allen into the net. The ease of carrying the puck into the Blues’ zone rather than requiring the Wild a long dump-in resulted in a dropback pass and quick shot, which turned into assists for Zucker and Dumba.
In overtime, Anthony LaPanta pointed out that Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau changed his overtime strategy, starting the overtime period with two defensemen on the ice. You can always add a forward if you win the faceoff, so it’s perfectly logical. Since the Wild lost the overtime-opening faceoff, they got to defend the first Blues’ possession with two defensemen, and it paid off in an unexpected way.
The Blues got two shots on their first overtime possession, only one of which got through to Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk. But having the offensive-minded defenseman Dumba on the ice sure seemed to be the difference in the game.
Dumba knew he had a chance to create an immediate scoring opportunity off the rebound of the Blues’ shot. He carried in quickly, made a pass to the charging Charlie Coyle, and buried Coyle’s pass back after Vladimir Tarasenko made a defensive mistake in failing to get inside position on Dumba. It made the 42-25 Blues lead in shots on goal and 35-21 faceoff advantage irrelevant, as did Dubnyk’s 41 saves. And the recently acquired Nate Prosser had a takeaway, a hit, three blocked shots and a shot on goal.
The Wild’s forecheck and neutral zone defense against the surprising Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday was again key to a 4-2 win. The Wild led 9-6 in hits and overcame eight giveaways with a 29-23 edge in the faceoff circle, but three of the Wild’s four goals were the result of takeaways or Vegas giveaways.
Zucker forced a turnover behind the Vegas net that resulted in a shot on goal and an offensive zone faceoff, which the Wild won. A perfect pass from Mike Reilly led to a wide open shooting lane for Mikael Granlund, who bounced it off the post and in for the Wild’s first goal three minutes before the end of the second period.
At 2-2 with eight minutes to play, Eric Staal didn’t allow the Knights’ Pierre-Edouard Bellemare an easy clear up the boards, Dumba pinched to hold the zone, and Staal moved to the net to bury the deflection of Dumba’s slapshot.
The Wild’s empty net goal was also scored off a neutral zone turnover by the Knights. Staal intercepted a blue line entry pass and sent it slowly down the ice into the empty net.
The two wins put Minnesota seven points back of the Blues and Winnipeg Jets in the Western Conference with the always tough California road trip upcoming. So instead of looking up at 10 teams in the Western Conference, the Wild are looking up at eight teams and are just a point out of the Wild Card.
After playing roughly once every five days to open the season, the Wild are entering the toughest stretch of their schedule. They entered the Vegas game having played three games in four days and will host Calgary (14-11-1), Toronto (17-10-1) and Edmonton (11-14-2) and visit Chicago (12-9-5) over the course of six days.
The Wild can do without Parise for a while, but they can’t do without Jared Spurgeon for too long. Spurgeon is out two weeks nursing a groin strain and could come back either Dec. 14 against Toronto or Dec. 16 against Edmonton. Most importantly, Spurgeon should be close to fully healthy when the Wild visit Chicago for a big, division game. The two are tied with 29 points this season.
With Parise skating in consecutive days on Thursday for the first time since having surgery to address nerve pain caused by a herniated disc in his back, the Wild are in much better position to welcome him back when he’s fully healthy. They won’t need Parise to be Parise right away, but in the playoffs, they will need his nose for the net if they’re to advance.
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The Minnesota Wild stumbled into the 2016-17 Stanley Cup Playoffs and ran into the hottest team in the Western Conference at the time, falling 4-1 to the St. Louis Blues, led by former Wild coach Mike Yeo. Despite a .925 save percentage and 1.86 goals against average, Devan Dubnyk was bested by Jake Allen (.935 SV%, 1.96 GAA) and may not have done much better against Pekka Rinne, who had nearly as many points as goals allowed in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (two assists and three goals allowed).
There’s no denying the Wild lost something on both sides of the puck when general manager Chuck Fletcher made a trade deadline deal on Feb. 26 with Arizona, sending a 2017 first-round pick, 2018 second-round pick, a 2019 fourth-round pick and minor league center Grayson Downing to Arizona for Martin Hanzal, a big, two-way center, tough forward Ryan White and a 2017 fourth-round pick. Both are unrestricted free agents and will clear $4.1 million in salary, but it won’t be enough to get what Minnesota needs.
The Wild dominated every aspect of the series against the Blues if you look at traditional statistics. The Wild led in shots on goal in every game except the game they won (the Wild and Blues both had 28 shots on goal in Game 4). The Wild had higher quality shots in every game but the clincher, shooting from shorter distances than the Blues more often, so they were getting the puck in the right places. The Wild had four fewer penalty minutes and two more power play goals than the Blues. The Wild even led in hits in every game except Game 3, although the quality of hits is more important than the quantity, and the Blues had a size advantage almost everywhere on the ice (unless Martin Hanzel was on the ice). The Wild possessed the puck more often, which isn’t surprising. The only thing the Blues did better was block shots, which is also unsurprising given Mike Yeo’s zone defense that reminds me of the late Dennis Green’s “prevent” defense used when the Vikings had a lead back in the 1990s.
So the Wild had quality opportunities to score and Jake Allen was standing on his head, right? Wrong. If you look at the analytics, there were plenty of Wild players that performed poorly in the playoffs. Let’s start with the worst first.
