How can you not be romantic about hockey?
The NHL script sure is good. In a game where Alex Goligoski was honored for playing 1,000 games in the NHL, he nets the overtime winner to deliver the Minnesota Wild a much-needed victory. What an incredible play for a guy who found himself a healthy scratch for 12 of the past 13 games. He shouldn’t even have been in the game if the Wild had rolled out a traditional lineup. They dressed seven defensemen. Who was the seventh defenseman?
You honestly cannot write it any better than that.
Like, look at this…
As fun as this is, we’re not here to talk about Goose. We are here to talk about the man who dished up the deciding goal.
Minnesota’s No. 1 center. Sam Steel.
Steel centered Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello in practice on Friday, becoming the latest Wild journeyman to get a shot between 36 and 97. Steel replaced Freddy Gaudreau on the top line, and fans were eager to see how it played out with every new line change on a struggling team.
The Wild came into the game against the Hurricanes with a three-game losing streak and needed a big win at home in primetime. A bit of banter must have gotten the fellas fired up for the game against the Carolina Hurricanes. Whether it was Goose’s ceremony, Saturday night energy, or the return of Brent Burns, the needle seemed to be turning for the Wild at the Xcel Energy center.
Steel was cash money on that top line for the Wild.
He was all over the ice for the Wild. Steel won 60% of his draws in the Carolina game, second on the team behind Joel Eriksson Ek. He was fourth on the team in expected goals and delivered the only one in regulation. Steel drove play like a madman between Zuccarello and Kaprizov. He led the Wild with a 66.6% Corsi and led the team in Corsi % relative to his teammates. Steel also has the most scoring chances on the team and led in scoring chances share against Carolina.
Steel saw a huge difference in his time on ice. He has averaged around 11 minutes a night, mostly logging Bottom-6 duties. But Evason played Steel for almost 14 minutes against the Hurricanes, and Steel made his extra time worth it.
Steel decided the game was not going to end in regulation, sending this shot over the shoulder of Hurricanes goalie Pyotr Kochetkov.
Then Steel found himself on the scoresheet again, firing this saucer at the man of the night, and he stuffed the back of the net with the puck like a Thanksgiving turkey.
Can Steel keep this type of play up?
The history of his play in the NHL suggests that Steel cannot keep this up. His career high in goals is six. Steel has a combined 21 goals since he became a full-time NHLer in 2019-20. He scored 18 of those goals in 175 games. Those are not great numbers by any stretch of the imagination. He was young, breaking into the NHL at just 20 years old, and adjusting to the NHL’s learning curve.
The Anaheim Ducks drafted Steel 30th overall, and he put up an absolutely insane 133 points in the WHL for the Regina Pats the year after the Ducks made him a first-rounder. The numbers show that this kid can score. Steel did good work in the AHL, for Team Canada’s junior team, and his junior team. His numbers speak for themselves.
However, Steel’s game has not translated to the NHL so far. A player with the scoring prowess he had was expected to deliver a little more. After not seeing enough from him, the Ducks did not give the restricted free agent a qualifying offer after his deal expired this past year. The Wild scooped him up to provide competition in the Bottom-6 and push for a roster spot. He made the team with a solid showing in the preseason, but not much was expected out of him offensively. Minnesota penciled him into a depth role.
He has been exactly as advertised for the Wild so far this year. Solid defensively, enough to not be a liability, with a pinch of offense. The lack of scoring for the Wild led to a lineup shakeup that landed Steel on the top line.
This is similar to what happened last year when the Wild put Hartman on the top line because the other options had not worked. Obviously, we know they went on to light it up, and the rest is history, but Steel is a similar story.
Former first-round pick? Check. Did not live up to the hype offensively? Check. Delegated to a bottom-six role? Check. Solid two-way game? Check. Bounced to a new team looking for a fresh start? Check. Playing between Kaprizov and Zuccarello? Check.
Steel played the best game in a Wild sweater, and his underlying numbers this year have not been bad. He’s doing exactly what Dean Evason has wanted him to do, and he stepped up when Dean asked him to fill in as the 1C.
Steel will likely center the top line again in Wednesday’s clash with the Winnipeg Jets.
The pieces are here; the storyline is juicy. Can Sam Steel be the player to finally provide some sense of stability to the Wild top line since the injury to Ryan Hartman? Can he prove his doubters wrong and be the player the Ducks wanted him to be?
Time to find out.
All stats via Hockey Reference and Natural Stat Trick.