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  • Is Minnesota's Defensive Corps Too Small?

    Image courtesy of Charles LeClaire-USA Today Sports
    Luke Sims

    Looking at the Minnesota Wild after yet first-round exit in which their opponent physically dominated them, something stands out. The average heights and weights of the Dallas Stars and the NHL's Conference Finals teams tower over Minnesota’s players. 

    The Wild are 31st in average height (6’0”) and 29th in average weight (193 lbs.) league-wide. Consequently, the Stars outhit and outmuscled Minnesota in their six-game charade. Dallas was the bigger team, and it showed. The Stars are 17th in average height and seventh in average weight in the NHL. All of Dallas’s go-to guys except Joe Pavelski are big. Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz, Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Wyatt Johnston, and Miro Heiskanen are all at least 6 '1’’. 

    The Wild have some offensive guys with some size. Joel Eriksson Ek, Matt Boldy, and Marcus Johansson are all 6'1” or above. Kirill Kaprizov plays a lot larger than his 5’9” frame suggests. But the Wild are lacking size on defense. 

    Let’s take a look at the defensive cores of the final four teams. 

    Carolina Hurricanes

    Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, and Brady Skjei are 6'3" and 200-plus pounds. Brent Burns is a monster at 6’5”, 230 lbs. Jalen Chatfield and Shayne Gostisbehere are both around 6’0” and roughly 185 lbs. 

    Almost all of Carolina’s defense is 6’0” or above. They are regarded as a top defensive unit, and it shows in their shots allowed. They let up the least amount of shots in the league, and the size and length of their D-core are among the reasons why.

    Florida Panthers

    The story of Florida’s defensive core is that they have Aaron Ekblad and Marc Staal, who are both massive at 6'4". Radko Gudas is only 6'0” but plays like an absolute maniac. Josh Mahura and Gustav Forsling are two-way guys who don’t really have a ton of size but are serviceable. And Brandon Montour is a reckless offensive defenseman. While they are the lightest team in the league overall, the Panthers still have big bodies guarding the blue line.

    Vegas Golden Knights

    Vegas' smallest defender is 6’1”, 210-pound Alec Martinez. Shea Theodore and Zach Whitecloud are both 6'2” and around 200 pounds, while Alex Pietrangelo, Brayden McNabb, and Nic Hague are 6'3", 6'4”, and 6'6", respectively. All three weigh at least 210 lbs. 

    There is nothing small about the Golden Knights’ defense except for the shots they allow per game. The Wild are familiar with the size of Vegas’s defense; it stifled them in the playoffs two years ago. The Knights are also heavy up front, with the sixth-heaviest team in the league overall. 

    Dallas Stars

    Minnesota knows about Dallas’s size on defense. The Stars also don’t have anyone who comes in at anything less than 6’1”, 190 lbs. Miro Heiskanen and Colin Miller both fit that bill. They also have monsters in Esa Lindell, Jani Hakanpaa and Thomas Harley, who are all 6’3” or above – Hakanpaa is 6’5”. 

    Ryan Suter is too slow to maximize his size anymore, but he’s still 6'2" and did a good job physically imposing himself on Kaprizov. Heiskanen may be the smallest player on Dallas’s defense, but he’s their best defender. The Stars’ incredibly-sized defense was bigger, nastier, and ultimately overwhelming for the Wild. 

    Minnesota Wild

    Obviously, we all know that Jared Spurgeon is small (5’9”, 167 lbs.). Even putting him aside, the Wild do not really have any other guys who are big and have more than a purely defensive role. Jonas Brodin is great at what he does, but he’s 6’1” and doesn't crack 200 pounds. Brock Faber is scheduled to replace Matt Dumba, but at 6'1", he's barely larger than Dumba, who's had durability issues. Maybe the extra inch and 10 pounds Faber carries helps, but maybe that's not enough. Calen Addison and Alex Goligoski are 5’11” or below, and neither weighs in above 185. 

    Jake Middleton and Jon Merrill are both 6’3”, and Middleton is the biggest guy on the Wild defense at 210 pounds. He’s physical, but you don’t often see him laying out big hits or being all that aggressive. He’s occasionally physical, but not all that often. Merrill tries to, but he found himself in the press box watching the game instead of on the ice. Dumba will make a reckless hit here and there. However, that type of play generates the kind of penalties Marcus Foligno got on in the playoffs, and we all saw how that worked out. John Klingberg was only here for 21 games.

    Middleton and Spurgeon block a lot of shots as a pair, and Brodin and Dumba’s underlying numbers for Brodin and Dumba look great. Still, those have not translated in the playoffs over the past few years. Minnesota’s defensive core is too small.

