Obviously, the best time to have your fatal flaws exposed is "Never." Ideally, the Minnesota Wild wouldn't have a moment where their opponents can utterly dismantle them. But that's what happened when the Wild visited the Air Canada Centre and the Toronto Maple Leafs dismantled their vaunted defense by a 7-4 margin.
What was Toronto's One Weird Trick to hanging seven goals on Minnesota? Presumably, pointing to Alex Goligoski, Jake Middleton, and Jon Merrill and saying to Auston Matthews and William Nylander, See those guys? They can't stop you. Go nuts. It worked. Matthews notched two goals at 5-on-5, both against the Goligoski-Middleton pairing. Nylander got one against that unit, then another against Merrill and Calen Addison.
And those are just the goals they directly allowed by being on the ice. Merrill's interference in the first period and Goligoski's tripping in the second both led to power play goals. Goligoski then took an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the third, for good measure, that put the pressing Wild on their back foot again. An unequivocal disaster.
Having Toronto exploit Minnesota's weak defensive depth this much might lead one to believe that coaching was a major issue. It wasn't. Credit to Dean Evason, he did his best to make the best of a bad situation. Not only was the team missing Jared Spurgeon, but they also were on the road, meaning the Leafs could pick-and-choose the matchups they want.
Still, despite having only one solid pair that night (Jonas Brodin and especially Brock Faber), he deployed it pretty much exactly how you'd want. Matthews, a Hart Trophy winner, played 15 minutes at 5-on-5 on Saturday night. Brodin was against him for 10 of those minutes, and Faber 11. They held Matthews to a draw during that time. That's about how you'd draw it up on the road.
Matthews simply made hay out of 3:16 against Middleton and 2:34 against Goligoski. What are you going to do? As for Nylander's line torching this pair... well, Minnesota's only other option was to play Faber 45 minutes. It's hard to rule anything out as impossible when it comes to Faber, but this is running up against even this impressive rookie's limits.
So what does Minnesota do now? The good news is that they won't face Matthews/Nylander every night. Or Sasha Barkov/Matthew Tkachuk, whose Florida Panthers hung 41 shots on Minnesota on Opening Night. Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield should be a much more containable 1-2 punch Tuesday night in Montreal.
According to The Athletic's Michael Russo, Evason is also dusting off his predecessor Bruce Boudreau's line blender for the first time in several years to scramble up the defense. Brodin logged time with both Goligoski and Addison on Saturday, with Faber getting looks with Merrill and Middleton.
Is that going to be much more than patching up a donut tire until Spurgeon's healthy again? That's the big question. But as embarrassing as it is to be carved up in Game 2 of the season, there's some upside here. This game doesn't just expose Minnesota's lack of defensive depth to their opponents. It also shows the coaches exactly what their limitations are.
Until the season started, life without Spurgeon was purely theoretical, especially since their other solid veteran right-shot defenseman Matt Dumba, departed this offseason. Speaking of Dumba, the dude absolutely should buy some "Miss Me Yet?" billboards to put around town after the constant grief the fans gave him for his perceived defensive flaws. He's not looking so bad with the Arizona Coyotes.
Now we know what a Dumba-less, Spurgeon-less Wild defense looks like, and it just doesn't hit the same. It's just two games against good offensive teams, sure, but Evolving-Hockey has Minnesota in the bottom 10 (23rd) in expected goals against per hour at 5-on-5.
Small sample size aside, that's pretty ugly! But it's better to know now than, say, in April. Because now, the Wild are able to plan around it, even with limited flexibility.
How? Their cap situation is such that they can't even afford an extra forward. It's a tight situation, but the Wild can free up just enough money to bring in someone if things continue to go haywire. Not many options, mind you. The Wild can't waive Goligoski (he has a no-move clause), but they could free up about a million in cap space by waiving Merrill if worst comes to worse.
That would give Minnesota the flexibility to either call up a slightly more expensive option than Dakota Mermis, their current seventh defenseman. It's possible that could be Daemon Hunt (though he had a rough opening weekend for the Iowa Wild) or Carson Lambos, the 2021 first-rounder who had a solid debut for in Des Moines last weekend.
Or such a move could free them to bring a contract in via trade. The Columbus Blue Jackets have been rumored to be looking to trade a young defenseman. With some salary retention, perhaps someone like Adam Boqvist ($2.6 million cap hit through next year) or Jake Bean (pending RFA, $2.33 million cap hit) could make sense.
Maybe that's not a palatable option now, as it could sacrifice any hopes of flexibility at the trade deadline. But nothing has to be addressed now, anyway. The Wild know this is a big weakness and now they can spend the season trying to shore it up, if they so choose.
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