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Know Thine Enemy: The Minnesota Wild

Everybody knows that Jim Nill and the Dallas Stars have already won the 2014 offseason. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the other six teams of Conference III spent the summer sitting on their hands. No. The Central Division is about to get fun.

Over the next few weeks we’ll look at the offseason moves and acquisitions of the other Conference III teams. Who’s improved, who’s trending in the other direction, and what to watch for in the 2014-2015 season. We debuted with the Winnipeg Jets, last week looked at the Nashville Predator’s summer of stopgap measures, and today we continue with the team that finished smack in the middle of Conference III last season, the Minnesota Wild

The Minnesota Wild obviously missed the Conference III memo regarding strengthening center depth this summer. Of course, before you as a Stars fan get too excited about a rapid ascension up the standings at the cost of the Fightin’ Adjectives, note that the Wild might have decided they didn’t need to address their center depth. Consider the top three lines are centered by Mikael Granlund, the 9th overall pick in the 2010 draft, Mikko Koivu, a guy who ranked 20th in the league last season in assists, and Erik Haula, who, if nothing else at least has the ability to concuss goaltenders.

No, what the Wild really felt they needed was a greater scoring threat. Although contrary to popular belief, and if you use the advanced metric of ‘goals for per game’ as your guide, the Wild are not the most boring team in the NHL. Believe it or not, they’re actually only the seventh most boring team in the league! Coincidentally, if one gets really fancy with their stats, and uses ‘goals against per game’ as their metric, Minnesota again are only the seventh most boring team. 2.43 goals for per game, 2.42 goals against per game. A +.01 goal differential! Which by the way is the lowest differential of all last season’s playoff teams (aside from Detroit, who we all know got grandfathered into the playoffs), and yet the Wild finished 7 points ahead of the Stars in the standings, and even won a playoff series!

Just goes to show that I know nothing.

On that note, I took the liberty of asking Tony Abbott, managing editor at Hockey Wilderness, for his take on fancy stats and the Minnesota Wild, and he had the audacity to actually defend them!

Me: I referred to the Minnesota Wild last season as ‘paper tigers.’ I would apologize for it, but I don’t actually feel all that bad. The Wild were 23rd in the league in Corsi For %, and 21st in Fenwick. I mean, that’s barely better than the Colorado Avalanche, and we all know how that turned out for them. What’s been done to address this? Is it even a concern, or are the Wild aiming to become the Maple Leafs of the West?

Tony: In any case where a team out-plays its possession stats, their fans are invariably going to tell you, “Well, in this case, the possession numbers aren’t representative of the teams skill level.” I know no one wants to hear that.

But, in this case, the possession numbers weren’t representative of the teams skill level. Don’t run away! There’s data to back this up! I promise! Ger Devine at HW looked at the impact of injuries on the Wilds possession stats.

Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, and Jared Spurgeon were three of Minnesotas best possession drivers. They missed 47 combined games for the Wild, which were condensed in a 25-game span. With all three in the lineup, the Wild had a 50.65% Fenwick Close. With at least one of them missing, that dropped to only 45.33%. And in the 8 games all three were missing? 42.14%.

The Wilds playoff performance backs this up. They demolished the Avalanche [Ed. note: Demolished?], and went toe-to-toe with the Blackhawks. All three of those players were healthy. TL;DR: Maybe “House of Cards” is a better paper-based metaphor to use. If their top possession-drivers are healthy, they’re a fine possession team. But if one of them gets injured, things go downhill quickly.

[Source: The Wild Are a Better Puck Possession Team Than Their Numbers Suggest]

Huh. Every day’s a school day.

So if all the Minnesota Wild need to remain a pseudo-contender in the Western Conference is for a few guys to stay healthy, they just kicked back and rested up over the summer, right? Well, not exactly. Turns out some guy really wanted to play for the Wild. And it just so happens he’s Minnesota’s…

Biggest Splash

Thomas Vanek had long been rumored to be heading to the Minnesota Wild. No seriously, all the way back when he was playing with the Buffalo Sabres, and that must have been a long time ago seeing as how he’s played with both the Islanders and Canadiens since then. Well the expected finally came to pass as Vanek signed with Minnesota for three years and $19.5 million. So what does Vanek bring to the Wild? Well, he’ll be replacing Dany Heatley, who, umm, hasn’t been all that great recently. Consider Vanek played two more regular season games than Heatley last season… and scored 40 more points. And that being despite the fact that the vast majority of those games were played with the Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders. Of course, Vanek still finished the season as a minus Corsi-rel player, so, sorry Tony.

