The Minnesota Wild have fallen to the Chicago Blackhawks in the playoffs the past three seasons, and with a core of Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and (newly added) Devan Dubynk, the clock is ticking on this team’s Stanley Cup window.
All six are integral parts of the Wild’s roster, and all are on the wrong side of the aging curve; Dubnyk, age 29, is the youngest, and the only one under 30. With a group of key players starting to enter stages of decline, it’s important that the Wild compete now, even though their division, the Central, continues to be the best in the NHL.
They’ve done well so far this season, posting a 22-15-8 record, good enough to earn them the fourth spot in the Central Division. They’ve been slumping lately, losing four straight and only managing a 3-5-2 record in their past ten games, but still have a three point advantage over the Colorado Avalanche for the second wild card position, with two games in hand.
The Wild look like they’re going to be making the postseason for the fourth straight season, a feat that deserves praise even though the team has never made it past the second round. Their strong first half of the season has put them in a good spot going forward, and here’s a look at what’s been good, what’s been bad, and what we can expect from the Wild in the second half of the season.
Mikko Koivu: Koivu is in his 11th season as a member of the Minnesota Wild, and has never played for another NHL team in his career. He’s putting together what is arguably one of his best seasons, adding an offensive punch to a strong defensive game that is helping cement the 32-year-old as one of the league’s two-way threats.
Koivu has 33 points in 45 games, putting him on pace for 60 points on the season, which is an impressive total in today’s lower scoring NHL. According to war-on-ice.com, Koivu ranks 39th among centers with more than 500 minutes when examining all situation points per 60 minutes, so he’s racking up points at a quick pace, and is doing the same at 5-on-5, where he ranks 36th.
When it comes to two-way play, Koivu leads the NHL with a 11.1 percent relative Scoring Chances percentage, and is 5th with an overall Scoring Chances For percentage of 57.5 percent. The Minnesota Wild are a drastically better team with Koivu on the ice, and his impressive season is a huge reason that the Wild currently have a playoff spot in the tough Central Division.
Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon: Ryan Suter has been known around the NHL as one of the league’s best defensemen for quite some time now, but this year, his talents have been complimented by the skills of undersized (and underrated) Jared Spurgeon and have catapulted the Wild’s top defensive pairing to new heights. Spurgeon and Suter have combined for 49 points in 45 games, and have the ninth highest relative Scoring Chances percentage among defensive pairings.
Both members of the pairing are equally impressive. Only Erik Karlsson averages more minutes per game than Suter, who has lived up to the contract he signed with the team during the summer of 2012. The veteran blue liner is putting together a Norris Trophy season, and if it weren’t for the aforementioned Karlsson, there’s a possibility that Ryan Suter just might have been able to steal the award for top defenseman this season.
Spurgeon is probably one of the league’s most underrated defensemen, as he pushes play into his offensive end almost every time he steps on the ice.
By most metrics, Spurgeon is a top pairing defenseman, and his strong play certainly isn’t just a result of being paired with Suter. The 26-year-old blue liner is effective no matter who he plays with, but his effectiveness while alongside Suter is a huge reason why the Wild have been a solid team up to this point in the season.
The Wild’s Young Core: The Minnesota Wild have depended on an aging group of players for quite some time now, and one could argue it’s been their downfall; paying older players for past performances isn’t exactly the best way to build a Cup contender.
Other teams around the league have been paying top dollar for elite talent, and not top dollar for former elite talent that is now in decline. It’s a slight, but important distinction, and is a big reason why the Wild have struggled to move past the second round of the playoffs.
This year, however, just may end up being different. The Wild are seeing a surge of youth on their roster, as players such as Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, Matt Dumba, Jonas Brodin, and Marco Scandella have stepped up and are playing key roles on the Wild this season.
The team is wisely moving towards a younger roster, and though they’ll have trouble in the future with some of the contracts that veterans are signed to, the new wave of players in Minnesota can help push them over the hump this season, and will keep the Wild competitive in the future.
Struggles as a Complete Team: The Minnesota Wild have plenty of pieces on their roster that have been contributing to the team’s success this season, but the overall play of the team isn’t exactly encouraging. Sure, the team is in a good spot in the standings, but much of that has to do with strong play from Devan Dubnyk, and not overall team dominance.
At 5-on-5, the Wild are 19th with a 48.6 percent Corsi For percentage, and have needed their goaltenders to post a 0.934 save percentage in order to come out positive in terms of goals (the team has just a +10 goal differential at 5-on-5 this year).
Sure, Dubnyk is probably good enough to help carry the Wild into the postseason, but this roster is more than capable of dominating from a possession standpoint. If Minnesota could find a way to start rolling over teams at 5-on-5, instead of just relying on their net minder, it would go a long way towards helping them take the next step in the postseason.
The special teams: A team that has weaker 5-on-5 possession numbers can still manage to win a good number of hockey games, especially if they have a solid goaltending and special teams. While Dubnyk is performing consistently between the pipes, the Wild aren’t getting any help on special teams.
Where the team lacks is at special teams, as Minnesota ranks 25th on the power play and 22nd on the penalty kill. Since around 20 percent of all NHL action is played either on the power play or shorthanded, teams that have serious playoff aspirations really need to be among the better groups in the league. The Wild haven’t been there this year, and will need to improve over the second half of the season if they want to move up in the standings.
The fourth line: With the increased emphasis on having capable skaters in the lineup, and rolling all four lines, there is also an increased need for teams to have good fourth lines. Even if the line isn’t made up of skilled forwards, it is still important for teams to find players that can make an impact on the game, even in limited ice time.
The New York Islanders utilize the trio of Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas, and Matt Martin on their fourth line, and experience a certain degree of success with that group. None are particularly skilled, but still have a positive impact on the game due to their grinding style of play.
The Minnesota Wild, on the other hand, have a very ineffective fourth line. The trio of Erik Haula, Chris Porter, and Ryan Carter all have Scoring Chance percentages below 40 percent, and consistently are out-played at 5-on-5. Jarret Stoll hasn’t been much better; he too has a Scoring Chance percentage below 40 percent. Fixing the fourth line should be a priority of the Wild in the second half of the season.
What to expect heading forward
The Minnesota Wild are a team that has all the right pieces in place to make a deep playoff run, but is being held back by an abysmal bottom six and poor special teams. As of right now, hockeyviz.com has them projected to finish fifth in the Central, which would secure them the second Wild Card spot and a first round matchup against the Los Angeles Kings.
There’s certainly room for improvement, but this is still a team that is probably going to make the playoffs. Given that not every team makes it in, and some struggle to make the postseason year after year, making the playoffs for four years straight is an accomplishment.
How far they go in 2016, however, has yet to be seen.