It’s been hard to characterize the first month of the season of the Minnesota Wild. Then, while scrolling the pending doom of Twitter, the perfect adjective showed itself.
[caption id=attachment_138834" align="alignnone" width="1492] Courtesy of Hockey Viz[/caption]
The Wild have been dull. This season has been a far cry from last year, despite the roster being largely the same. Watching this team, whether on the road or at Xcel Energy Center, has mainly been joyless and futile. At times, it has looked like a lack of effort. On other occasions, it’s a lack of shots. More brutally, the defense and goaltending have been the culprit through stretches. Yet, the team is missing many components that made last year fun and exciting for everyone involved.
The players feel it too. As much as head coach Dean Evason and his staff have been working to find the right line combinations to spark the club, any reward has been short-lived, or worse, non-existent. After Thursday night’s loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team held a player’s only meeting.
The team understands the need to right the ship sooner than later. An overtime win against the Carolina Hurricanes brought a tiny but much-needed bit of last year's magic to the team to salvage an otherwise punchless, dull, 15-shots-through-50-minutes performance. But they still have a long way to go.
The infamous American Thanksgiving deadline is tomorrow, and the Wild are sixth in the Central Division with a .500 points percentage and looking for answers. Early those answers had to be found in the net, but Marc-Andre Fleury and Filip Gustavsson have responded and have given the team a chance to win most nights. The defense was shaky to start the season, and that group has found ways to improve their play. The offense, like the power play, started hot but now struggles to make ripples in the twine. Worse is that night after night, these individual aspects of Minnesota's game suffer lapses. They haven’t been able to put it all together for consecutive periods, let alone a stretch of games.
Evason admitted that they are at a loss too. “I don’t know. I wish we knew,” Evason said after last week's loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. “It is uncharacteristic that we’re not doing the same things every night. Sometimes we’re doing them, sometimes we aren’t, and there’s different components of our game that are going sideways.”
What’s really different with this team? Expected goals are roughly the same through the same time period last season. This season’s 2.40 xGF/60 is lower than last season’s 2.47, but not by much. The dip in actual goals was predictable after the Wild removed 85 points and a true secondary scoring threat from the line-up this offseason in Kevin Fiala. We also know that Marco Rossi has struggled to score in the NHL, snuffing out their hopes of replacing Fiala's offense.
The Wild are without an identity. And their top players are making most of their mistakes. Mats Zuccarello forces passes across the offensive zone with opposing players clearly in the way. Kirill Kaprizov is looking for any support as he tries to dangle through two or three opposing defenders. The Wild are reckless with the puck at the blue line, with passes hopping over sticks or missing them altogether. Their tendency to deploy drop passes isn’t surprising anyone. They are averse to making simple plays while making the difficult ones look next to impossible.
In turn, it means the shot counts are down, the attempts are lower, and the shots they do get seem to be coming from the perimeter rather than the scoring areas. Take the two early goals Minnesota scored in the Pittsburgh game. Brandon Duhaime unleashed a strong wrist shot from the slot. Joel Eriksson Ek scored 12 seconds later by crashing the net, taking multiple chances at the loose puck in front of Tristan Jarry. He got a little puck luck, and the game was tied. The team never went back to that strategy, even after the Wild were searching for an equalizer later in the third period.
No, they reverted to their easy-to-defend stylings and dull ways. That’s what we’re left with as November comes to a close — a dull, boring hockey team. Maybe we were spoiled last season. Most pundits thought the Wild would be a Wild Card team, and they blew the doors off expectations. Perhaps we’re watching a team that finally has to deal with the growing pains of the influx of youth. Lots of things had to break right for the Wild to have the kind of success they did last season. This year the breaks aren’t going their way, and they’re playing in a way that makes it challenging to get those chances to break their way twice.
Maybe this results from a franchise playing like they have a salary cap that’s $15 million less than everyone else. When Bill Guerin made the buyouts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, a drop-off from contention was always a considerable risk. At least, the Wild always had that built-in excuse for underperforming. But when they bucked the general line of thinking about this club last season, expectations remained high, even as their spending power went lower. It’s possible the problems this year aren't solvable on the ice or by the head coaches. And until the youth comes of age to provide real depth options, the team will continue hovering around .500. Let’s just hope these doldrums will eventually lead to fun and winning hockey later.