We at Hockey Wilderness present Part 3 of our matchup preview between former division foes Vancouver Canucks and the Minnesota Wild as they prepare to duel in the play-in round to the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. So far in our analysis, the teams have matched up somewhat evenly, with Vancouver enjoying the edge in the crease and Minnesota ahead on the blue line. Now let’s take a look at how this series will ultimately decided — on offense.
And though at first glance the Canucks look to dominate with superior star power, when you take into consideration all four lines, you may find the offensive gap is smaller than it appears.
The only word to describe the Canucks’ top line — elite. Winger J.T. Miller and centerman Elias Pettersson have been the mainstays, while the right wing spot has been manned at times by Jake Virtanen, Brock Boeser, and most recently, trade deadline acquisition Tyler Toffoli. But no matter the combination, Vancouver’s primary pairing has ranked near the top of the league in offense. In the last ten games before the season pause, the trio of Petterson-Miller-Toffoli was scoring a goal a game — second best in the league.
Petterson especially was a huge part of the Canucks’ success, driving possession and generating scoring as well as playing above average defense, not only at 5-on-5, but also with the man advantage:
A mainstay on the top line in the middle of the season, Boeser had a strong 2019-20 campaign cut short in February with a fractured rib, costing the Burnsville native to miss 12 games and lose his top assignment. Though the injury was originally projected to keep Boeser out for the remainder of the regular season, he made his return on March 10 against the New York Islanders — Vancouver’s final game before the NHL pulled the plug on the regular season due to COVID-19.
But if Boeser is rusty, he hasn’t showed it in the return-to-play training camp, as by all reports, Brock is showing the fire and ability that earned him the runner-up spot for the Calder award his rookie year.
Boeser’s linemates Tanner Pearson and Bo Horvat have done reasonably well in terms of point production, but defensively they have struggled, especially against opponent’s top lines. If the Wild are going to have a chance of winning the series, this is a matchup they’ll want to exploit:
As strong as the top six is for Vancouver, the bottom six brings very little to the table. Third-line center Adam Gaudette’s mediocre goals above replacement (GAR) score of 4.6 is fourth-highest on the team, showing just how top-heavy the Canucks are offensively. His linemates feature a 30-year-old Antoine Roussel, who looks like he’s several years removed from last season’s 31-point effort, and Michael Ferland, who had five points in 14 games to start the season before being sidelined with concussion issues. The fourth line that took the ice in their exhibition game versus the Winnipeg Jets, composed of Tyler Motte, Jay Beagle and Brandon Sutter, had a combined total of 14 goals this season ... and a combined GAR of -3.2.
The Canucks do have an X-factor if they wish to use it in Virtanen, who saw a good deal of ice time with the top line and finished the regular season with 18 goals and 36 points. However, Virtanen got in coach Travis Green’s doghouse with poor play in the Canucks’ summer training camp, and poor decisions during the season pause, posting Instagram videos of himself recording while driving as well as out clubbing while not wearing a mask. Virtanen spent the Jets’ exhibition game in the press box with youngster Zach MacEwen taking his place. If Virtanen gets his act together for the playoffs, the Canucks’ offensive roster gets just a little more deep.
While no one on the Wild roster matches Pettersson for elite skills and speed or Miller in terms of point production, where the Wild make up for it is in sheer depth. Minnesota can roll four serviceable forward lines that have a good balance of offensive ability and defensive reliability — something that the Canucks simply can’t do.
Where as Vancouver’s drop off from the top three is pretty massive, the Wild have nine forwards above 6 GAR. So while Vancouver will look to beat you with one strong line, Minnesota can wear their opponents down with supplementary scoring and strong defense. Both of which they have in spades.
Minnesota’s top line of Jordan Greenway, Eric Staal and Kevin Fiala had been really jelling in the second half of the season, and reportedly looked great in training camp scrimmages. In the exhibition warm-up tilt versus the Colorado Avalanche, Staal had a goal and an assist and Fiala was generating tons of offense, but overall the Wild’s top line appeared a little out-of-sync, especially on the power play (which went a combined 1-for-8 against the Avs).
Joel Eriksson Ek is asked to pilot the second line of Zach Parise and Luke Kunin, and the trio had been playing well offensively prior to the pause, combining to score five goals in their last five games.
Where this line falters is in sustaining offensive pressure, as Parise, Eriksson Ek and Kunin all have CF%s in the mid-40s, meaning at 5-on-5, their opponents are possessing the puck and generating more offense than they are. But if Parise can keep generating offense at the same clip as he had been (with expected goals per 60 of 0.12, highest among forwards on the Wild), it’s a worthwhile trade off.
The Wild’s bottom six makes up for the shortcomings of the top two lines with strong defensive ability. Marcus Foligno is a prime example of a player who can maintain possession, can contribute on offense in streaks, but can be absolutely counted on defensively to take on tough deployments to prevent high-danger scoring chances. His linemates on the third line include Mats Zuccarello, who is fourth on the team in goals, and Alex Ganchenyuk, who hasn’t completely put it together since coming to the Wild at the deadline, but had his best game of the season with the Wild in the last game of the regular season, earning a goal and and assist against the Anaheim Ducks. The Wild’s fourth line has Mikko Koivu centering the Ryans (Donato and Hartman), and as JFresh mentioned in his series preview article, has the third-best Wins Above Replacement of all of the fourth lines of the play-in squads.
Vancouver has the defensive skill to shut down one line, maybe two. But if all four Wild lines get rolling, they’ll be hard to stop. Whether or not Minnesota can maintain that effort is yet to be seen.
Where Vancouver has the clear edge in net and Minnesota should be able to dominate on the blue line, offensively, these two teams are diametrically opposed, one with elite level skill but not much to speak of beyond that, while the other doesn’t have any all-star level talent but can keep coming at you with four lines that are all capable of contributing.
In a five-game series — and especially a series in which off-ice health concerns could cost you a player or two at a moment’s notice — you have to give the nod to the team with the superior depth. The problem is, historically speaking, the Wild have had a tough time taking non-Avalanche teams to the distance. But this is not your usual year, not your usual five-game series, and who knows what will happen in the bubble.
And the last time Vancouver and Minnesota faced off in the playoffs, it did go the distance, and the Wild prevailed with a deep lineup. Maybe history will repeat itself.