    Minnesota’s back end has not produced in the playoffs. Klingberg had four points in six games, but nobody else had more than two. Montour has six goals for Florida. Heiskanen has 12 in 17 and is the fifth-leading scorer for Dallas. Burns has nine in 15 while also being fifth in scoring. Pietrangelo has nine in 14 games for Vegas. 

    All these teams are getting production from their top-end defenseman. Spurgeon had two points and Addison did not see the ice. Minnesota’s penalty kill was dreadful. Dallas’ bigger forwards routinely caved in and outmuscled Dallas’s bigger forwards. It was a shameful spectacle of penalty killing.

    Bill Guerin traded for two defensive prospects, Faber and Addison, who are 6’0” or less. He also acquired veterans in Middleton and Merrill, who are both 6’3”. It was an interesting strategy. Guerin seems to invest in the smaller, more offensively-inclined prospects and save the physicality for the bigger, veteran players. 

    The Wild have drafted guys with a bit of ‘snarl.’ Ryan O’Rourke throws his body around and is not afraid to get physical. Outside of O’Rourke, though, it’s not looking too good for defensemen in Iowa who are going to bring that physical element. 

    What about the other guys in the system who are coming up in a few years? 

    Kyle Masters - 6'1", 175 lbs. 
    Carson Lambos - 6'1", 197 lbs. 
    David Spacek - 6'0", 174 lbs. 
    Daemon Hunt - 6'0", 198 lbs. 

    They all have promise but are not known for their physicality. Now, they will still probably add some weight as they fill out and get bigger over time. Still, it doesn't look like the next wave of prospects are going to be particularly beefy, either. Simon Johansson (6’2” and 170 lbs.) could maybe be an exception but as a 23-year-old fifth-round pick that has not sniffed the NHL, he’s not a guarantee to make it to the show. 

    Spurgeon still has four years left on his deal. Brodin’s got five. And while Faber is stepping into the defense, he doesn’t have a ton of size and will be around for the foreseeable future. The backbone of the Wild's defense are here for the long haul, but is that for the best?

    Maybe the Wild have something to learn from the final four defenses. If Minnesota wants to stop getting pushed around, out-hit, and out-muscled, they may need to revamp the defensive core. But to get bigger and taller, they’ll have to make some tough choices.

    All stats and data via Elite Prospects and Evolving-Hockey.

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    Luke, you're spot on with the problem, what type of solution do you propose?

    I think your list of players coming up is missing, specifically Peart who is similar in size. 

    I'm not too worried about 6', but I am very worried about the weight difference the Wild give up. The height helps in gaps, but the weight is what gets pushed around as middleweight and heavyweight forwards plant themselves in the home plate area. As I watched with Spurgeon, he was overwhelmed with the weight difference a few times, he battled but couldn't overcome the disadvantage. 

    Now, it may be that we draft and develop the guys we've drafted, all in the middleweight class, and trade for larger defenders once developed. For instance, who would have had Middleton on their radar before getting to the N? Soucy was our bigger guy, a 5th or 6th rounder who panned out. Seeler was smaller, but he held his own. 

    I think it will be time to trade for those bigger guys. Teams are always looking for those puckmovers, and you'd be trading like kind with different skill sets. We need that big RHS defender for the bottom pairing. To me, Addison would be a perfect swap in that area. O'Rourke will eventually pair with him, or maybe Hunt, but both need some beef. I keep looking for an update on O'Rourke's size but he's listed all over the place. He has to get up to 210 for his game to be effective.

    One last item, if you want to fix the PK in the playoffs, that bottom pairing has to be large and able to kill penalties. The Soucy-Cole pairing was really good to put out there and we haven't adequately replaced them yet. Over the season, the status quo was alright, but when the playoffs came, our size was an issue and has been in 2 straight playoffs. 

    As for Simon Johansson, I thought the last 20 games of the season in Iowa, he played better. He was more visible offensively, and showed up on the highlights more in favorable video. He needs to add strength, so this will be a very important offseason for him. If he fails to add the strength, I suspect he will head back to Sweden after his ELC is over.

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    I mentioned this over in the Walk, but Kyle Masters absorbed a hard hit last night in Memorial Cup play. Masters shot the puck up the boards in his own end and was mostly off balance when he was plowed by a Petes' forward which took him off his skates and deposited him just before hitting the boards very awkwardly. Masters lay motionless for quite awhile before being stretchered off. Masters is 6' 175 playing in a league where most of the big players are in the 190-200 lb. range. 


