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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