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  • Where Did the Wild's Depth Scoring Go?

    Joe Bouley

    The Minnesota Wild’s performance in the Winter Classic was disappointing. It might go down as the season's lowest point because it came at the end of a season-long five-game losing streak. Before then, the Wild hadn’t lost more than three games in a row in the Dean Evason era, a testament to the team’s chemistry and talent.


    To be fair, there was a slew of injuries that struck some of Minnesota's best players. Now that the Wild are becoming healthy and that five-game skid firmly in the rearview mirror, they are finding the net with more regularity once again. The saying goes: a team’s best players need to be the team’s best players. And Minnesota's best players are doing just that. It’s been a combined effort by Kirill Kaprizov, Kevin Fiala, and Mats Zuccarello to go from that losing streak to a six-game point streak, the only blemish being a shootout loss to the Colorado Avalanche.


    “That’s the only way you win. I mean, you have to have your best players be your best players,” Marcus Foligno said after Saturday’s game. “That’s something come crunch time in the playoffs, you know, teams don’t win if guys don’t show up.”


    It’s been sheer dominance for most of the year. However, since the calendar turned over to December, those players have double-digit points with over 35 shots each:

    Player Games Played Goals Assists Shots
    Kirill Kaprizov 14 10 12 58
    Mats Zuccarello 15 5 15 38
    Kevin Fiala 15 7 5 48
    Joel Eriksson Ek 10 3 5 38

    “For the majority of the season, they’ve been awesome,” Foligno added. “It’s like they share the same brain out there. ... It’s kinda silly what they can do.”


    The production by the top guys has been brilliant. However, the Wild were rumored to be more than only four guys deep. When there was talk about how a much-exaggerated “slow start” was plaguing Kaprizov, and Fiala struggled to find twine, it was Minnesota's depth that buoyed the team long enough for the top guys to find their groove. In the early going, the Wild’s fourth line was playing at such a level that they could have been easily considered the best fourth line in the league.


    Looking back through the first five games, the line of Brandon Duhaime, Nico Sturm, and Nick Bjugstad were controlling around 80% of the expected goals while on the ice. Sure, it was an absurd number, one that no fourth line could expect to sustain. But no one should have expected their play to descend so dramatically. Through five games, nobody could stop them. In nine games during December, before Bjugstad suffered an upper-body injury, the line was so bad that Minnesota would've been better off not playing them. They controlled just 29% of the expected goal share since Dec. 2nd, and the lack of possession is noticeable in their production.

    Player Games Played Goals Assists Shots
    Nico Sturm 15 2 1 13
    Brandon Duhaime 13 1 2 12
    Nick Bjugstad 9 1 1 12

    Remember, the stats above were taken from the same period (since Dec. 2nd) that Kaprizov could launch almost 60 shots on goal. 


    And yes, the top-line players are getting paid to be the guys every night. The expectations for Kaprizov are not the same for Sturm. Fiala is the kind of player that should be on a current eight-game point streak. Zuccarello has Kaprizov and the team’s leading goal scorer in Ryan Hartman on his line. He should be racking up the assists like he is. However, Connor Dewar, who is currently in for injured Bjugstad, is still learning how to play in the NHL.


    The point is that the Wild had quality depth players who contributed with regularity. And what made it feel different from past years is that if Minnesota wanted to get even better, they had options with top prospects chomping at the bit to get in the NHL. All that is needed to improve the team is a quick call to Iowa to get it done. 


    It’s great that the Wild’s best players are doing the heavy lifting at this point in the season. It’s something they’ll have to do in the postseason. But to win a Stanley Cup, this team can’t become solely dependent on four or five players, plus a goalie to get it done. The Cup-winning teams have their best players be their best players. But for every Nikita Kucherov, there’s a Yanni Gourde. For every Sidney Crosby, there was a Patric Hornqvist


    For the Wild to succeed in the playoffs, their fourth-line needs to regain their scoring and offensive ways. They showed early this season that they could be a good complementary piece to the best players on the team. It’s time to show it again as the stretch run to the playoffs has begun.


    Stats courtesy of Hockey-Reference.com and NaturalStatTrick.com

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