Momentum is now building towards the NHL holding the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The league has insisted the season would come to a proper end since coronavirus shut the league down, but that was never a certainty. Even now, a return is a delicate logistical puzzle that could easily be derailed by further outbreaks.
But the league and players association are hashing it out in serious negotiations. The NHLPA agreed to a 24-team playoff format late last week. The Minnesota Wild now has a playoff opponent: the Vancouver Canucks. If they finalize the details surrounding testing and safety procedures, we'll finally have hockey to look forward to.
With an official end to the 2019-20 season looking inevitable, let’s stop looking ahead for a bit. We’re not going to talk about the draft or pending free agents or when that pesky Kirill Kaprizov situation will be resolved. We’re going to talk about upcoming games! About strategy!
Friends, let’s talk about lines.
Constructing and matching forward lines is the most chess-like aspect of hockey. Coaches mix and match players together based on how their skill sets complement each other. They can deploy lines strategically to neutralize your opponents’ best lines and exploit their worst. And the ability for home teams to have “last change” -- meaning they get to see what line the road team puts out prior to every face-off, then select their line based off that -- is a huge strategic advantage.
These match-ups matter in a playoff series. Look at the Wild’s series against Colorado in 2014. Paul Stastny and Nathan MacKinnon destroyed Minnesota, combining for 19 points in four home games. But in the Xcel Energy Center, Minnesota was able to hard-match their speediest line to neutralize Stastny and MacKinnon. They combined for just one point in those three games.
A few teams manage to keep their lines fairly stable throughout the year. Even more have a go-to line that sticks together as much as humanly possible. But there are plenty of reasons for lines to shift during the season — injuries, slumps, promotions, trades etc. It can be hard to find good lines and keep lines together.
The State of Hockey knows that struggle well. Minnesota was a team that didn’t have much stability in their lines. No group of three forwards played over 300 5-on-5 minutes together this year. Only two lines racked up even 200 minutes.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t get a good idea of how the team deployed their players. Here are Minnesota’s most-frequently used lines at 5-on-5 this season, with no repeats.
And here’s how interim coach Dean Evason set Minnesota’s lines in the last practice before the shutdown:
But are these lines optimal for the playoffs? In a five-game series, it’s crucial to find every tiny advantage you can to prevail. In that spirit, let’s see how the Wild’s lines have fared this season and put together the best possible playoff lineup.
Top Line: Parise - Staal - Fiala
No frills here. Take your best veteran center and surround him with your two best offensive wingers. Parise and Fiala have been fantastic since November, combining for 45 goals and 96 points in 56 games. Staal looked like he lost a step at times, but was still on pace to best last year’s 22-goal, 52-point season.
The trio played 90 minutes together at 5-on-5, and their underlying numbers were good but not great. They were outscored 7-8 (some bad goaltending being the culprit) and took only 53.6 percent of the expected goal share. But there’s some room for optimism that this can be Minnesota’s top line.
The first is how dominant Fiala was down the stretch. The second lies with Staal. He struggled at the beginning of the year, and then again at the end. It seemed that nagging injuries and/or the wear-and-tear of the season affected the 35-year-old. Four months of rest could mean we see a rejuvenated Staal once the playoffs roll around.
It must also be said that Parise and Fiala shined a little brighter with Ryan Donato than with Staal. In 47 minutes together, they outscored opponents 4-3 while enjoying a whopping 71 percent expected goal share. But Staal is a workhorse who has proven that he can produce against the best defenses in the league. We’ll defer to Staal for now, but don’t worry, we have plans for Donato later.
Second Line: Foligno - Eriksson Ek - Greenway
This line is absolutely built to shut down opponents. They’re Minnesota’s three best defensive forwards. And they become even greater than the sum of their parts when their forces combine.
They line showed absolutely zero mercy to opposing offenses through their 146 minutes together. They gave up just one goal while scoring six of their own. That wasn’t a fluke, either. They gave up just 0.91 expected goals per hour. That’s tied for the lowest rate of expected goals surrendered by any line with 100 or more minutes in recorded history (since 2007-08). They were that dominant.
But that’s a shutdown line, which is traditionally relegated to the third line. Why use them as a second line?
First of all, their offensive chops weren’t bad this season. The line scored 2.4 goals per hour (on 2.6 expected) at 5-on-5. That’s not a lot, but when you’re giving up virtually nothing on the defensive end, that’s a massive advantage. It’s not a high-flying offense, but it gets the job done. Particularly when they’re giving up virtually nothing in their own end.
And secondly, they’ll want to throw them out against Vancouver’s top line as often as possible. Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, and J.T. Miller were one of the league’s very best units this year. Minnesota needs a plan to stop them, and this Eriksson Ek line is their best chance of neutralizing them.
During the Wild’s “home” games (the playoffs will be held at neutral sites), Minnesota needs to match Eriksson Ek versus Pettersson and company. And the more the Eriksson Ek line plays on the road, the tougher it will be to hide Pettersson from Minnesota’s defensive aces.
Third Line: Alex Galchenyuk - Kunin - Zuccarello
Finding a spot for Galchenyuk was challenging, as he was only on two lines that played 30 minutes together. Fortunately, the line that performed the best also didn’t use any of the players on our top two lines.
This line played to a 1-1 tie over 45 minutes, but they did enjoy a 59 percent expected goal share. And on paper, pairing a playmaker like Zuccarello with two shooters in Galchenyuk and Kunin doesn’t seem like a bad idea.
The major concern here is defense. They did well in this small sample, but Kunin has been one of the worst defenders on the team this season and Galchenyuk has been one of the worst in the NHL for some time now. If there’s an opportunity for the Pettersson line to exploit, it might be right here.
Fourth Line: Donato - Koivu - Hartman
This is a line of players that had trouble finding their spots this season. Koivu got demoted from the second to fourth line. Donato had plenty of trips to the press box this season. Hartman was perpetually stuck on the fourth line.
Once they found each other, they formed quite the unit. Yes, they only held an 8-7 advantage on the scoresheet through 114 minutes. But the goaltending let them down to an incredible degree. This line surrendered 3.6 goals per hour despite giving up almost half that in expected goals (1.9). And still, they outscored their opponents. Imagine what this line could do with even average goaltending.
It’s no surprise that a line with Koivu and Hartman could succeed defensively. It is surprising that they could generate as much offense as they did. They generated 3.15 expected goals per hour, more than the previous three lines, in fact.
Donato was an offensive catalyst for the line. He ranked in the top-ten in the NHL with 1.39 goals per hour at 5-on-5. His presence gave Minnesota a scoring threat rarely seen on a fourth line.
But that’s not to discredit Koivu and Hartman in any way. Koivu may not be suited to 18 minutes a night anymore, but he is still a fine distributor. Hartman was strong at carrying the puck into the zone. Together they played a heavy game in the offensive zone where they could get to the net and score.
Having a fourth line that can score and defend will go a long way towards increasing their odds of advancing. In fact, Evason may want to consider using them as a third line when Vancouver gets last change. The fact that this line is largely match-up proof could be especially valuable in the “road” games.
Minnesota isn’t going to be able to match the star power Vancouver boasts, even after Fiala’s breakout. But what they are able to do is ice four lines that can drive play. That’s something that Vancouver can’t do beyond their top two lines.
There also aren’t many weaknesses for the Pettersson line to exploit. With some smart coaching by Evason, Minnesota can either throw out a shutdown line against Pettersson or force them to defend Fiala, even on the road. Pettersson and his line may still get theirs, but if Minnesota can limit the damage a bit, the Wild will be in good shape.
All data is taken from Evolving Hockey unless otherwise noted.