The Minnesota Wild are off to a decidedly lukewarm start with a record of 2-2-2. They’ve captured half of the available points in their first six games, so it’s not as if they are in a true slump to start the season like the Phoenix Coyotes (0-7-1) or the Montreal Canadiens (1-6-1). The only game they’ve lost by more than one goal was in the season opener against the Detroit Red Wings. On the other hand, the Wild have arguable had a chance to win every game they’ve played thus far, but have only two wins to their name and have let leads get away from them in three of the four losses. As a result, it feels like they are badly underperforming.
The obvious explanation for that is the spate of injuries that have hit the Wild hard. They started the season with Zach Parise, and they lost Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, and Marcus Foligno in the third game of the season against the Chicago Blackhawks. Mikael Granlund went down before that game with a groin injury. That’s a lot of top six talent to replace with roster shuffling and AHL call ups. Keeping the injuries in mind, perhaps Wild fans should be happy with batting .500 in standings points?
Of course not! Bruce Boudreau is clearly not happy about the results, the players don’t seem to like it, and Wild fans shouldn’t either. But what can be done about it is being done about it. Boudreau is preaching the importance of a full 60-minute effort and the team is hanging in with its opponents despite the talent gap they are facing with 20% of its starting roster off the ice (calculated after Foligno’s return).
Everyone wants the Wild to do better, but frankly, if they can hold on much as they are now, the team won’t be so far behind the eight ball that they are no longer playoff hopefuls before the calendar turns over for the new year. With that in mind, the key question becomes, how will the Wild perform when they get some of their injured players back from IR?
The best way to determine that would probably be to look at the past performances of Parise, Niederreiter, and the rest and compare it to how their current lineup replacements are performing now. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time this past weekend to get that deep into the analysis, so that will have to wait for next week (when hopefully Granlund will be back in the lineup, making my job that much easier).
Instead, let’s take a look at some of the advanced stats indicators six games into the current season and compare them to last year’s overall performance. The obvious statistics caveats all apply, namely that the current season is a tiny sample size, the Wild are implementing a new neutral zone system, and the injuries themselves make straight comparisons less reliable than they already are. Credit goes to www.naturalstattrick.com for providing all the numbers.
Possession stats like SF% and SCF% show a pretty clear difference between last year’s team and the current beleaguered one. No offense to the players that have been playing up in the line up and called up from the AHL, but the Wild are carrying a net loss in talent as compared to last year’s team. None of the teams they have faced have had anything close to the level of injuries plaguing the Wild, so the disparity in ability is resulting in the Wild giving up more shots and scoring chances than they are earning. Likely exacerbating the situation is that the entire team is trying to learn a new neutral zone system. If you’ve been able to watch the games, it’s clear that they haven’t gotten all the bugs there worked out just yet.
It’s not all bad news. Although the Wild are giving up more chances and shots, they are still doing a better than average job of limiting their opponents’ high danger chances and goals. The Wild are actually attempting more shots than their opponents in the high danger zone, and they are dead even in goals scored there. While they’ve taken a big step backwards compared to last year’s league leading numbers in those two stats, they are staying even with the other team at the very least.
Taking a look at PDO and it appears that the Wild should be able to continue treading water too. Neither an outlandish shooting percentage or save percentage is keeping the Wild’s current performance artificially high. Six games in and it looks like the Wild could probably keep up the current system of giving up more shots than they take, but keeping even with their opponents in terms of high danger scoring. It certainly isn’t the most encouraging conclusion for a team with high expectations or a winning strategy for an entire season, but it paints a relatively pretty picture given the current landscape.
What this all means is that the Wild do not have to rush any of their injured players back into the lineup. The team is not going to collapse in the absence of Granlund or Coyle, so there’s no need to risk re-injury by forcing them back onto the ice before they are completely healed up and good to go. Wild fans are too familiar with what happens when a player is
allowed sent back onto the ice before they are actually game ready. Middling performance and a second visit to the IR list. The team is better served by remaining patient and it appears that they can afford to do just that.
The current numbers also suggest that the Wild will be poised to jump off once they get their normal starters back from the IR. Again, meaning no offense to Luke Kunin, Zack Mitchell, or Landon Ferraro (who is, of course, also injured now), but the return of possession monster Niederreiter and scoring leader Granlund will see the Wild improve their overall performance significantly. Until then, the Wild are doing well enough in their absence, even if it doesn’t feel like it.
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