Either way, consider that top line vastly improved. And don’t forget Vanek is reunited with his old buddy Jason Pominville, playing for the team he wants to play for, in his wife’s home town… It really is a sweet story isn’t it?

Free Agents

What, you mean besides Thomas Vanek? Umm… Jonathan Blum? Jordan Schroeder? Yeah, restricted free agent signings just aren’t as exciting are they? The Wild’s ‘Biggest Splash’ was essentially the Wild’s ‘Only Splash.’

Other Things

So far we’ve only talked of the forwards and what the addition of Thomas Vanek, and subtraction of Dany Heatley, will do for the Wild’s offense. Probably a lot, but I’m not sold on the Wild having a better top-9 than the Stars, as On the Forecheck claim in Part 1 of their How to Hate the Central Division.

What about defense and goaltending though, where no significant moves were made? Interestingly, the defensive situation in Minnesota is very similar to the Stars, where the holes in the top six are being looked at to be filled by a deep prospect system. Topping that list is Matt Dumba, who had his first taste of NHL action this past season, breaking camp with the NHL team before being sent back down to the WHL to get more regular playing time. Odds are probably good that he sticks this time around, and he should be joined on opening night by at least one other prospect, although I haven’t got a clue who that will be, and nor does anybody else. That’s what training camp is for, you see.

Which brings us to goaltending. Last season for the Wild it was one of those ‘beat the odds’ feel good stories. An injury to starting goaltender Niklas Backstrom that eventually saw him shut down for the season following surgery, original backup goaltender Josh Harding’s continuing battle with multiple sclerosis, original third-string goaltender Darcy Kuemper’s concussion issues… That’s an awful lot of really good excuses for why a team’s goaltending wouldn’t be up to standard. And yet… it was. More than that, as they finished 11th in the league in team save percentage, suggesting some impressive depth at the position of goaltender. But what do I know about goaltender depth? I’m a Dallas Stars fan.

That was last year’s goaltending situation in Minnesota. This year? Well, it’s all still a bit up in the air. So I’m bringing back our old friend Tony to address that, and to answer a few other questions on the state of the Wild.

* * *

1) Am I hearing this right? Management is simply going to let Ilya Bryzgalov walk away? You don’t heff to be mad, but explain to me the Minnesota goaltending situation, cause I can’t figure it out. Niklas Backstrom, Josh Harding, and Darcy Kuemper, riding some sort of carousel?

I know, it doesn’t make much sense to let Bryzgalov walk. Until you realize that really, they had no choice. They’d love to unload Backstroms contract, but a 36-year-old goaltender coming off a year where he was both injured and ineffective isn’t exactly a hot commodity. They wouldn’t do anything to force Harding off the team (e.g. via an amnesty buyout), and it’s hard to blame them for not wanting to be that cold. Also, Kuemper has earned the right to be on the NHL team.

So, yeah, the Wild are going to go with Harding to start, hope he can stay healthy. In the unfortunate, but likely, event that Harding will have to miss time, they’ll roll with Backstrom or Kuemper, and ride the hot hand. It’s far from ideal, but Harding and Kuemper performed phenomenally last season, so I’m more confident in the goalie situation than most outsiders are. I just wish there was a little more certainty.

2) Talk to me about the ‘homecoming’ of Thomas Vanek. Or, as much of a homecoming as an NHL player born in Austria can have… How much better is he going to make the Wild?

Going into the offseason, the Wild wanted three things: An offensive winger who could score easy goals, a solid defenseman that could ease Ryan Suters burden, and to solidify an uncertain goaltending situation, possibly by using a TARDIS to stop Chuck Fletcher from re-signing Niklas Backstrom last offseason.

In Vanek, they get that scorer. It has to make the Top-9 better, given that he’s essentially replacing Dany Heatley. But aside from the upgrade in skill, what it gives the Wild is versatility. Mike Yeo can throw out a pure scoring line (Vanek-Granlund-Pominville), an elite two-way line (Parise-Koivu-Coyle), and a devastating change-of-pace line (Zucker-Haula-Niederreiter). Or he can mix-and-match, given the situation.