In 24 minutes on the ice, Folin had a plus/minus of -2, but his relative Corsi and relative Fenwick numbers were just terrible. Corsi measures shot attempt differential while at even strength and includes shots on goal, missed shots on goal, and blocked shot attempts towards the opposition’s net, minus the same shot attempts directed at your own team’s net. Fenwick, or unblocked shot attempts, only counts shots on goal and missed shots. Blocked shots are not included, and might be a better measure of performance given the Blues’ focus on blocking shots.
Folin’s Corsi was -10.1, and his Fenwick was -14.8 because he only got one shot through to goal in three attempts and obviously allowed more shots than one. Folin is a restricted free agent at 25, will be subject to the expansion draft, and might not be back.
Charlie had two points in the playoffs and a plus/minus of -1, but his relative Corsi was -5 and his relative Fenwick was -7.8 -- second worst on the team. Coyle got 60.9 percent of his shots through to goal, though. Coyle is signed through 2019 and is set to make merely $3.2 million per year, but will likely be subjected to the expansion draft.
Stewart, 29, tied the captain, Mikko Koivu, for the lowest shot-through percentage on the team at 28.6 percent. He got two shots on goal in 39 minutes, and his Fenwick was third worst at -7.3 and his Corsi was seventh worst at -4. He’s signed through 2017 for $1.15 million and won’t be selected by Las Vegas, which means he’s back with the Wild.
Scandella peppered Jake Allen with 10 shots in 113 minutes for a plus/minus of -1. His Corsi was -4.5, and his Fenwick was -5.7. Scandella is signed through 2019 for $4 million annually, so at 26, he’ll likely be subjected to the expansion draft, as all his regular season numbers were down this season.
Dumba’s big shot was a non-factor in the playoffs. He had no points in 119 minutes and a plus/minus of -1. His relative Corsi and relative Fenwick numbers were identical: -4.7. His through percentage was just 36.8 percent. A great slap shot isn’t any good if it doesn’t get on goal, but Dumba trails only Nate Prosser when it comes to scoring chances allowed, so he’s limiting the big mistakes for which he’s been known. He’s signed through 2017 for just $2.55 million, so Chuck Fletcher probably wants to protect him, as Dumba’s just 22.
Neiderreiter had just 80 minutes of ice time in the playoffs and one point for a plus/minus of -2 after impressing with his best regular season by far. His relative Fenwick was fourth worst (-7) and his relative Corsi was -2. Expect Chuck Fletcher to attempt to resign him, as he’s a restricted free agent at 24. He’ll be tough to replace regardless of his playoff performance.
This one hurts, as Parise is signed through 2025. Parise took a goal right out of the net in Game 1, and he didn’t get any better. While his shot-through percentage was tops on the team at 79.2 percent, his Corsi and Fenwick numbers were -4.6 and -4.5 respectively. There’s nothing the Wild can do but move him down the lines.
In 62 playoff minutes, Haula had one point and a plus/minus of -2. His shot-through percentage was 60, but his relative Fenwick was -2.7 while his relative Corsi was 0.1. Haula’s a restricted free agent and won’t be protected from the expansion draft at 25.
Staal absolutely exceeded expectations in his first year as the Wild’s top-line center. He played every game and logged a plus/minus of 17 -- the highest of his career. His Corsi and Fenwick numbers took big dives from last season, though. His regular season relative Corsi dropped from 5.8 to 3.8 and his relative Fenwick fell from 4.6 to 3.2.
Staal was worse in the playoffs, with a relative Corsi of -4.6 and a relative Fenwick was -1.6. He’s only posted a positive plus/minus in the playoffs in his first season in the playoffs with Carolina and will be 33 next season. That’s why I think Staal is a good trade piece, given his $3.5 million-per-year contract over the next two seasons. He’d be a great veteran presence for a young Las Vegas squad, and Chuck Fletcher should be able to get late-first- or early-second-round pick for him. Staal has a 20-team, no-trade clause that could be a problem, but he doesn’t necessarily have to go to Las Vegas, either. He’d be an upgrade for the Blues and Montreal.
That brings me to what Chuck Fletcher should do in free agency this offseason. With the already allocated salaries for 2017-18, the Wild are spending a little over $59 million, but Neiderreiter and Granlund will likely get raises as restricted free agents. Say Chuck Fletcher gives them $8 million per year to split. That puts the salary cap figure at $67 million of the $73 million salary cap.
Now say Chuck Fletcher trades Eric Staal to Las Vegas for picks. That would free up another $3.5 million in cap space to give Fletcher around $6.5 million to spend in free agency, which could be enough to grab T.J. Oshie -- the best center on the market.
Think about what the Wild are missing -- a guy who can score on his own. The majority of the success Minnesota had during the regular season relied on goaltending, precision passing, breakaway and power play goals. They don’t have a player who can score from distance in traffic, and it showed against the Blues.
Oshie has 12 points in 12 playoff games with the Capitals so far. His relative Fenwick is 10.3 in these playoffs and was 16.1 in last year’s playoffs. His relative Corsi in this year’s playoffs is 6.6, and it was 14.7 in last year’s playoffs. He also had regular season career highs in both relative Corsi (8.1) and relative Fenwick (9.6) this year. So trading Staal after his best season and signing Oshie after his best season should be the focus of Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher if he wants to retain his job and take the Wild to the Stanley Cup.
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