The Minnesota Wild are not built to win right now. When they have their collective heads out of their rear ends, they are perhaps (perhaps) a playoff bubble team, able to beat teams like Phoenix, Edmonton, and Calgary (as they have recently,) but unable to outplay the Chicago/Anaheim/Vancouver level teams.
Unless your name is Barry Melrose, you probably don’t expect the Wild to contend for the Stanley Cup this season. But certainly the same level of horrendous play as last year from January on isn’t acceptable either. And with two massive contracts doled out and a bunch of highly-touted rookies making their debut, the Wild should be showing some improvement over last year. I wrote about managing expectations going into this season, and while it’s unreasonable to expect a top-four playoff seed, we should hope to see at least some movement in the right direction. Today, I’ll dive into the team-level stats (all collected from behindthenet.ca) to break down whether this year’s team is actually an improvement from last year’s. **Side note: it’s tricky to use overall numbers from the 2011-12 Wild because I think they were better than how they played in Jan-Mar because of all the injuries, but not as good as the best-in-the-NHL team they were for the first few weeks of the season. So grains of salt, and all that.
The go-to team-level stat is Fenwick Close, which shows team’s possession in 5v5 close situations—a one-goal game in the first or second period, and a tie game in the third. This stat has proven itself to be one of the best and most reliable indicators of a team’s play. I also really like it because it’s easily interpretable, a simple percentage that everyone can quickly and easily wrap their head around.
The club is playing at least somewhat better in most every category this year compared to last, which is good to see. However, they’re still not cracking 50% at any time except down two goals, which tells me opposing coaches feel fine taking their foot off the gas when they get a comfortable lead against one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league. The “normal” range in Fenwick between the best and worst teams tends to run just about 55% for the best to 45% for the worst. With the Wild sitting just above 45% for all game situations except up two goals, they are still at the basement of the NHL. While the club was dead last in FenClose last year, they are 24th this year. So, hooray I guess? This article isn’t meant to be a comparison of the Wild to the rest of the league, but last year’s team to this year’s team…but a bit of context to keep in mind.
Minnesota has had some fine goaltending from Nicklas Backstrom at times this year, so that’s why they have been able to stick around in a lot of games, but at 46% Fenwick when tied or close, the ice is just tilted against the team. The zone entry/dump-and-chase discussion has blown up recently, and I’m not going to spill many pixels talking about it here but suffice it to say I do think the team is not built for the “Canadian style” of digging pucks out of the corners. Here is a great article I read this week that details why the team personnel isn’t suited for a dump-in game.
It’s generally known that home-ice advantage is less of a factor in hockey than in other sports, but the Wild’s home/road splits are disconcerting:
Their record reflects this disparity, with an 8-2-1 record at the Xcel Energy Center and a 3-7-1 record away. I looked deeper into the matchups at home and away, and I don’t think there’s much to be found…the Wild played Anaheim and Phoenix twice on the road, Colorado and Nashville twice at home, and one-and-one for Chicago, Detroit, Vancouver, and Edmonton. With a number of rookies on the roster, the youth factor may play into it as well…but ultimately I think that all we can really say is the team stinks out loud on the road. Less than 19 shots on goal per 60 minutes close? Something something Gretzky, something something miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. Damn. I do like to see that the team is allowing less shots than last year though, so there’s that.
I’m going to go out on a limb here, but when a team’s 5v4 shooting percent is less than its 5v5 shooting percent, that’s not a great sign. The club is 21st in the league with a 15.4% PP conversion rate, but their per-minute shot generation is actually lower than last year. I know that on the man advantage it’s not necessarily about sheer quantity of shots, and I’m not going to start down the shot quality rabbit hole, but adding Suter and Parise have not made any discernible difference on the power play as of yet. No es bueno.
On the flip side, the Wild’s PK is a relative strength–that is, at 82.1% and 15th in the league, when you’re at the bottom of the league in most categories, to be in the middle of the pack is seen as an upgrade. The team is allowing noticeably less shots and goals per 60 minutes of time on the PK compared to last year, even without Darroll Powe, so there’s that. But you can’t win games with a strong PK, you can only avoid losing them, so while we see improvement in this area, they’re going to have to start netting more goals if they want to go anywhere.
I’m going to take off my statboy hat for a second. While I am absolutely a believer in the statistical and advanced metrics value of studying hockey, I am also a big believer in individual psychology and team chemistry. Stats folk get unfairly hit with a false dichotomy because we all know that the human element comes into play. But I digress. What I feel like I’m seeing is a team that is learning to play together and gelling (like Magellan) just a bit. With all the new faces on the roster, it’s taken some time to adjust but I think I’m starting to see some progress. Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin are playing quite well together, Jason Zucker has been a breath of fresh air, and Mikael Granlund seems to be finally finding his way out of the wilderness. He looks like he’s getting a little more comfortable and is showing some of the moves that made him a well-known prospect.
Like I said at the top of this article, I don’t think the Wild are built for a deep playoff run. And of course I don’t want them to be a bottom-dweller in the conference, but for the last few years they have sort of been treading water where they haven’t made the playoffs but haven’t bottomed out to get a lottery pick. The club is set up pretty well to be a mover in the Western Conference, but I’m a bit wary of getting caught up in that cycle again. The shortened schedule may make it more difficult to know who’s going to be a buyer and seller around the trade deadline, but if teams come a-calling looking for maybe a Devin Setoguchi or a Matt Cullen, I hope the organization will listen.
What do you think, will the Wild be buyers or seller at the trade deadline? Leave a comment and let me know! And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter, @Hashtag_Hockey