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  • The Wild Can't Rely On Jordie Benn To Replace Jared Spurgeon

    Tony Abbott

    The Minnesota Wild finally got their blue line back to full strength Thursday night. For nearly a month, the defense was in flux because of bumps, bruises, and illnesses to Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba, and Jonas Brodin. Minnesota was fortunate enough to weather the storm, but cracks started to show in a two-game losing streak. The Wild hoped the returned health would spark a team looking to get those eight-game winning streak vibes back.


    Those dreams died 42 minutes into the game when Spurgeon left the ice for the last time. Asked after the game whether Spurgeon reaggravated the injury that kept him out eight games, coach Dean Evason responded, "It's not good."


    How will the Wild handle the prospect of losing one of their three most essential defensemen again? The last time Spurgeon went down, Minnesota turned to a prospect. Calen Addison, the super-poised rookie blueliner, got a call-up. They never used him, though. At least not at defense. Addison drew into only one game as an emergency forward. Without lineup time, Minnesota recalled Kevin Czuczman and sent Addison back to the Iowa Wild to get big minutes.


    Why didn't they use Addison? The same reason Addison started in Iowa in the first place: Jordie Benn. Minnesota signed Benn to bring veteran stability to the bottom of Minnesota's blue line, but a disappointing training camp limited him to only one game until Spurgeon's injury. Because of this long stretch where Benn was dormant, Evason gave Benn the first crack at the lineup. The Wild proceeded to earn points in their next nine games, so he stayed in.


    During this time, Minnesota out-scored opponents 9-5 with Benn on the ice at 5-on-5. He earned the Evason's praise, who said before scratching him Thursday, "He's played extremely well. Did everything, obviously, on the ice but more importantly did all the right things off the ice." You can see that trust grow by looking at Benn's ice time. Since Nov. 20, he averaged just 13:22 a night in his first seven games. In his most recent four, that's up to 16:25.


    Another big piece of evidence of this trust is that the Wild recalled Czuczman, and not Addison, as Spurgeon's replacement. It's a pretty big deal to lose someone as important as Spurgeon and say, Hold off on that top prospect. We got this.


    But do they? Yes, it's true they not only survived but thrived the last time Spurgeon was out. Nabbing 15 of a possible 16 points is a pretty convincing argument. But a look under the hood spells out reasons for concern that the winning streak papered over.


    From Nov. 21 to Dec. 14 — Benn's recent stint in the lineup — Minnesota's defense fell dramatically. The Wild allowed just 1.98 expected goals per hour at 5-on-5 prior to Spurgeon's injury, second-best to only the Boston Bruins. During Benn's time in the lineup, they're allowing 2.68 expected goals per hour. That's 24th in the NHL and almost three-quarters of a goal more per hour than before.


    Isolating and analyzing those games with Benn in the lineup can make it seem like he's at fault for Minnesota's decline. That's not entirely true or fair. Spurgeon's a great defenseman, especially in the defensive zone. Dropping off from him to any bottom-pairing defenseman is going to hurt. And, looking at Benn's defensive stats, it's easy to see why the coach is gravitating to him as his defense plummets.


    Benn surrendered just 2.21 expected goals per hour during his time in the lineup, which is tied with Jonas Brodin as the best on the Wild in that stretch. So if Benn is playing solid defensively, then what's the problem putting him in the lineup over Addison?


    The first one is that while Benn is taking care of things in his own end, that's about all he's doing. He was by far the worst at generating offensive opportunities for his teammates, with just 2.00 expected goals per hour at 5-on-5. Benn gives Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen a breather when he's on the ice, but the Wild are still not getting the better of the play.


    The second, more glaring issue is that Benn can only play about 16 minutes a night in a third-pairing role. That means someone else has to move up in the lineup to fill the Spurgeon void. That someone is Jon Merrill, who is bearing the brunt of Spurgeon's absence and getting exposed against more challenging assignments.


    Merrill has rightfully earned praise for being part of a stellar third-pairing with Dmitry Kulikov. In that role, where Brodin, Spurgeon, and Dumba take on the toughest assignments, Merrill succeeded. He controlled 55.3% of the expected goals share at 5-on-5. During the games where Benn's played, he's getting buried on a near-nightly basis, controlling just 42.9% of expected goals. He's allowing a whopping 3.26 expected goals at 5-on-5, which is the 15th-worst in defenseman in the league during that stretch. By extension, this hurts Alex Goligoski, Spurgeon's regular defensive partner, who is struggling to drive play alongside Merrill.


    Can a rookie like Addison fully replace Spurgeon's all-around game? Almost certainly not. But Addison plays a Spurgeon-esque brand of hockey, one that emphasizes puck-carrying and skating. Benn and Merrill do not, and Goligoski seems to rely on that kind of game. Not having Spurgeon hurts and will hurt no matter who can replace him. But not having someone who plays Spurgeon's game to replace him sets off a chain reaction that leads to more stress on Talbot and Kahkonen.


    Benn has certainly earned the right to play much more regularly than once every 15-20 games, as he was on track to do before Spurgeon got hurt. But Benn's time in the lineup needs to be strictly on a rotation or in competition with Merrill. Their games are too similar and too ripe for exposure to have both in the lineup, especially with one in a top-4 spot. On the other hand, Addison is much more similar to Spurgeon in playstyle. If Minnesota wants to keep afloat without Spurgeon, Addison has the skill set they'll need to hitch their wagons to.

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