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Are the Minnesota Wild fading again?

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The Minnesota Wild had another fast start this season, but just like in years past are starting to slide in the wrong direction.

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

Two years ago the Minnesota Wild had the best record in the NHL after 30 games until a second half collapse pushed them to the bottom of the standings by the end of the season.

Last year they raced out of the gate with a 20-10-2 mark after 32 games before stumbling down the stretch (6-9-1), barely holding onto their playoff spot, and quietly going out in the first round of the playoffs at the hands of the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.

It was a similar recipe each year. A fast start thanks in large part to great goaltending that was probably playing a bit over its head and bailing out a struggling offense, and then fading fast when the goaltending returned to a more sustainable level.

Is it happening to them again this season?

Entering their game on Friday against the Winnipeg Jets, Minnesota has won just five of its past 15 games (after starting the season 15-5-4), with only three of those wins coming in regulation. It's been the same problem that's plagued the Wild over the past few years. They don't score enough, which is partly the a result of a far bigger problem: They don't have the puck enough.

Teams that control the puck control the pace of the game. They get the most shots. They create the most chances. They score the most goals. They win the most games. Since the NHL no longer keeps track of possession times the simplest way to measure possession is to go by shot attempts using Corsi (total shot attempts: goals, saves, misses, blocks) and Fenwick (unblocked shot attempts) percentages. Playoff teams are usually near 50 percent or better, while Stanley Cup teams are usually near the top of the league in the 53-57 percent range.

Here is where the Minnesota Wild have finished in each metric since the start of the 2007-08 season, as well as their overall place in the NHL standings.

Year FF% CF% Standings
2007-08 48.1 (23rd) 49.3 (18th) 7th
2008-09 46.7 (24th) 46.6 (26th) 19th
2009-10 47.0 (25th) 46.8 (26th) 22nd
2010-11 43.2 (29th) 44.4 (28th) 21st
2011-12 44.6 (30th) 44.0 (30th) 24th
2012-13 48.6 (18th) 48.0 (20th) 15th
2013-14 51.2 (13th) 51.0 (12th) TBD

Pretty consistent. Bad possession team, bad team in the standings.

But there is good news. Their possession numbers this year actually look pretty decent, and might give some hope that perhaps the recent stretch of games has more to do with some bad luck than a team that's starting to go in the wrong direction. That is until you look a little deeper and see that their possession trends seem to indicate a team that's, once again, starting to go in the wrong direction as the season progresses.

(Chart via Extra Skater)


A few thoughts.

  • Minnesota was never going to be a 60 percent, or even upper 50 percent, possession team like it was earlier in the season. The Wild have some stars (Zach Parise, Ryan Suter) and some outstanding young talent but as a team they're not quite that good. So some regression in their possession numbers was to be expected, and even though they've declined quite a bit over the past couple of months, they're still sitting above the 50 percent mark and in the top half of the Western Conference. That should provide at least a little bit of hope. Over the past two years when Minnesota was winning games early in the season they were doing it with smoke and mirrors, winning a lot of games while getting crushed in the possession game. They were the Western Conference version of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
  • The problem this season is the Western Conference is still incredibly deep and they're going to be in for quite a fight when it comes to one of the two wild card spots, even with their improved possession numbers and seemingly better overall hockey team. It may not be enough.
  • The Wild have probably been a little unlucky this season when it comes to their goal-scoring. Their even-strengh shooting percentage for the season is down near 6 percent (league average is usually around 7 or 8 percent) and there's some room there for improvement, especially lately. During their most recent 15-game stretch the Wild have scored on just 22 of their 384 shots (5.7 percent) which is an unsustainably low number. Some of the breaks are working against them right now offensively, and that changes over the course of the season, so there's room for improvement offensively, even if it's just a small one. The bigger problem remains that they simply don't generate enough shots on goal (27th in the league).
  • At the other end of the ice the Wild have been a mixed bag in net. Josh Harding is playing out of his mind and well above his career norms. Meanwhile, Niklas Backstrom is having a miserable season well below his career norms, and is even giving up goals when the other team doesn't even successfully attempt a shot. Harding's story is nothing short amazing, and his battle with Multiple Sclerosis has been well documented. It makes his success this year not only a little hard to believe, but also one of the feel good stories not just in the NHL, but all of sports. He's always been a solid goaltender and has always put up strong numbers during his career with the Wild. But his current .939 save percentage just isn't a number that NHL goalies maintain over the course of a full season. According to the database at Hockey-Reference only four goalies have appeared in at least 30 games during a season and finished the season with a save percentage higher than .935. His numbers are going to come down a bit, while Backstrom's will probably see a second half surge. They will probably balance each other out and as a team the Wild are probably right where they should be in net right in the middle of the pack.

In the end, the Wild are probably right where they should be this season. Not quite as good as their record over their first 20 or so games, but an improving team that has some pieces in place and more help on the way in terms of young talent. In most years they would probably be good enough to earn a bottom spot in the playoffs, but given how strong the Western Conference is this season it might be the wrong year to be a good, but not great team in the West.

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