As the season rolls along, the Wild have already played 20 games. Those 20 games just happen to have put them in first place in the NHL with 27 points, a franchise-high after the first 20 games. Just thought I'd remind you in case you forgot or you wanted to see it again. The Wild will stay there at least until Wednesday, when the Wild, the Penguins and the Blackhawks, the three teams deadlocked at #1, play again. The good news is that the Wild's playoff spot should be safe for a while considering the 5 point lead in the Northwest Division.
When I wrote up this feature after the first 10 games, the common feeling between the Wild's performances this year and last year was that they were underachieving. Right now, hard not to be satisfied with a 12-5-3 record after starting 4-3-3.
How were they doing last year compared to this year though? Are we starting to see the acquisitions of Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi paying off compared to having Martin Havlat and Brent Burns? 20 games is still early, but there still a few things we can analyze, so let's take a look!
Part 1: Storylines
This year, as we discussed, the Wild are in first place by virtue of having played fewer games than the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks. The Wild have also won 9 of their last 11 games, including their first 5-game winning streak in 3 years, a current 4 game winning streak, 3 shutouts, 2 for Niklas Backstrom, one for Josh Harding, who started the first 4 games in the 5 game streak, winning the honor of the NHL's first star of the week and all this, despite concussions to Marco Scandella, Guillaume Latendresse and Zidlicky. The revolving-door blueline prompted Chuck Fletcher to sign AHL defenseman Kris Fredheim to an NHL contract. Despite Nick Schultz being the oldest guy on the Wild's blueline at the ripe old age of 29, the Wild's defense has been a strength. The wealth of defensemen is even becoming somewhat of a problem as players like Mike Lundin, Greg Zanon and Marco Scandella are nearing returns. Who do you send down? Everyone on the blueline is deserving of their spot, but the NHL is a business. The only gripe on this team is a lack of scoring, especially from the first line. To be fair, they've been picking it up lately and they're choosing to sacrifice personal stats for wins, which is exactly what Yeo wants and exactly what we should want as well. Mikko Koivu's captaincy has come into question once again, but he shut everyone up with his incredible 2-goal performance in game 20.
Long story short, despite scoring low, they're scoring enough to win and they're winning on team effort and defense, just like the good old Jacques Lemaire days that drew me to this team in the first place. If anybody's enjoying the Wild's stingy play, I'm enjoying it VERY much.
Last year, the Wild were their old streaky selves: win 3, lose 2, win 3, lose 2. They had a 6-4-0 record from game 11 to game 20. Marco Scandella made his debut and Justin Falk was called up after a Brent Burns suspension and a Marek Zidlicky injury. The fans were starting to get frustrated with the coach, Todd Richards, especially after inexplicably keeping his goalies in net during massacres. Kaptain Koivu was also slowing down, but the panic over he and Havlat wouldn't pick up until a little later in the season.
The Wild acquired Patrick O'Sullivan from the Carolina Hurricanes' waiver wire and he scored in his debut against the Flyers in game 20, a 6-1 loss. The fanbase had hope that O'Sullivan could help out a suddenly-mediocre Wild offense that had started on fire. This year's token waiver wire pickup, Nick Johnson, has prompted us to start calling him ''Best Waiver Claim Ever (BWCE)'', so that should tell you that O'Sullivan didn't quite pan out, but game 20 was his first game, so we liked what we saw after one game.
Part 2: Stats
10-8-2 for last year's record after 20 games. You might say ''Well, 22 and 27 aren't too far away from each other''. To put 22 in perspective, the Wild would be tied for the Northwest lead, sure, but they would also be tied for 17th in the league.
Mikko Koivu is leading in points with 13 points in 20 games. He had 16 points in the same period last season, but people are calling for his C this year. Riiiiiight. Matt Cullen is leading in goals with 8.
Martin Havlat was leading in points with 17 points in 20 games. Cal Clutterbuck was leading in goals with 6, menacing Bryan to eat his hat.
The Wild have 47 goals for, 40 goals against. In the same period last season, the Wild had 48 goals for (offense slowed down), 47 goals against.
Part 3: Looking back at the trades
First, let's compare Heatley and Havlat. Last year, Havlat had 3 goals and 14 assists at the 20 game mark, which was decent, but he was also -1 and was considered a ''sell'' on our stock market report at that point. 17 points and -1? Forgive me, but I'll take Heatley's 12 points and +4. Not to mention Heatley's 5 goals were mostly very important or timely goals. Heatley's play in the defensive zone in the last few years has been overlooked by him not scoring 50 goals anymore and while SJ fans were hoping for a two-way, PK player and 5-on-5 force in Havlat, his only goal this year came on the powerplay and he's a +4, which isn't bad when you look at it like that, but it puts him on a tie with 6 other players for 6th on the team. Plus, he had a little more than 9 total minutes on the PK. So much for those expectations. Sure, he's playing well, but not as expected. Heatley isn't scoring like expected, but he surprised us all with strong defensive play, which to me is a bonus. It's clearly working, the Wild are #1 in the NHL right now.
As for Setoguchi and Burns, it's much harder to compare a defenseman and a forward, but the loss of Burns hasn't quite had the negative effect on the Wild's blueline that everyone on the planet expected. He's doing well in SJ. 2nd on the team in ice-time, leading team defensemen in goals with 4 and has 7 points, which would also lead all Wild d-men. Fans are liking him and he makes an already dangerous PP even scarier. Setoguchi is second on the Wild with 6 goals, 4th in points with 10, but there's a lingering feeling he's underacheiving. He's been shifted around between the first two lines and while his speed and hands are very fun to see, there's a feeling he could do more. Most SJ fans were sad to see fan-favorite Setoguchi go, but are glad with Burnsie. It's pretty much the same for Wild fans, just need to switch the names around.
No one is expecting the Wild to keep it up without offense. I, for one, believe team defense is much more easily sustainable than offense. Plus, the Wild have always had trouble scoring, you'll notice that the seasons in which they had winning records were those with the fewest goals allowed. I think the Wild have the right formula, but not the right quantity yet. I'm not saying they'll be staying at the very top of the standings, but if they keep playing solid defense and relentless forechecking, they should at least make the playoffs.
What do this year's Wild and last year's Wild have in common after 20? Goaltending. Backstrom was the only reason the Wild weren't a disaster last year, this year, Backstrom and Harding's tag team is a huge part of the Wild's success.