As Charles Dickens so elegantly put it: ''It was the best of times, it was the worst of times''. Over the last two seasons (or last season and a half, thanks to the most useless lockout in the history of everything), the Wild have been a veritable roller-coaster team. Last year, they Icarus'd from 1st place in the NHL to nearly dead last in about 2-3 months.
This year, after a strong-ish start, the offense evaporated and the defense ran around like head-less chickens, which caused a sharp drop in the standings, but over the last 20 games, they've been a team possessed. They figured out (or should I say remembered) the system and are currently playing it to near-perfection. Can we finally say that the Wild have risen from the muck to become a legitimate playoff-bound team, or is this nothing more than a hot streak?
Last season, the Wild were 20-7-3 after the first 30 games. In 32 games this season, they're 20-10-2, which is actually pretty close to that amazing run last year. Right now, the Wild had their first-ever 6 regulation-game win streak, all of which were ''clear victories'', meaning they were won by at least 2 goals. (Our stat ''buddies'' like to think these wins are worth more than 1 goal wins or OT/SO wins. They're wrong.) They are also 10-3-0 in March, with a current 7-game win streak.
The only games they've lost this month were against the Ducks, twice, and the Blackhawks. At the time, those teams were #2 and #1 in the NHL respectively. Not only have the Wild shown they can play against the big boys, they've shown they're capable of winning against them. Both games against the Ducks were dominated by the Wild for almost 40 minutes, but they ran into some strong goaltending and opportunistic scorers. The Blackhawks game almost saw the Wild comeback from a 4-1 hole they had dug in the 1st period, which was their weakest period in the entire month of March.
Despite their similar records through 30 games, Past Wild and Present Wild are two very different teams. This edition simply overruns teams and outworks, outchances, and outplays them to get their wins. Last season, it was more of a counter-attack style of play in which they resisted what came their way and took advantage of their opportunities. Many factors come into play when explaining these differences:
The Free Agent Signings
I'm not just talking about Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, although they have been colossal for this team so far. Torrey Mitchell and Zenon Konopka have combined with another newcomer, Mike Rupp, to form a genuinely good 4th line, the likes of which we've rarely seen with the Wild. They each have their specialty: Mitchell has speed and good penalty-drawing (although he tends to take a few of his own), Konopka has faceoffs (had a 10 for 10 game not too long ago, a new franchise best for 100% faceoff games) and Rupp has the body. Sure, Konopka and Rupp have a propensity towards dumb penalties, but they can also throws guys off their game and frustrate defensemen with their hard work (sorry Tom) in the offensive zone. We've yet to get a look at Jake Dowell and Brett Clark, but they'll get their chance soon enough.
That's right, stat-people, health. You may mock some of us for ignoring the merits of Corsi and Fenwick and all that jazz, but we're mocking you in the exact same way for ignoring the importance of having a healthy team. When the Wild lost 5 of their top 6 to injuries last season and were forced to put Warren friggin' Peters on the 1st line for a while, you told us injuries didn't matter and that the Wild were destined to fail because their unsustainable numbers were bound for regression.
Funny thing is, the ones telling us injuries didn't matter are the very sames ones who are currently complaining that their teams employ guys like Mike Brown, Darcy Hordichuk, Brian McGrattan, etc. But when the Wild were forced to use guys like Warren Peters, Jed Ortmeyer to replace the irreplaceable Mikko Koivu and guys like Devin Setoguchi, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Guillaume Latendresse, OUR argument isn't valid. OUR AHL-filled roster was failing because of STATS, not because of AHL guys coming over to replace NHL players. That's just hilarious.
Anyhoo, the Wild have been very healthy so far. Only Jared Spurgeon, Jason Zucker and Cal Clutterbuck have lost games to injury, if I'm not mistaken. 8 players have played all 31 games, a few missed some games as healthy scratches. When you can rely on all your regulars to play a good chunk of your games, things will go smoothly.
I put both, because the rookies ARE the Wild's depth right now. This season, the Wild have called up Jason Zucker, Johan Larsson and Charlie Coyle. Zucker and Larsson are back in the AHL with Mikael Granlund, but they'll all be back before too long. They've also got guys like Matt Dumba (juniors), Brett Bulmer, Zack Phillips and Steven Kampfer waiting for their shot. Sure beats the heck out of having guys like Warren Peters, Jed Ortmeyer, Cody Almond and Casey Wellman now, doesn't it?
The great thing about having all these rookies is that we don't have to be afraid of one or two injuries ruining the entire season like they did before. Of course, losing Koivu would still be a huge blow, but we know guys like Mikael Granlund and Johan Larsson would be able to pick up a lot more of the slack than anyone else before them.
Of course, they're not all going to turn into superstars, but we're already seeing flashes of very good NHL pros in our young'uns.
Jonas Brodin is getting an increasing amount of attention from the hockey world as the NHL's youngest defenseman and as Ryan Suter's Weber replacement. He's leading all NHL rookies in ice-time and, despite the relatively low offensive output, is in many people's Calder conversations. A 19-year old being put in his team's toughest situations night in and night out and succeeding in eliminating the majority of opposing scoring chances in the process is a very rare occurence indeed. I hope they sign him to a 200 year contract.
Charlie Coyle has been a great compliment to the Koivu-Parise connection. He can hold on to the puck with the best of them and teams often need to send two guys to steal the puck away from him along the boards, which gives Koivu and Parise more space to strut their stuff. He may only have 6 points in 20 games, but he is an important part of the top-6 and he's getting more and more confident.
