The Minnesota Wild dropped yet another game on Thursday night, this time most recently to the Washington Capitals. While there’s no shame in becoming the latest victim to be railroaded by the league’s winningest team, in their particular case by now it’s long since passed the point in time where a mild raising of the eyebrows should turn into legitimate concern.
The reality is that they’re now 3-12-3 since the calendar flipped to the new year, having slipped all the way down to 6th in the exceedingly competitive Central. Any dream of potentially hanging around long enough to grab one of the top three seeds in their division has fallen to the wayside with a double-digit gap separating them and the Blackhawks, Stars, and Blues.
There appear to be a couple of reasons not to hit DEFCON1 just yet in Minnesota. Of the glut of teams in their vicinity competing for the two remaining Wild Card spots, the Nashville Predators are the only certifiably potent squad of the bunch. Assuming they eventually buy themselves a save, they’ll be just fine.
The others all have their equivalent share of warts. The Avalanche have been stringing together some wins recently, but Colorado continues to be a place where puck possession goes to die. The Canucks, Coyotes and Flames are all horribly flawed teams hanging onto their respective seasons by a dwindling thread. As bad as they’ve been, all doesn’t appear to be lost. Particularly with that final entry in the playoffs sitting there for the taking.
Especially when considering what they went through last year, when they found themselves in a similar spot in the standings before using a spectacular second half of the season to sneak into the playoffs, and upset a second-seeded Blues favorite. Those parallels didn’t slip past their local Fox Sports broadcast, which flashed a graphic showing those very eerie similarities during the Capitals game:
“They’re not that different from where they were a year ago. Still ninth in the West, still two out in the Wild Card, their goal different about the same. But for some reason this one has a different feel to it..”
The reason why it has a different feel to it is probably because it is different. While it makes for a great story, it’s not that simple. It’s easy to forget that last year’s Wild team was for all intents and purposes a dominant team being submarined by dreadfully lackluster goaltending.
(all of the data is during the course of 5-on-5 play, pulled from the invaluable War-on-Ice)
It’s a testament to how irreplaceable a certain level of play in net is and how much the inherent volatility at the position can swing the pendulum in either direction. Despite having been routinely controlling games and outplaying their opposition, the Wild had very little to show for their efforts in the way of wins and losses.
As such their coach was on the hottest of hot seats, and things looked like they were on the verge of reaching a point of no return. Dubnyk came in, allowed everything the rest of the team was doing in front of him to hold up by making saves when being called upon, and ultimately earned himself a fancy new contract.
Despite having turned over essentially the entirety of their functional roster from one year to the next, they haven’t really lived up to the expectations they earned for themselves based on their collective level of play last season. The prominent issue has been their deteriorating ability to control the run of play at even strength on the defensive side of things.
As such, it’s provided them with a smaller margin for error without having the raw shot differential to fall back on during trying times. The fact that they’ve been slowly inching closer back to that paper-tiger incarnation of their team in Mike Yeo’s first season behind the bench has been a rather concerning development and something worth monitoring moving forward.
Their year-long numbers aren’t as bad as they’ve been since the new year, but they’re certainly not where they need to be for them to realistically compete with their peers. That’s been particularly true during this losing streak, which has only been magnified by putrid shooting luck.
It’s somewhat ironic that the Wild once again find themselves being submarined by percentage purgatory, just on the other end of the ice this time around. For some context on that catastrophically low 5.0% clip, last year’s Arizona Coyotes are the only team since ‘05 to shoot under 6% for a full season (and they were at 5.9%).
The conclusion that they’re a riding colossally unlucky stretch in that regard is much more likely than the idea that each and every one of them suddenly forgot how to shoot the puck. The Montreal Canadiens, for example, went through a similar dry spell during their historic sabbatical from winning. Every year a couple of unfortunate teams go through periods like this, before everything ultimately rights itself.
The curious thing with Minnesota’s uniform struggles across the lineup, though, is that they would’ve seemed like a perfect candidate to fight against something like this based on how they’ve been constructed. While it’s not a lineup that’s necessarily brimming with household star power up front, they’re a team that at least on paper has been thoughtfully assembled. Given how balanced they are from top to bottom as a group that scores by committee, wasted shifts should be few and far between. They can roll all four of their lines without much of a let-up, which allows them to play a relentless play that should eventually wear the opposition out.
It’s encouraging that their coach seems to have a good grasp of these trends, based on his recent comments (though there’s been some early signs of cracking at the seams under all of the growing pressure). He’s not wrong that all of the shot rates they’re directing towards the other team’s net are, for the most part, in the same ballpark as they were before this swoon. Recognition of that is at least part of the battle, because it’s awfully easy to overreact in an irrational manner in times like these.
The issue is that the process eventually needs to start translating into results and some of those shots need to start finding their way to the back of the net. At some point a blip in the radar becomes a real trend, and we appear to be rapidly reaching that point as the losses continue to pile up. Especially since the overall play itself irrespective of the bounces they have or haven’t been getting has been slipping.
There’s still over a third of the season left to be played, but the Wild can’t really afford to keep digging themselves a hole of this depth like they have been in recent weeks. Not in the Central Division, where a collection of the league’s biggest and baddest titans reside. Something’s got to give.