    The Blazers statement:

    Following his injury during the May 28th Memorial Cup game, Kyle Masters was removed from the ice by stretcher. He was fully awake and moving all of his extremities and was transported to the Royal Inland Hospital emergency department for further evaluation.

    Thank you to the Blazers and Peterborough's medical staff and BCAS paramedics for their medical care on the ice.

    We watched Addison, who is 5'11" 182ish get crushed behind the play pretty regularly. He does not know how to absorb hits well, and it would take him a couple of moments to collect himself while Merrill tried to defend the whole ice. 

    Now, imagine that instead of the guy who hit Masters was someone like Landeskog, who repeatedly beat Spurgeon's head into the glass in the playoffs. If he had hit Masters in this game, as he usually does, Masters would have flown at least 3' further hitting the boards half way up instead of the ice first. Tkachuk can do the same thing, either one, or Marc Stone. Even Foligno, Duhaime, or if Reaves can catch them, can send crushing hits to players with similar results. 

    I'm not even covering players getting walked to the front of the net by larger forwards, the smaller D can play just fine in the regular season, but come playoff time where sharks circle at the first sign of blood in the water, smaller D just don't fair as well. I'm not as concerned with height as I am with weight. Weight gives you enough mass to hold up, and a shorter guy usually has leverage if using it properly. He loses something in reach, but doesn't get physically abused.

    Right now, our biggest guy on the right side of the D is Brock Faber at 6'1" 202. He played 2 regular season games and all playoff games. He looked good with his skating but still got banged around a bit in his zone. He was big enough to absorb and still had a good enough stick to regain control. 

    Merrill in his 6'3" 202 frame just looked too slow (and we don't know if he was nursing an injury). But even that frame gets pushed around. He's sound defensively with his gaps, but isn't very physical and looks overmatched when he tries to play that way. The best he can do is erase a player. 

    Middleton is the only defender who can take on a larger forward and beat him physically. It's nice to have him, but he cannot do everything if he's the only one. 

    Brodin's got a great stick and great skating to neutralize a player. However, we've all seen him get walked by St. Louis forwards where he just plain gets outmuscled. That's at 6'2" 195. 

    Again, this holds up fine in the regular season, but in the playoffs, it simply doesn't and that's why we struggle, especially on the PK the last 2 seasons. 

    One solution might be to trade one of the puck movers for a larger, more developed defender. Typically, a larger defender does not check the Brackett boxes at the draft. It's hard to evaluate the hockey IQ because the guys' skating is subpar. His skating is subpar usually because at draft time he recently grew into his size and hasn't gotten used to it yet. It may be easier, then, to identify larger players in D+2-3 years than in draft years. 

    But, to this point, Shooter hasn't made any of these deals. For instance, going after someone like Matthias Samuelsson before he made the Sabres' lineup. Kevin Bahl is a guy I had targeted in the offseason '21 from the Devils. I'd gladly give up an Addison for him. 

    Hunt, O'Rourke, and Lambos look like the keepers, to me, just based upon weight/height. I also believe that Spacek will fill out and lift to get to the appropriate weight. I know little about Masters. Who does that leave? Maybe Peart? Either way, I believe a left handed, puck moving, defender is what needs to be traded, if not Addison. We also need someone in the Parayko class of defenders. 

    Let's state this differently. If we want to change our 1st round exits, then we need to be a difficult to score on as possible. To do this we need Redwoods on the blueline, not Ficuses. If someone comes within sneezing distance of Goose2 or The Wall, we need to be able to dump them on their keesters. Anyone wants to walk the baseline, our guys need to be strong and stable enough to simple rub them out and tie them up. 

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    I agree Luke.

    I'm not worried about a 6'1 Faber, Hunt, Lambos or O'Rourke as they are all 200 lbs. or better and developing NHL bodies or any of the 200 lb. 6'0 D we have coming up...such as Masters, Healey. Peart is 5'11, but plays with edge and is dynamic at his young age so far. I don't expect much of anything from Johansson, Mermis or Hicketts.

    I'm not a big fan of the smaller Addison and Spurgeon. They both have something to offer, one offense, the other leadership, but no attainable stability in front of the net against anyone.

    Brodin is the only shutdown D we have, however he hasn't shown it the end of season or playoffs. Maybe he's hurt still, but ask McDavid when he comes to town. He's a keeper.

    I'm ready for a facelift before the end of salary cap hell. I keep Middy, Brodin and Faber. The rest can go, trade, buy out or whatever is needed come 2025.

    Please rebuild the "D" is my answer.

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