Jason Zucker is an absolute fireball with a knack for being at the right place at the right time. Had Corey Perry not injured him, he would still be kicking ass and taking names on the second line with red-hot Matt Cullen and Devin Setoguchi. At least Pierre-Marc Bouchard woke up from his deep slumber and has become quite hot himself. Zucker will be back next time a top-6 player goes down, you can be sure of it.
Mikael Granlund showed flashes too, but for some reason couldn't fit into Mike Yeo's plans. He still managed 6 points in 19 games, which is as many as Coyle has, without the benefit of playing with Koivu and Parise, so he'll be just fine. Once some of the veterans' contracts end and he's grown a little as a North American pro, he'll dazzle us like we know he can. His being sent down in the AHL should not be seen as a knock on him. He'll come back a better player. Ask Nazem Kadri, currently tied 7th in the NHL points despite playing about 4 fewer minutes per game than his fellow high scorers, if he regrets spending time in the AHL rather than being forced into an NHL lineup before his time.
Guillaume Latendresse said it best when he said his game was about 80% confidence and 20% talent (don't remember the exact numbers he said, but I think it was 80/20). I believe it's about the same ratio for most athletes, so when Ryan Suter said in a post-game interview that the guys felt they could beat anybody, it means they've a least got that 80% down, and that's pretty big. When a team is struggling to find its identity and can't seem to catch any breaks, they're bound to question their ability to win games, which in turn makes them worse.
Confidence is especially important for the new guys on the team like Suter, Parise, Brodin and Coyle because it takes a lot of the weight of trying to impress your new team off of their shoulders. If Brodin didn't believe in his ability to take the puck and make smart plays to free himself from a forechecker or making crisp, clean passes out of the defensive zone, he would just cough the puck up or wait a fraction of a second too late to make his move. If Coyle didn't have the confidence to use his frame to fend off defenders and not just dump the puck, we wouldn't have seen the beauty that was ''the shift'' against Vancouver. It's easy to overlook the human aspect of the game when you're not living it or you have stat-crazy fans vomiting their numbers in your face.
Of course, the players have to be careful not to let confidence become arrogance, or else they may get a surprise wake-up call from a team against which they have no business losing.
All that being said, we never know when/if everything could fall apart. There are a few reasons this could happen:
Again, health is paramount. What happens if Ryan Suter gets injured? Sure, Brodin will still be solid, but will he make a seamless adjustment to a new partner? Same question if Brodin gets injured. What if 2-3 top-6 players go down long term? Will the rookies' playoff inexperience (provided they make the playoffs) be their undoing? What if Backstrom goes down? Can Hackett and/or Kuemper pick up the slack? As long as the injuries don't rain down like they usually do, they could be fine. One or two key injuries probably won't kill them, but you never know. Team chemistry is at it's best right now and it may only take one big injury to throw a monkey wrench in the whole operation.
Plain old hot streak
The Wild have been amazing as of late. In 13 March games, they've scored 47 goals and allowed 35. Niklas Backstrom is 15-3-1 in his last 19 games. The first two lines have been scoring almost at will, Suter is second among league defensemen for assists and even the 4th line has been chipping in. They most certainly will not keep playing at this pace. They will cool down, but the question is how cool will they become? Will they suffer another prolonged scoring drought? The defense hasn't been all that good lately and it WILL bite them in the ass. My point is if they lose their groove, will they be able to get their groove back? Stella, help us out here.
We have no clue what Chuck Fletcher will be thinking come deadline time. It's not that far away, but if they go into the deadline with a small losing streak, he may not do the same moves (or non-moves) he would do if went in with the winning streak intact. Will Fletch try to get a rental player?(doubtful) Will he trade Bouchard or Heatley? (Also doubtful, but not out of the question) Will he get some defensive support? (He should absolutely look into that) or will he elect not to screw around with team chemistry? (likely) How about the Wild's rivals? Will they become better? Will they become worse? I don't expect a slew of deadline trade this season, but you never know what changes could stir up the Western Conference.
Screw regression. The goaltending is absolutely not unsustainable, although Backstrom is starting to show effects of starting in 12 consecutive games. They don't have an unusually high team shooting percentage (STAT WARNING: 87 goals on 915 shots = around 9.51%, which is only slightly higher than the league average of about 9.32%). Can't speak much about Corsi and Fenwick and all that jazz, but it is clear to anyone that they've improved in both aspects because we're not hearing much from our stat-crazy rivals on the subject. So yeah, screw regression.
In short, I believe the Wild are the real deal. I'm not talking about 7-win streaks galore, but they will win more often than they will lose and they're only going to get better as the rookies grow and the leaders keep leading. Not to jump the gun, but James Mirtle estimated that it will probably take about 54 points for a playoff spot in the West in this shortened season. The Wild have 42 in 32 games, which means they may only need about 12-14 points in the last 16 games. Barring another epic collapse, this should be doable. Knock on wood though, because after last season, no winning record is safe.
How about you guys? What do you think?
Note: I started writing this article, my first in about a month, yesterday, not knowing it was my 3-year anniversary as an HW staff member. Funny how the world works, huh? I just felt the urge to write on my 3rd anniversary. Anyway, happy belated blogday to meeeeee!