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  • Setting Up Lines For the Playoffs Will Require More Than a Tweak

    Joe Bouley

    The Minnesota Wild are at a crossroads. After nearly losing three straight to the St. Louis Blues last week, they must come to terms with the realization that what got them to the postseason is just not good enough to win once they get there. They’ve been good this year. Expectations before the season had them fourth in the West Division and perhaps challenging for the third spot. The rankings in the West, though, have always been clearly delineated. It was the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights in the top tier, then the Blues and the Wild down one rung, followed by every other team. 


    Minnesota’s performance this year hasn’t changed that. If we were conducting a performance appraisal of the Wild like it was a yearly review, they’d be firmly in the “Meets Expectations” category. Not bad. Worthy of a small increase -- in the form of raised expectations next year -- but not exactly deserving of a promotion to the next tier.


    To officially achieve that, the Wild must shock the NHL with an upset or two in the playoffs. Again, they have been good to get to this point. To get an upset, though, they’ll need an overhaul. For those following 10K Rinks the last few weeks, it’s pretty evident how frustrating the current state of the team, and thus the lack of any changes by the coaching staff, has been. 


    The Wild have the goaltending to compete in the postseason and a defense that goes six deep. This year, the Wild have two game-breaking talents in Kevin Fiala and Kirill Kaprizov, with and scoring depth in the form of Joel Eriksson Ek, Marcus Foligno, and even Nico Sturm. Team depth is strong, but it’s not infallible. There isn’t a center on the team past Eriksson Ek that could slide into another playoff team’s top six. Nick Bonino, Nick Bjugstads, Victor Rask, and Sturm top out as third- or fourth-line centers.


    With this conundrum down the middle, how should the Wild construct the nightly roster to optimize the scoring wingers while providing strength on defense against other top lines?


    It’s no secret that Joel Eriksson Ek deserves to be the No. 1 center on this team. Whether he is a true No. 1 center for the Wild in the future is another question, but his case to be exactly that on this current roster is open and shut. While he’s on the ice, the team controls 62% of the goals scored, has 59.38% expected goals for, and 52% of the shots for. No other center on the team comes close to that in all three categories. Bjugstad has done well in those categories but has been primarily used as a winger this season.


    After Eriksson Ek, it gets interesting. Wild head coach Dean Evason has placed Ryan Hartman or Rask in this spot. Depending on who’s writing the story, the second line is debatable. But by my criteria, whichever line has either of the team’s top-scoring wingers -- Kaprizov or Fiala -- is considered in the top two lines. By that logic, Hartman, who is playing out of position, is centering one of the top two lines. The other is manned by Rask, who has played better than most could have expected this season, but he's clearly not a play-driving force.


    If we put Hartman back on the wing where he belongs and begin to move Rask down the lineup card, this leaves Bjugstad, Bonino, and Sturm to work with. As much as Bjugstad has been utilized as a winger in the bottom six this season, perhaps he can be given a chance centering the second line. The former Blaine Bengal has scoring ability, size, and relatively good numbers this season.


    Bjugstad beats out Sturm for the second line only because Sturm is tailor-made for the third line. His speed, tenacity, and depth scoring cannot be overlooked. He can center a line all by himself, and the numbers rival Eriksson Ek’s on the team. Sturm can slot into the role the Wild think Eriksson Ek should play, and there’d be little drop off.


    For the fourth line center, Bonino and Rask can battle it out. Their defensive numbers are nearly identical. Rask and Bonino give up about the same amount of shots per hour, while expected goals for Rask (1.93) are right in line with Bonino’s (1.94). However, when all is said and done, Bonino does have an ability to create more offense than Rask — despite Rask having Kaprizov on his line much of the year. We’ll give Bonino the nod as a fourth-line center. 


    Minnesota has been reluctant to combine Kaprizov and Fiala on the same line in an exercise to find balanced scoring. We’ll do the same, even if loading up the top line is something they should consider in the future. Here, Kaprizov will fill in on the wing next to Eriksson Ek on the top line. The Wild rookie deserves to be in a spot where he doesn’t have to be the only play-driver on his line. He gets the nod over Fiala because Fiala’s xGF is higher than the Calder Trophy favorite's, which means Fiala doesn’t need JEE's play to still be effective.


    Opposite of Kaprizov will be Jordan Greenway, who has been stout defensively and is strong on the walls. He’s also shown that he’s got the hands to make some good passes and create scoring chances for his linemates. According to Natural Stat Trick, Greenway leads the team in primary assists with 13 while also leading the team in total assists at 5-on-5.


    We’re going to place Fiala next to Bjugstad. His dynamism will help open things up for Bjugstad to get some chances, and Bjugstad seems like a guy who won’t get in the way of Fiala needing the puck on his stick a lot. But Fiala needs another player on his line who can think the game like him, so Mats Zuccarello will play opposite him. Zuccarello found chemistry with another creative forward in Kaprizov; he could do the same with the Swiss game-breaker. He showed that much when he and Fiala conducted the game-winning goal in overtime against the Blues on Saturday.


    Sturm will play with Foligno and Hartman. Foligno has been an absolute monster analytically this year, controlling nearly 78% of the goals scored while he’s on the ice. He can match with Sturm’s abilities, and they can continue on as a shutdown line that plays in the offensive zone more than the defensive zone. Hartman fits on this line well by matching the physicality of Foligno, plus he offers some scoring touch.


    Lastly, Bonino will be flanked by Rask and Parise on the fourth line. Rask isn’t much of a puck carrier, and neither are the other two forwards. But they do play straight-line hockey and know how to execute the dump-and-chase strategy. On the plus side, Parise and Bonino can get some power-play minutes on the second unit and pitch in some offense there. The line might play nine to 11 minutes per night, but at their age, they can go all out for those nine minutes and play really good hockey. Think of it like a starting pitcher in baseball who transforms into a relief pitcher. Knowing that the pitcher is in for just a handful of outs per game, they can bring everything in their arsenal rather than pacing themselves as a starter to get through seven innings.


    With a spot reserved for Matt Boldy on the first line, bumping Greenway, Zuccarello, and Hartman down a line, Rask or Marcus Johansson could wind up in the press box more often than not. 


    The most optimal forward lines, then, are:

    Greenway (Boldy) - Eriksson Ek - Kaprizov

    Zuccarello (Greenway) - Bjugstad - Fiala

    Hartman (Zuccarello) - Sturm - Foligno

    Rask (Hartman) - Bonino - Parise

    Evason should be looking to ice the best line-up every night. It'll require more than a minor tweak -- more than just swapping Hartman and Rask. If he can maximize the skills of every player in the lineup that night, only then could the Wild shock a team or two in the playoffs.


    Stats provided by Evoloving-Hockey.com, unless otherwise noted.

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