For the last two seasons, the most frustrating question surrounding the Minnesota Wild concerned the power play. They had talented players like Kirill Kaprizov, Jared Spurgeon, Mats Zuccarello, Kevin Fiala, and, eventually, Matt Boldy. They had a terrific net-front presence in Joel Eriksson Ek to clean rebounds up.
So how were they 24th in power play conversions (17.6%) two years ago? Why did this collection of talent finish 18th last year (20.5%), with their boost coming almost entirely from a higher league-wide scoring environment?
It was a question that coach Dean Evason and Co. spent the summer trying to figure out. Not much has gone right this season, but the power play has been surprisingly potent. Maybe not on paper — again, this is a talented team — but certainly bucking recent trends. Arguably, their performance on the man advantage is carrying the team.
Minnesota is 9-for-32 on the power play this year, and their 28.1% conversion rate ranks fifth in the NHL. That's nine power play goals in as many games, a run of competency they've only experienced three times in the past two seasons, according to Natural Stat Trick. Yet, here they are, sitting atop 5-on-4 powerhouses like the New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Tampa Bay Lightning.
And believe it or not, this is no small sample size fluke. The Wild are shooting well on the power play, 15.6%, but that's only 12th in the NHL. Certainly, nowhere close to the red flag that it is for Arizona Coyotes, who are in second place with 25.8%. Their 10.3 goals per hour on the power play (sixth in the NHL) isn't far off from their 9.25 expected goals rate (eighth).
So, what's changed?
One way to look at it is, the biggest players on the Wild have finally taken charge. The trio of Kaprizov, Boldy, and Eriksson Ek are absolutely peppering opposing goalies. Natural Stat Trick tracks scoring chances, and of 185 skaters with 20-plus power play minutes, they all rate super well.
Boldy is 17th in the NHL with 24.0 scoring chances per hour. Kaprizov is just behind him at 18th (23.9) and Eriksson Ek is 26th with 22.1. Some big names that fall between Boldy and Eriksson Ek are Steven Stamkos, Kyle Connor, Matthew Tkachuk, and Andrei Svechnikov. If you're getting the same kind of chances as the biggest power play threats in the league, you're doing something right.
And Evason knows it, which is why he's playing his first unit more than anyone in the NHL. Last year, Kaprizov played 62.7% of the Wild's power play minutes. So, for every two-minute power play, Kaprizov was out there for about 1:15.
This means that Kaprizov was not on the ice for about 45 seconds per power play, leaving the second unit to work. Except that the second unit almost never worked.
There were 573 combinations of two players who played 60-plus minutes together on the power play last season. Of them, six of the bottom 50 combos in goals per hour were Wild players. Fiala and Freddy Gaudreau was seventh-worst, joining Matt Dumba and Gaudreau (12th), Jonas Brodin and Fiala (18th), Marcus Foligno and Gaudreau (32nd), Ryan Hartman and Fiala (37th), Foligno and Fiala (45th), and Foligno and Dumba (50th). All those were regular second-unit players.
So Evason's biggest adjustment is simple: Never play the second unit. Kaprizov has played 86.9% of Minnesota's possible power play time this season. That figure is second in the NHL to only Alex Ovechkin (93.7%). An extra 30 seconds of Kaprizov are always going to help a power play.
This trend goes much further than Kaprizov, too. Go past Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid for third and fourth place, and you'll see Boldy at fifth (83.0%) and Zuccarello sixth (82.8%). Then after seventh-place Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and there's Calen Addison (79.8%) and Eriksson Ek (78.4%). That's right, the entire top unit is in the Top-10 in this regard.
It's not just the quantity of minutes from the first unit that stands out, though. The Wild are getting a kind of quantity that they've never had on the power play before. That is, their shot quantity.
No one's allowed to yell "Shoot!" on the power play anymore. Minnesota is third in the NHL in generating shot attempts, with 124.6 per hour. It's the first time the Wild have been tracking to make the Top-10, at least in the Analytics Era. Nine games into the season, and we're going to be dealing with small sample sizes. But no doubt, it's encouraging and good that the Wild are firing shots on net.
We can credit Kaprizov, Boldy, and Eriksson Ek for shooting a ton, but the biggest change might be Addison at the point. At the beginning of the season, we discussed how Addison can be the antidote to the Wild's deliberate style on the perimeter. Addison is exactly as advertised. Instead of grinding things down to a halt, he's making quick decisions and getting the puck to his shooters.
Can this last? The Wild probably aren't averaging a power play goal per game. Just six teams have done that over an 82-game season since 2007-08. It's also possible that Minnesota's top unit wears down under a heavy workload. But Zuccarello is the only player there who's over the age of 25. Maybe young legs will hold up for the entire season.
As long as they do, and as long as they can keep the pace anywhere near what they've done through nine games, there's no reason to think they can't keep a top power play going throughout the season. After all, look at all that talent.