Like many Latin phrases, “ad nauseam'' sneaks its way into conversations without much thought for its original meaning. Also, like many such Latin phrases, it’s easy to guess the literal meaning. In this case, it means “to the point of becoming nauseous.”
That certainly describes the question of what the Minnesota Wild should do with their first-line center. I’m sick of writing about it, and you’re probably sick of reading about it. So, perhaps a better question is, what would it take for Minnesota to try a change? Dear reader, it brings me some joy to tell you that the answer may be close at hand.
Dean Evason likely signaled this change when he shuffled the lineup in St. Paul last night. In the second period, he paired Marco Rossi and Matt Boldy with Kirill Kaprizov while Mats Zuccarello slid to Joel Eriksson Ek’s line. Ryan Hartman centered a checking line with Marcus Foligno and Patrick Maroon. Regardless, the Kaprizov-Hartman-Zuccarello line has always seemed an odd combination on Evason’s Wild.
My reasoning here is Evason’s pattern in how he builds forward groups. It’s been evident since the Wild made Evason their full-time head coach before the 2020-21 season. Since then, people have scrutinized his lineup decisions for his entire tenure with Minnesota. Most of the criticism is due to Kirill Kaprizov’s linemates at the center position: Victor Rask, Ryan Hartman, and Sam Steel.
Those players are not first-line centers. If Hartman, 29, were a top-line center, the Wild would have extended him for more than three years, $12 million. What’s more, Minnesota has Joel Eriksson Ek available. Most of Evason’s contemporaries would strap Eriksson Ek next to Kaprizov on the top line.
Looking further down the lineup, though, it’s abundantly clear why Evason builds his first line the way he does. It follows a formula he’s used to construct the middle-six lines since the Wild hired him.
Each line has a player who fits three core roles. The first is a defensively sound puck-winner who creates turnovers in the forecheck or on the boards. Second is the outlet man. Once the Wild regain possession of the puck, this player skates it through the neutral zone. Finally, there’s always a scoring punch. On some lines, scoring runs through one player. On others, it combines a playmaker and a transition specialist.
Evason has grouped scorer Matt Boldy, speedster Marcus Johansson, and do-it-all center Eriksson Ek on the second line. When Boldy was injured, locker room guy Patrick Maroon replaced him rather than another scorer such as Marco Rossi, Vinni Lettieri, or AHL call-up Sammy Walker. Around the league, teams typically load the second line with as much scoring talent as possible. Evason has prioritized two-way players on his second line.
On the other hand, Minnesota’s third line features more skill than an average checking line. While Marcus Foligno and Patrick Maroon fit the mold perfectly as defensively sound players with the skill to chip in opportunistic offense, Marco Rossi seems out of place. He’s undersized, and the Wild drafted him to make an offensive impact.
So, to review:
- The Puck-Getter: Hartman, Eriksson Ek, Foligno
- Transition Specialist: Kaprizov, Johansson, Rossi
- Scoring Touch: Kaprizov + Zuccarello, Boldy, Rossi + Maroon
Is Maroon a scorer? Not really, but he’s been cooking this season. Last week, Justin Wiggins broke down Maroon’s hot start, noting that he really can play. While he’s been a fourth-line enforcer in the past, Minnesota has used him as a utility forward in the Frederick Gaudreau mold.
Maroon is setting guys up with gorgeous looks. Perhaps it’s something he picked up with the Tampa Bay Lightning, or maybe this is just who he is. Regardless, it’s why the Wild have promoted him in Gaudreau’s absence.
Maroon has already added some highlights to his reel. While he won’t be doing this every night, it’s enough to add up when he connects with Rossi.
Evason has consistently ensured he fills each of the three roles on the top three lines. The GREEF line could be the exception to this rule. It certainly gummed up the overall lineup, forcing one of Eriksson Ek or Fiala onto the third line. On the other hand, GREEF was so dominant that nobody can argue with its play in isolation. For a while, the Kaprizov-Hartman-Zuccarello line’s scoring made it a similar exception to Evason’s formula. This season, they’ve been too inconsistent to be inarguable.
That’s an interesting wrinkle in the middle of the lineup, but it’s truly insightful looking back at Minnesota’s experiments with the top-line center. Victor Rask frustrated many fans playing alongside Kaprizov and Zuccarello. Kaprizov and Zuccarello were at the height of their chemistry, and they hadn’t put any of their set plays on tape. However, when they dished the puck to an open Rask, it became evident he couldn’t hang offensively. Passes hopped his stick, and his shots missed high or wide when he connected.
But remember, Kaprizov and Zuccarello were all the Wild needed in transition and to finish scoring chances. Rasks’s role was to defend and win the puck -- and that he did.
While it’s easier to post defensive analytics when Kaprizov and Zuccarello threaten to counterattack immediately, we must credit some of Rask’s 92nd-percentile defensive metrics to him. Even when Minnesota dealt Rask to the Seattle Kraken to create cap space, he was an effective five-on-five defender.
Similarly, Sam Steel posted effective play-driving metrics in Minnesota, which is generally a mark of encouraging defense and possession play.
That brings us to Ryan Hartman. The top line has struggled this season, by Evason’s admission. Aside from the obvious issues on the top line (turnovers, lack of production, awful defense), Evason may also be developing a distaste for their style of play. Ryan Hartman isn’t an offense-only player, but none of Hartman, Kaprizov, or Zuccarello is a dominant puck-winner.
Michael Russo asked Evason during training camp if Rossi could replace Hartman on the top line. He answered, “Yes, I’d probably start with (Joel Eriksson Ek) to the top line.” Evason’s answer was speculative, and perhaps it was intended to take pressure off of Rossi. On the other hand, it’s interesting that he mentioned Eriksson Ek in this situation when the question specifically regarded Rossi’s role in the lineup.
Initially, Russo offered this question because Hartman entered camp with a minor injury. Therefore, Evason had to entertain replacing Hartman without having to consider demoting him. But since Evason hasn’t been happy with the top line’s play, it opens the door to a shake-up.
If Minnesota tries out another center on the top line, don’t expect the lineup questions to end. The cap crunch and the inevitability of future injuries will lead to holes in this lineup and losing streaks again this season. If you love to imagine shifting players up or down the lineup to project alternative line combinations, don’t worry -- there’s plenty more where that came from.
I don’t reproach Ryan Hartman for his time on the top line. He is a good player with an even better price tag. What troubles me is that it’s difficult to enjoy Hartman fully when he’s miscast in the top-line center role. If Evason was willing to make Eriksson Ek or Rossi the top-line center, it could bring stability to the most visible forward group on the team.
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