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  • The Wild Can't Be Fooled by Victor Rask's Hot Streak

    Tony Abbott

    Whenever Victor Rask seems on his way out of the Minnesota Wild lineup, he finds his way back in. Since arriving via a 2019 trade that sent fan-favorite Nino Niederreiter to the Carolina Hurricanes, Rask's play made him a buyout candidate. After all, did the front office really want to spend $4 million on a frequent healthy scratch who posted 16 points in 66 games with Minnesota?


    The answer was, “Yes.” Guerin has publicly expressed belief in Rask, stating his depressed numbers came from unfair treatment.


    So with a mandate to give him a shot, Rask scored a goal on opening night. The following eight games didn’t suggest he’d turned a corner, though, as he didn't register a point. Rask’s ice time started slipping, frequently dipping well below 10 minutes per night in that stretch.


    Rask was a logical candidate for a healthy scratch at the end of January. For once, though, he got a break, as injuries and suspensions gave him an opportunity alongside super rookie Kirill Kaprizov. Rask buried two goals in a 4-3 win against the Colorado Avalanche on Jan. 31.


    A coronavirus outbreak delayed Rask’s first game with Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello to Feb. 20, where they showed instant chemistry. Rask picked up six points over their first five games as a trio, becoming a staple in Dean Evason’s lineup. That line held together for the next 30 games, even as Rask posted just eight points (three at even strength). His spot was endangered once in early April, but a timely three-point night saw him back on the Kaprizov line.


    Evason’s breaking point with Rask alongside Kaprizov finally came after the second period of game on April 29. After weeks of watching Rask struggle with catching passes from his linemates, Evason finally moved him down a line. With Nick Bjugstad ready to return from injury and Matt Boldy heating up in Iowa, he was again in danger.


    Once more, he pulled himself back from the brink, restoring Evason’s confidence with a goal and an assist in the third. Evason kept him with Kevin Fiala, where Rask enjoyed another hot streak with six points in six games. This includes last Sunday’s game, where Anaheim scored after failing to bury an empty-net chance, only to score the overtime winner.


    The previously hard-luck Rask now has a knack for pulling a rabbit out of his hat when he — and the Wild — need it most. Evason expressed belief in him after Sunday’s game. “We do feel very good about his game, period," he said. "We made a commitment as an organization… [Rask] needs to get an opportunity to play. He was given the opportunity, but more importantly, he’s taken it and run with it.”


    This pattern may extend to this summer when most assumed Rask would be a buyout or trade candidate. Is that something that will change if, say, he scores a big playoff goal? Or have Bill Guerin and Evason already decided to commit to Rask for next season?


    If Rask’s recent play, or overall body of work, inspires Minnesota to retain him, it’ll be a mistake.


    Credit to Rask is due: He’s shown that he’s an NHL-caliber player between last year and this. He fought his way into a regular lineup spot on a deep team. It’s a good story seeing him go from Example A of Paul Fenton’s insanity to scoring overtime-winning goals.


    But is the Rask we see this year the real Rask?


    The short answer: no.


    Every underlying number relating to his production is a red flag. Let’s start with his shooting percentage, which currently clocks in at 18.9%. That’s almost double the league average (9.7%) and his own career average entering the year (9.5%). Players can indeed improve their shooting percentage by improving their shot selection, but Rask hasn’t done that.


    There are 267 forwards in the NHL with 500-plus minutes at 5-on-5. Rask is 266th among them with 3.78 shots per hour. Those shots aren’t dangerous, either, as he ranks 266th in individual expected goals per hour (0.30). This is despite playing over 80% of his minutes with either Kaprizov, Zuccarello, or Fiala on his line. Even with all that help, Rask averages just one shot per game.


    Looking at Corey Sznajder’s microstat tracking data, it’s hard to see what Rask does to benefit his linemates. He’s below-average in transition, both in attempted entries and carrying the puck. He’s ninth on the team in making high-danger passes per hour, lagging far behind the likes of Zuccarello, Fiala, and Kaprizov. He’s only slightly above-average in assisting on scoring chances, which, again, look at who he plays with.


    Looking at the overall picture, Rask is a player who hindered his wingers more than helped. Kaprizov, Fiala, and Zuccarello all see their expected goal generation drop when skating with Rask. Yet somehow this doesn’t affect their scoring negatively. All three of them somehow see a rise in their on-ice shooting percentage when Rask skates alongside them.


    These trends not only continue but are cranked up on the power play. Rask also never shoots the puck with the man advantage, ranking 176th among the 184 forwards with 75-plus power-play minutes in shots per hour. Despite this, and the reluctance the rest of his unit have shown at letting him touch the puck, Rask’s power play has been unbelievably successful.


    The Wild average 9.2 goals per hour with Rask on the power play. That’s 50th among that 184-forward sample and the best on the team. This is despite them generating 5.6 expected goals per hour with Rask on the ice (155th in the NHL, last on Minnesota).


    How are they pulling this off? Shooting percentage magic, as the Wild are shooting 19.25% with Rask on the power play.


    Rask hasn’t just had incredible luck this year — he’s had historically good luck. The Wild have shot 14.1% as a team with Rask on the ice in all situations. Of the 6,361 seasons where a player has 750-plus minutes, that ranks 17th. For elite playmakers, that might be somewhat repeatable — folks like Connor McDavid, Steven Stamkos, and Alex Ovechkin appear near the top of that list multiple times. It isn’t repeatable for Rask, whose team shot 8.5% with him on the ice in his career before this year.


    And what has he done with this combination of opportunities, linemates, and luck? Ten goals and 23 points over 53 games — a 16-goal, 36-point pace over 82 games. At 5-on-5, he sits at a measly 1.32 points per hour, 191st among 267 forwards with 500-plus minutes.


    Basically, all that amounts to replacement-level production for a guy who gets a top assignment. That may be a harsh analysis, but look at Kyle Brodziak in the early 2010s. No one would call Brodziak a top-six option, but he produced better numbers than Rask when pressed into the role. Ryan Hartman, a fourth-line winger last year, puts up comparable numbers at center despite fewer opportunities and worse luck.


    Simply put, Rask’s modest successes are tied to a combination of brilliant linemates and luck more than they are to anything he is doing. When a player’s game remains the same, but the shooting percentages shoot up, that’s a major red flag for regression next year.


    Kaprizov and Fiala both managed to score this year despite a less-than-ideal situation at center. They can’t be counted on to repeat that next season. Minnesota must get them centers who can accentuate their strengths, rather than relying on their stars to succeed despite their centers. Rask worked as a floatation device, but Minnesota needs a proper boat for Kaprizov and Fiala.


    Minnesota can’t get fooled by a couple of hot streaks scattered across a shortened season. They can’t change their plans based on a player’s absurd luck. They gave Rask his shot and he had some success, but now it’s time to move on. Whether that comes via a trade or buyout, it doesn’t matter. Minnesota’s resources need to be spent elsewhere.


    All data is from Evolving Hockey unless stated otherwise.

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