The Minnesota Wild are off to a somewhat slow 3-2-1 start this year. The opening-night win over the Florida Panthers at home provided some hope. Filip Gustavsson confirmed he was as advertised last season.
However, since then, it’s been hard to tell if he is the goaltender we hyped him up to be. In the first two games Gustavsson has started since opening night, he allowed 7 goals to the Toronto Maple Leafs on the road in Toronto and 5 goals to the Columbus Blue Jackets at home. Even in Tuesday's 7-4 win, he still surrendered four goals to the Connor McDavid-less Edmonton Oilers.
It’s easy to blame the goaltender because he’s the last line of defense, but Gustavsson has been playing incredibly well, given the mostly dreadful defense in front of him, other than the Brock Faber and Jonas Brodin’s pairing. The "Gus Bus" has consistently been making incredible saves, getting beat most of the time on second-chance opportunities where there was nothing he could do to recover in time. Even with the high amount of goals he seems to be allowing, his Goals Saved Above Expected is only -0.65. This means Gustavsson is still more-or-less saving the shots that he should; he’s just facing a ton of pucks.
In the four games Gustavsson started, he posted a 41-save shutout against Florida, allowed seven goals on 33 shots against Toronto, five goals on 54 shots on net against Columbus, and 24 of 28 shots against Edmonton. Although that’s a small sample size, he’s been outplaying Marc-Andre Fleury. The future Hall of Famer has only faced 28 and 25 shots on net in his starts against the Montreal Canadiens and Los Angeles Kings and he allowed 2 goals and 5 goals (LA had 2 empty netters), respectively.
Gustavsson faced an average of 30.1 shots per game with a .931 save percentage in the 39 games he started last season. In his first three starts this season, Gustvasson has played behind a few lackluster defensive pairings due to the lack of captain Jared Spurgeon. Gus is facing an average of 39 shots per game while posting an .897 save percentage. Put it all together, and it averages out to 35 saves per game this season.
But I want to put a positive spin on it. If you’re anything like me, you like to dabble in a little wager here and there. I’m personally confident in making the negatives a positive in some way and winning money off the assumption that Gustavsson will more than likely hit the over on his prop line in terms of saves. It usually falls somewhere between 26.5 and 29.5 saves, which if it hits, makes a rather hard-to-watch defense at least a successful financial venture.
To be clear: I’m not offering professional gambling advice. Instead, I’m telling you how I emotionally hedge against my favorite team for possible monetary gain.
Obviously, this is not sustainable if the Wild want to make a real run in the playoffs. Not only is having a high mark of shots against a surefire way to allow a substantial amount of goals, but opponents are routinely outshooting the Wild, which only further dwindles their chances at true contention.
Minnesota posted a negative-26 shot differential against Columbus. There are a lot of games where a team doesn’t even get 26 shots on goal total. Shot differential is an issue for this year’s Wild squad. They are below the league average in shots for, but allow higher than the league average of shots on goal against. Their poor shot differential also amplifies the difference in their high-danger opportunities. Minnesota has only created 62 total high-danger chances while surrendering 78 to their opponents.
It’s no secret that Minnesota’s defensive core has been lacking without Spurgeon. The room looks completely different without him manning the top pairing with Jake Middleton. Fortunately, the Wild still have Jonas Brodin, one of the most underrated defensemen in hockey, to provide some stability to the temporary top pairing.
Faber has also brought an immediate veteran-like presence, even though he’s played fewer than 15 games in his career. The former Minnesota Golden Gopher Gopher has brought another sense of security to a lacking defensive unit. Getting Spurgeon back with Middleton, one of the best defensive pairings in the NHL last season, will immediately boost the team. It will also assist a struggling Middleton, who has been missing his linemate desperately.
If there’s anything to hold hope for for the rest of the season, it’s that this defense can (hopefully) only play better as the year rolls along and they get in their groove. The return of one of the best defensemen in the NHL and the team's captain will only benefit them. Gustavsson will be the biggest beneficiary. He’s been playing spectacularly in a way that the numbers don’t fully represent.
Don’t overreact to the Minnesota Wild’s early-season struggles. We are only 11 days into their season. There is no need to press the panic button. But until further notice, I'm pressing the “place” button on Gus’ “over” on goalie saves.
Think you could write a story like this? Hockey Wilderness wants you to develop your voice, find an audience, and we'll pay you to do it. Just fill out this form.