We saw it last season when the Wild played the Avalanche. We saw it in the post-season against Winnipeg in April. We also saw it on full display Thursday night in the season opener back in Denver.
Speed is the new game in today’s NHL.
For Minnesota, it wasn’t because the Avalanche have an aggressive mentality that led to the Wild getting run over in the season opener. No, it’s the pure agility and speed by the Avalanche as a whole that allowed them to be aggressive. The Wild had a hard time compensating for that speed and it looks like it might cost them some games this season.
We all see what happens when Nathan MacKinnon turns on the jets. He can burn past even the best defensemen, including some of the Wild’s more gifted skating guards. Ryan Suter on two healthy legs have a hard time keeping up with MacKinnon, let alone one that he still walks with a visible limp through the locker room.
But it’s not just MacKinnon. Mikko Rantanen has Avalanche fans excited as well, and he’s no slouch trying to keep up with Colorado’s Hart Trophy runner-up. The Wild were so taken aback by the Avalanche speed, that it directly cost the Wild the lead midway through the first period.
Carl Soderberg got the Avs on the board with a nifty shot through Nick Seeler’s legs and over the glove of Devan Dubnyk. How something called Soderberg got the room to shoot is the real key here. Wild defenseman Nick Seeler is not winning any speed skates any time soon. His game is far more about playing physical in front of the net, and getting in shooting lanes. However, on Soderberg’s goal, you could see that he was trying to give a cushion to the on-coming Avalanche forward to as to not get burned.
Think of it like a cornerback in football giving a 5 yard cushion to the wide receiver standing opposite the line of scrimmage from him. That cushion can help the corner read the route that the receiver is running, and help him make a play on the ball. What it can also do is allow the receiver an easy catch, only needing to make the cornerback miss once to turn it into a huge gain or even 6 points.
As a defenseman, it’s all about managing these gaps. You can see in the gif below of the play, Seeler didn’t manage the gap as Soderberg crossed the blue line. Rather than standing him up at the stripe, or even the top of the circles with a good stick or body check, Soderberg skating deep into the Wild zone into a higher scoring area. By the time Seeler does stand up to close the gap, Soderberg has already picked his spot, and Seeler just provided the perfect screen.
Minnesota struggled with the team speed of Colorado all game long. For a league that continues to move toward speed and skill, and after the showing in Game 1, the Wild’s offseason moves appear to more than just a head-scratcher. Matt Hendricks and Eric Fehr are not fast. Marcus Foligno isn’t fast either, and the three of them on a line together gave the Avs all the room they could ever want. It put more pressure on guys like Matt Dumba, Suter, Jonas Brodin, and Jared Spurgeon to be the ones to not just retrieve the puck, but also break it out of the defensive zone. There was a lot more chipping and dumping out to the neutral zone because of it.
To compound matters, the one guy signed in free agency that could provide a speed boost in the bottom 6, J.T. Brown, was scratched for the game. The Avalanche running rough-shod over the Wild late last season wasn’t enough to cue the coaching staff that they needed to match speed with speed. Instead, they chose to go heavy and slow, and they paid for it with a loss in the season opener that provided less clarity about this Wild team than there was just a week ago.
Brown might not have been the difference in Thursday’s game. Hell, with what he’s shown in the preseason, he might not ever amount to anything he was in Tampa. But that’s not the point. The coaching staff hasn’t found a way to contain speedy opponents, and are making decisions on the line-up that seem to imply that they’re still not sure how to do exactly that.
If Game 1 is any kind of precursor for the season, Minnesota is going to have a hard time facing the better skating and faster teams of an already brutal gauntlet of a Central Division.