Who would have thought the Minnesota Wild’s playoff hopes would have been so affected by the loss of a fourth-line winger?
When grinder Mason Shaw tore the ACL in his right knee earlier this month, there was plenty of disappointment for the fan favorite who had already overcome so much. It was the fourth ACL tear of his career, and one had to wonder how much longer his body can take the beating of an NHL life.
But over the subsequent days, fans naturally turned the page towards the upcoming playoffs and how the Wild could somehow, some way, advance past the first round for the first time in nearly a decade.
Until the injury bug struck again.
On April 6, just a few days following Shaw’s injury, Joel Eriksson Ek took an Evgeni Malkin shot off the leg, and it was unlikely he would be available when the postseason began. The news at the time was perhaps even more devastating than that of losing Shaw. Eriksson Ek was the Wild’s best center. He pivoted the top power play unit and was often first over the boards in shorthanded situations.
His 61 points this season were by far the highest total of his career, and his name was at least mentioned in the Selke Trophy conversation. He played a key role in centering the suddenly-dangerous second-line with Matt Boldy and Marcus Johansson. How on Earth were the Wild going to contain the Dallas Stars without such a key player?
Well, through five games, maybe Eriksson Ek isn’t the Wild’s biggest missing piece. You could argue not having Shaw in the lineup is having a larger impact on this series than even their Swedish center being out.
Hold on now, hear me out: This isn’t to say Shaw is a better, more impactful player than Eriksson Ek. Not by a mile. However, Shaw does one thing extraordinarily well, and it’s where the Wild need the most help right now.
There’s no need to beat around the bush here: it’s the penalty kill. We all know it. For the second consecutive postseason, the Wild’s inability to keep the puck out of their own net while down a man is sinking their chances. Naturally, many want to point to head coach Dean Evason and his inability to produce a capable penalty kill for two playoff runs (or perhaps, duds?) in a row. Next in line is chalking it up to losing Eriksson Ek, indisputably their best center and defensive forward, at the exact wrong time.
But the biggest impact hasn’t been coaching, and it hasn’t been getting just 19 seconds out of Eriksson Ek. No, their penalty kill took the biggest hit when the shorthanded savant that is Mason Shaw departed the lineup.
In the regular season, Connor Dewar was the only Wild player who recorded better goals against rates on the penalty kill than Shaw (minimum 50 minutes). Shaw's 4.41 GA/60 finished in the top-20 in the NHL among qualifying forwards. He wasn’t just one of the Wild’s best penalty killers, but among the best in the entire NHL.
Furthermore, his GA/60 was nearly half of Eriksson Ek’s 8.18 in the regular season. That's not to say Eriksson Ek isn’t a great defensive forward. But his elite 5-on-5 impact hasn’t necessarily carried over to the penalty kill in his career.
In his rookie season, Eriksson Ek recorded a 4.45 GA/60 on the kill, but since then he has never been below 7.3. And in the last three seasons, he has averaged 9.16 GA/60 on the kill. Sure, a lot goes into play with stats like GA/60, like teammates and goaltending. But over that sort of sample size, it begins to paint a fairly clear picture. Eriksson Ek just isn’t as good defensively at 4-on-5 play as he is at even strength.
And this isn’t an outlier. There are other instances of a player’s style being better suited for even strength than on the penalty kill, where there is so much more ice to cover and defend. His former Selke-finalist teammate, Mikko Koivu, was very similar in that he was an all-time great defensive forward at 5-on-5, but bad on the penalty kill. While his No. 9 may hang in the rafters of the Xcel Energy Center forever, he averaged a very mediocre 7.31 over the 13 seasons that we have data for.
None of this is to discredit Eriksson Ek or his former teammate. Who knows? At the end of his career, his No. 14 may hang alongside the No. 9.
But when you look at what the Wild miss most this series, it’s the duo of Shaw and Dewar being first over the boards on the penalty kill. How many times have the Dallas Stars scored within the first half minute of a powerplay this series? The answer? A lot. The Wild have somehow survived at 5-on-5 without Eriksson Ek. They’ve been destroyed on the penalty kill without Shaw.
You could be wise to question why Evason has pivoted to Frederick Gaudreau and Johansson as his top penalty killers following the loss of a few key players. You wouldn’t be wrong to assign some blame to Evason there. But maybe the simplest answer for why the Wild suddenly find themselves on the brink of elimination is they miss Shaw way more than anyone could have anticipated.
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