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  • What Do We Make of Minnesota's Revamped Defensive Corps?

    Aaron Heckmann

    The Minnesota Wild were forced to go bargain shopping for defensemen in free agency after the Seattle Kraken plucked Carson Soucy in the Expansion Draft, the Wild bought out Ryan Suter, and Ian Cole signed with the Carolina Hurricanes. Suddenly Minnesota got a taste of the future; thanks to the cap-strapped years ahead, they had to wait patiently to grab available defensemen. It took just two weeks for the pain of the buyouts to be felt as their top targets came off the board one by one.


    The Wild ultimately replaced the departures with Alex Goligoski, Dmitry Kulikov, and Jon Merrill.


    Goligoski was one of their top targets. The 36-year-old will be the replacement for Suter on the first pair with Jared Spurgeon and has still been playing like a top-four defenseman. Stylistically, he is a good replacement for Suter.


    While there were certainly better defensemen on the market, Goligoski's game fits well in Minnesota. The veteran defender is not only versatile, but he is also a minute-muncher, averaging 23 minutes per night last season. Those minutes weren't easy either; he played 23.9% of his ice time against elite competition, the highest among Arizona Coyotes defensemen. 


    The Grand Rapids, Minn. native had the most minutes on the penalty kill last season among Arizona players and was the fourth-most utilized defenseman on the power play. He's also a shot-blocking machine. He can cover a wide range of duties, just like Suter did.


    Furthermore, they both have similar qualities regarding transition and shot contributions. Suter was in the 77th percentile in controlled exits per 60 from 2016-20, while Goligoski was able to effectively exit the zone at a rate that would land him in the 86th percentile during that four-year span.


    In terms of shot contributions, they are both highly effective when it comes to shot assists, which have proven to be a strong predictor of whether a shot turns into a goal. In this regard, over the same four-year span Suter ranked in the 76th percentile while Goligoski sat in the 63rd percentile. Additionally, Goligoski was in the 66th percentile in controlled exits per 60, way ahead of Suter during this timeframe. The point is that the transition from Suter to Goligoski should be seamless since they have similar qualities.


    Kulikov will hopefully fill Soucy's shoes. While he's projected to only be worth half the value of Soucy next season, he brings a much-needed physical presence. Last year, he had the third-highest ice time on the penalty kill with the New Jersey Devils, a quality that should increase the Wild's flexibility. He provided the 15th-highest even-strength defensive goals above replacement this past season, so he brings a shutdown game the Wild desperately needs. The biggest question is whether he can replicate the value he produced last season.


    Merrill will probably split time with Calen Addison on the third pair alongside Kulikov. He was one of the best defensive defensemen in the league last season, like Kulikov, and is a good depth acquisition. He had the seventh-highest EVD GAR among all blueliners. He's a stereotypical shut-down defender who should help round out the defensive core.


    So, did the defensive acquisitions make the team better or worse? Should it be an area of concern going into next season?


    According to Evolving-Hockey's player projections, the reconstructed blueline is worth 0.2 wins less. So, there is relatively little impact and the Wild will be fine defensively.


    JFresh's roster builder reaches the same conclusion and reinsures the stability on the back end.






    The top chart shows the projected value of last season's defensive corps for this season, while the bottom chart details what the new defensive corps is projected to be worth. Just like Evolving-Hockey's projections, the difference is minimal. The team shouldn't be negatively impacted by the changes that occurred this summer.


    The old corps would be worth 3.3 wins, while this newly constructed group is worth 2.9 wins. The obvious difference is the first pair, as both models value Suter more than Goligoski.


    It's worth noting that this doesn't take into account top defensive prospect Calen Addison, who should get significant ice time next season. He could potentially be the difference-maker if he provides more value than Merrill, which would likely cause the changes this offseason to wash out. The only concern going into next season should be that the Wild may not get as much offense from their blueline as they have had in the past.


    One thing is clear here: Bill Guerin deserves credit for making the necessary moves to ensure the Wild won't have any problems defensively, an area that has been defined by durability over the past decade.


    All Data & Charts Via Evolving-Hockey, Jfresh Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, PuckIQ, Hockey-Reference & Corey Sznajder's Transition Tool.

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