As for how his skill-set fits the Wilds needs, they were 2nd worst in the NHL at generating shots, and their power play was average at best, and ugly at worst. I can’t imagine a scenario where Vanek doesn’t improve that. If that improvement happens, they’ve kept up with the rest of the division.

3) Not only is Matt Cooke still with the team, but his salary will double this season to $3 million per. Could you guys not have traded him to a Siberian KHL expansion team, or at least the Flortheast Division, so we wouldn’t have to see him that often?

But then who’s going to go knee-to-knee on Jamie Benn?

If you’re trying to get a rise out of Wild fans by bringing up Matt Cooke [Ed. note: Are Wild fans actually reading this? Don’t they have their own blogs to troll?], you should go another route (HINT: Make fun of Parise/Suter signings). Wild fans at best had an uneasy relationship with Cooke, and the knee hit on Barrie drew little defense from them.

Wishing for the Wild to trade Cooke is an exercise in futility. [Ed. note: But, but…] Cooke can credibly play tough minutes, and the Wild value his playoff experience and other stuff that we know correlates to winning. We have to deal with him, too. Though, personally, I don’t hate Cooke like some do.

4) Any impact smaller signings, or upcoming prospects that I missed/was oblivious to?

A big one. Near the end of last season, the Wild managed to sign Christian Folin. The U-Mass Lowell defenseman was the most highly-touted College Free Agent since the guy everyone wanted last year. He’s big, mobile, and has a heavy shot. I wouldn’t be surprised if he skated some time with Suter, even. Suter can bring Folin along, and Folins shot and physical game could complement his game nicely. It’d also allow Scandella or Brodin to play on the third-pairing, something they badly need solidified. Gustav Olofsson may also see some minutes as an injury call-up later in the year, but despite his good two-way game, he’s a bit young to play significant minutes.

As for forwards, the Wild have some interesting names competing for third and fourth line spots. Jason Zucker is a speedy winger who is looking to shoot all the time, so it’s no surprise that the allergic-to-offense Wild are having a hard time finding a spot for him. Jordan Schroeder never found a place with the Canucks, but his two-way game makes for a natural fit, and the Wild don’t mind looking for value in under-sized players. Michael Keränen was signed out of Finland, and he led the SM-Liiga in points as a 24-year-old. He’s fast and has really slick hands. I’d love to see him get minutes with fellow Fin Erik Haula. And there’s Raphael “Magic Bus” Bussieres, Kurtis Gabriel, and Brett Bulmer, who each have a shot to make the team with the combination of some skill and a physical edge.

5) And lastly, the Minnesota Wild haven’t done anything too stupid over the offseason, the acquisition of Vanek is going to improve them, but question marks will continue to hover around goaltending (at least until Martin Brodeur signs there). Said all that to say this: where do you see the Wild ending up in the standings this season? Second place, behind the Stars?

That’s quite a leading question. But I’ll play. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Stars on top of the Central. Hell, if the Avs could do it, right? I’m really impressed with how the Stars have built their team. Getting a young core consisting of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Valeri Nichushkin is impressive enough. To do it without tanking? That’s a team I can get behind. [Ed. note: If this is the result, I’m gonna use leading questions more often]

I can’t see the Blackhawks and Blues taking significant steps back, so I’d guess the Wild will be fighting it out with the Stars for third place in the Central. I could see the Top-4 teams in the Central all being in the NHLs Top-10 for points next year, so if the Wild, or Stars, or anyone else finishes 4th, it’s far from a failure.

It’s going to be a difficult race. It’s going to be highly contested. And it’s going to be fun as hell to watch. As Omar Little once said “How you expect to run with the wolves come night when you spend all day sparring with the puppies?” As the Central Division Free Agency Arms Race indicates, all these teams will be better for the tougher competition. Thank God for Conference III.


Where will the Minnesota Wild finish in the 2014-15 Central Division Standings?

1st- Paper tiger, burning bright 45
2nd- In the forests of the night 54
3rd- What immortal hand or eye 140
4th- Could improve thy fearful Corsi? 220
5th- I jest 78
6th- The Wild are gonna be good this season 30
7th- [This space still reserved for Winnipeg] 16