Unfortunately, the Minnesota Wild have had to contemplate who is the most irreplaceable player on their squad in recent memory. They asked whether they could survive losing Kirill Kaprizov after he got hurt last March (they did, thanks to Matt Boldy knocking his game up another notch). They asked it entering the postseason when Joel Eriksson Ek broke his leg (hahaha, no). And they asked it at the start of the season when Jared Spurgeon missed the beginning of the season (it sent the team into a spiral that resulted in their coach getting fired).
Three times in nine months feels like too many times to have to think about such matters, but the Wild are forced to do so again. Yet another franchise cornerstone is out, with Jonas Brodin week-to-week with an upper-body injury.
There will never be a good time to lose a top-pairing defenseman, but this sure wasn't it. Despite a 5-2-0 record since John Hynes took over as coach, the Wild are still four points out of the second Wild Card spot, with three teams to jump before they catch up to the Arizona Coyotes. There's no world where the team would choose not to have Brodin eating 24 minutes a night as they try to make a playoff push.
Maybe it's the euphoria of a 3-0 shutout win against the Seattle Kraken, who was on the second night of a back-to-back, but it feels like Minnesota has a chance to survive even without Brodin.
It might sound silly to say, given that losing a top-pair defenseman in Spurgeon sent their Jenga tower crumbling. But losing Spurgeon gave the Wild an obstacle to overcome that losing Brodin doesn't.
Minnesota's problem was that they were a one-pairing team without Spurgeon. They could put Brodin and Brock Faber on the ice for 25 minutes, even more per game. No matter how much they played, though, the team would have to run out two pairs that they didn't have a lot of trust in.
That isn't happening with Brodin gone (barring more injuries, then all bets are off). Spurgeon and Faber play the right side of the ice, meaning Hynes will not put them together under almost any circumstance. The Wild playing those two apart means they can maximize the time they have an elite defenseman on the ice.
Just look at how they played on Sunday night. Spurgeon logged 27 minutes and 20 seconds, while Faber put in 24 minutes and 12 seconds of work on his own. Natural Stat Trick reports only 43 seconds of overlap. So, as opposed to Minnesota having somewhere around 30 to 35 minutes a night where they didn't have an elite defender on the ice when Spurgeon was out, the Wild only had about nine such minutes against the Kraken.
The result was a lot less time for Seattle to exploit the weak links in the Wild's blueline. Hynes had Alex Goligoski out for only 12:21 and limited Jon Merrill's ice time to 7:50. Even without the ability to dictate match-ups on the road, Hynes minimized the spots where the bottom of his lineup was vulnerable.
The added workload didn't make their star defensemen any less effective, either. Faber controlled 70.2% of the expected goal share at even strength, and Spurgeon got the better of play with a 56.8% figure. That's a massive portion of the game the Wild can rely on the puck going in the right direction.
At the risk of being controversial, we must also consider whether Brodin is now Minnesota's third-best defenseman. Between Brodin, Faber, and Spurgeon, they're all great, and ranking the three is an exercise in splitting hairs. But if you look at the trio under the microscope, Spurgeon and Faber might just come in ahead of Brodin.
We've written about how Faber's play puts him alongside the top defensemen in the NHL in terms of Standings Points Above Replacement. Faber's had players pass him since, but he's still 14th in the NHL at his position, being worth about 1.8 points in the standings.
Faber's rated as Brodin's peer in terms of defensive value -- not surprising, given that they're playing on the same pair. Faber's also brought more offensive utility and has become Minnesota's most effective puck-mover. He leads the team in puck retrievals in his own zone, and these retrievals lead to the Wild exiting their zone 61% of the time, according to Corey Sznajder's All Three Zones project. Faber doesn't have 30 NHL games yet, but he's got a compelling argument for surpassing Brodin's value ever so slightly.
Spurgeon also has a claim to that, even at 34 years old. Entering Sunday's action, Brodin had 1.5 SPAR on the season playing the full slate of games, tied for 25th in the NHL. That's awesome. You can't knock that one bit. But Spurgeon's impact has been so great that he entered Sunday with 1.6 SPAR. In 12 games. Twelve!!! He's a borderline top-20 defenseman in the NHL, even in half the games as the game's best.
Brodin is the league's best pure shut-down defenseman; few can challenge his status there. But Spurgeon is one of the players who can, and he is far ahead of Brodin and even Faber offensively. Among 210 defensemen with 150-plus minutes at 5-on-5, Spurgeon entered Sunday sitting on top of them all, getting 63.2% of the expected goals share. The Wild have out-scored their opponents 11-6 at 5-on-5 after Sunday's action. It's impossible to overstate his value to Minnesota.
Of course, the second Brodin is healthy enough to re-join the Wild, they're going to be a much better team for it. Minnesota needs Brodin, especially for the long haul. Playing their two top defensemen 50-plus combined minutes per night might not be sustainable over the 60-or-so remaining games on the schedule. It would be foolish to imply Brodin isn't a crucial building block of this team.
But while the situation isn't ideal, Faber and Spurgeon showed on Sunday night that they have the goods to power Minnesota through a few Brodin-less weeks. As long as those two are in the lineup, the Wild have what it takes to tread water in their playoff chase and keep things close enough to make a charge when Brodin returns.
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