Last week, we broke down the Minnesota Wild’s struggling penalty kill, which was last in the league then and remains in the basement today. The eye test was pitiful, and the numbers backed it up too. While the Wild certainly won’t stay at 65% for the year, they still have a lot of work to do to fix that unit.
This week, we turn our attention to the power play. While the other side of the special teams isn’t last in the league, converting on 14.9% of your chances is still not good enough for a unit that includes Kirill Kaprizov. Are the concerns similar to that of the penalty kill? Is it less about fixing one thing or the entire unit? Well, when you dig into the numbers and film, the situation isn’t nearly as dire as the penalty kill.
The Wild’s power play is already showing signs of great improvement, even if the box score has yet to completely reflect that.
Through the first seven games of the season, the Wild were 26th in the NHL at expected goals per 60 minutes (xG/60) when on the man advantage. They simply didn’t generate a whole lot of chances. Those underlying numbers were also mirrored in the box score when they started the season 3-for-24 (12.5%).
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Remember the third game of the season when the Wild skirted by the Montreal Canadiens behind their eight power play opportunities? They scored on three of those. So, if you take out the anomaly that was the game in Montreal, the Wild started 0-for-16. You don’t need us to highlight in parentheses what that conversion rate is.
The Wild's power play was supposed to be better than this. Minnesota's special teams, particularly the penalty kill, were the key reason they lost in the first round each of the past two seasons. The onus was privately and publicly on the coaching staff to prioritize each this offseason. Dean Evason brought in John King as his new assistant. King was known for creating positive power play results with the Vancouver Canucks. Yet, here they were in late October, floundering in the standings with both the penalty kill and power play torpedoing the beginning of the season.
While the penalty kill continues to be a problem across the board, the same can’t be said for the power play. The results are slowly improving, and the underlying numbers are even more encouraging. Since their October 27 game in Washington, the Wild are 3-for-21 (14%) on the man advantage. That’s still below league average, but it’s certainly better than their hapless 0-for-16 start.
However, they are generating almost double the number of chances. Over that recent stretch, the Wild are fifth in the NHL with a 12.31 xG/60 rate on the power play. Even after their slow start, the recent run has catapulted the Wild to eighth in xG/60 in that same category. They certainly need to start converting these chances to goals in a hurry before the season slips away. But you can’t fault the coaching staff or players on the ice for not generating offense.
Still, there has to be room for improvement, right? Because it can’t be just as simple as shooting more effectively. That’s just lazy analysis, similar to that of claiming if the goaltending just improved, the penalty kill would become an elite unit. Give the Wild's staff credit. They’ve made a few tweaks in the past couple of weeks. Most notable of those changes was switching to an all-forward power-play unit and sending former top-unit power-play quarterback Calen Addison to the San Jose Sharks.
But one change they have experimented with needs to become permanent. It’s time to let Marco Rossi roam the bumper position on the power play.
We’ve been asking for this for some time now, but the Wild are among the few talented power plays lacking a middle-of-the-slot presence. Joel Eriksson Ek handles the front-of-the-net screening duties. Still, they needed someone to play in the high slot between Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello to provide another outlet. More importantly, they need someone to take some attention away from Kaprizov, effectively giving him more space and time.
Recently, the coaching staff placed Rossi on the top unit, but only in small samples. With Matt Boldy healthy, they seem content with leaving Rossi off that group of five. But they shouldn’t. He provides an extra layer on the power play, which opposing teams just can’t ignore.
Having Rossi in the middle of the powerplay set up adds another layer to their attack. They can use him as an outlet to release pressure from his teammates, as a shooting threat in the middle of the ice opposing teams must account for, or as a decoy for those Zuccarello-to-Kaprizov cross-ice passes.
The first three clips here are all from the same power play. They do a fantastic job showing the threat Rossi poses and the attention he gains from it. First, Rossi has his stick in the right position for Kaprizov to target for a tip. While he doesn’t score, it forces all four New York Islanders penalty killers to turn back toward their goalie and scramble to either gain control of the puck or get back into position.
Twenty seconds later, the puck works its way to the other side of the ice to Zuccarello. Now on his strong side, Rossi can pop himself into the middle zone of the penalty kill structure. He receives a pass from Zuccarello and nearly finds Kaprizov back door as all four defenders immediately close in on Rossi in the high-danger area.
Given their short time together on the power play, it’s understandable that Kaprizov seemed shocked by Rossi's pass or that Rossi thought his teammate would be higher on his wing. Nonetheless, give these two more time together, and they could execute such a move more frequently. It's probably in the coaching staff's best interest to scheme up wide-open back-door chances for their star winger.
But even though that chance didn’t lead to a goal, watch here, just 10 seconds later, as the Wild move the puck around the top of the zone and over to Zuccarello again in an identical fashion. This time, the defenders are more aware of the Wild attempting to get the puck inside to Rossi, drawing in closer to the rookie center and leaving Kaprizov alone on the other side for his third power-play goal of the season.
A couple of things to focus on here. Watch both clips again and pay close attention to the Islanders' killers in each scenario. Notice how much space Rossi has the first time. And then watch in the second clip how aware the Islanders’ defenders are of Rossi now that he has presented himself as a threat. They close in so fast it leaves a seam open for Zuccarello to find his buddy for the goal.
Now watch the two clips again, instead this time focusing on Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov. On Kaprizov’s goal, Varlamov is so aware of the threat Rossi presents that he stops for just a beat as the puck leaves Zuccarello’s stick and over to Kaprizov. Ten seconds earlier, he saw Rossi with the puck on his stick in the most dangerous spot on the ice. He must honor Rossi on the pass over, and that slight delay gives Kaprizov the small window he needs to bank his shot off Varlamov’s arm and into the net. You want to improve your shooting percentage? Having the goalie second-guessing where the puck is going helps.
And yet, in the next game against the New York Rangers, Rossi found himself off the top powerplay unit. I’d rather see Rossi there than Boldy, but both can run the middle bumper position on the powerplay. The Wild just need to utilize that position of the ice more frequently to open up their more lethal options.
In the words of the always poetic P. Diddy, the Wild need a little more “Bump, Bump, Bump,” on their power play.