The Minnesota Wild have been without captain Jared Spurgeon through the first four games of the season. In those games, the Wild have allowed zero, seven, two, and seven goals. Shutting out the Florida Panthers took a herculean effort from Filip Gustavsson. Only allowing two goals against the Montreal Canadiens was good — but the Habs aren’t very good.
The problem is that the Wild have given up seven goals to the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Los Angeles Kings. It’s not in the goaltending, although Marc-Andre Fleury wasn’t at his best in either game. The problem is that Toronto and LA’s top-tier talent has exposed Minnesota’s defense.
Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Kevin Fiala, and Pierre-Luc Dubois lit up the scoresheet against the Wild. Matthews had a hat trick, and PLD scored a pair of goals. These high-end centers carved up Minnesota’s porous defense.
Without Spurgeon, the Wild only have two capable defenders who can match up with the opposing team's best lines. Jonas Brodin is one of the best defenders in the NHL, and teams around the league know of his prowess. Just ask Connor McDavid about Brodin. It turns out that Brock Faber is the other. The former Gopher has more than held his own under the immense pressure of being the Wild’s second-best defender.
But covering for other defenders has stretched Faber and Brodin thin. Jon Merrill, Alex Goligoski, Jake Middleton, and Dakota Mermis are amongst the statistically worst players on this team. Not just among defensemen but the entire team.
Opponents have exposed these four defensemen – especially Merrill, Middleton, and Goligoski. I’m not surprised by this; they aren’t elite defensive players. But the Wild had a system that minimized their weaknesses. They also were good at sheltering their less defensively-inclined defenseman, giving them tremendous defenders to play with like Spurgeon and Brodin.
However, this season’s power-play quarterback has broken the mold of stereotype so far this season. Calen Addison has been one of Minnesota’s better defenders this season. Addison sits just behind Brodin and above Faber in goals against per 60, but pairing Addison with Boldy bolsters that stat. Still, Addison has not been the liability the Wild saw him as at the tail-end of last season. Addison has recorded a pair of points while driving play as the point man on the man advantage.
That has all contributed to the Wild giving up the second-most goals per 60 in the league (3.91). They’ve also given up the 11th-most shots and had the tenth-worst shot differential. The Wild are bottom-six in goal differential so far this season. That’s a stark contrast from the tight defensive unit that Wild fans are accustomed to seeing, but that’s what this group looks like without Spurgeon.
Spurgeon makes Middleton a capable player. Without Spurgeon, we’ve seen what has become of Middleton. Spurgeon was the one driving the success of the pair last year. The captain allowed this pair to be a top-ten unit in terms of goals against per 60 last season. With Spurgeon sidelined this season, Middleton is bottom five on the team in GF% (goals for %),
Minnesota’s defensive corps needs Spurgeon to return. Last season, Spurgeon led Wild defensemen in goals for percentage (62.28) and goals against per 60 (1.64). He was also second in shots against per 60 behind Brodin with 28.48. Led the team in Goals +-/60 (1.07) and was the best amongst defensemen in Shots +-/60 (1.72). Minnesota’s goalies had a 94.24% save percentage when Spurgeon was on the ice, which was best among defensemen. All these stats highlight how important Spurgeon is to the Wild.
When Spurgeon returns, the Wild can pair him with Middleton again to elevate the latter’s game. That will give Minnesota another reliable pair. The Brodin-Faber pairing has stifled opposing forwards, and Dean Evason seemed to like it until Goligoski went down.
That’s a reliable top-four that worked well for the Wild last season. Faber is better defensively than Matt Dumba was, so Minnesota could have an improved top-four from last year. Mermis may stay up with the team as an extra defenseman. However, he probably won’t draw in because Merrill and Addison will return to being a sheltered bottom pair.
With Spurgeon hurt, the Wild defense must hope their offense can endure this challenging time. When Spurgeon returns, he will revitalize the defense. Then the blame will fall on goaltending if opponents continue to score on Minnesota. This team must hold it together until their captain gets back to right the ship defensively.
All stats and data via Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, MoneyPuck.com, and HockeyDB.
Think you could write a story like this? Hockey Wilderness wants you to develop your voice, find an audience, and we'll pay you to do it. Just fill out this form.