NHL Analysis: Minnesota’s Moves Put Them In The Mix
The Minnesota Wild have had a less than stellar history since their founding prior to the 2001 season. The franchise has only made the playoffs three times, the last of which was five years ago. But the strike-shortened year of 2013 has been good to the Wild, and they’re tied for first in the Northwest Division—with powerhouse Vancouver no less—and in third in the Western Conference overall. Today’s NHL analysis will look at whether or not the Wild is the real deal, after an offseason where they splurged on free agents.
Minnesota went into the market last summer aggressively and signed defenseman Ryan Suter away from Nashville and forward Zach Parise from New Jersey. Suter was important to a team that rode its way into the top four of the West on the strength of defense, and Parise was one of the key players on a team that came two wins away from taking the Stanley Cup. Parise has scored 15 goals, putting him in the top 30 overall in the NHL and Suter’s 25 assists give him a similar status in that category. It looks like money well spent.
What the Wild don’t have is great depth of talent—make no mistake, center Mikko Koivu is a points-producer, thanks to his exceptional passing skill. Matt Cullen is a good passer at the forward spot, and both Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley can contribute when it comes to scoring. But for the most part, when you look at the numbers on the second, third, and fourth lines, you see a big drop off.
To that end, it’s easy to understand why Minnesota just traded a couple draft picks to Buffalo to get forward Jason Pominville at the trade deadline. Pominville is a decent scorer and can also move the puck well. On balance, I don’t find this an overwhelmingly talented offense. But it’s fair to say that it’s at least as good—if not better—than we would have perceived the Los Angeles Kings’ lineup at this point in the season last year before they suddenly came together in the postseason. And Minnesota has players with postseason experience.
A bigger concern is the goaltending question, and that’s where the comparison to last year’s Kings starts to diverge. Niklas Backstrom’s save percentage is 91.3%, but this isn’t free throw shooting—that’s not a very good percentage, ranking just 22nd in the NHL. We’re now entering the point of the season where dominance at this position is vital to success and Minnesota not only doesn’t have dominance, they’re dealing with subpar performance. The defense overall is above average, ranking 12th in the league at limiting shots, but Backstrom has to do a much better job stopping what’s thrown at him.
Ultimately, this just looks like a team that needs to come together. The individual talent may lack depth, but it does exist. Overall though, the Wild have no teamwide stats that really jump out at you. They’re roughly in the middle of the league in most everything—scoring, defense, shots taken, shots allowed, penalty killing and 5-on-5 play. The only standout is a negative and it’s a 21st ranking when they’re on the power play.
It’s tough to see Minnesota as being better than Vancouver and the Wild’s contention for the division title is likely a product of a shortened season. Minnesota is a legitimate playoff-caliber team though. The need for the individual pieces to mesh better will take care of itself with time and this team will be better next year than it is this year. Ultimately they need better goaltending if this is going to be more than just a playoff team. Although given the franchise’s record “just a playoff team” is likely more than enough for the good people of the Twin Cities this time around.
WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF PICTURE
Chicago continues to be atop the conference, but Anaheim is only two points back, with both teams having separated themselves from the pack. Then you have the Minnesota/Vancouver joust for the 3-seed, and the runner-up is battling with San Jose and Los Angeles for the 4-spot and home ice advantage in the first round. Although given the history of the NHL playoffs, home ice probably means more in terms of revenue for the host team than it does for fans just interested in who’s going to advance.
Detroit is in seventh and is the most notable of several playoff teams from last year that are in trouble. At least the Red Wings are in the field of eight if the season ended today. The same can’t be said for St. Louis, Nashville and Phoenix—not only did all three make the playoffs last year, but they all won first-round series. The fall of last year’s leaders has opened the door, not just for Minnesota, but for surprising Edmonton, who’s holding a narrow edge for the final playoff berth. Maybe this year’s Oiler team can recapture some of the magic of 2006.