Well Wilderness, it's mid-season grades/review time again. We decided to take a little different approach to our reviews this season. Instead of review every player, we decided to our top and bottom 3 players to try and keep the grades from become a massive novel to read. Keep in mind that the players listed may not be the "best" or "worst" players on the team. The rankings were based on expectations and how the players performed in their roles on the team. Feel free to add your own choices in the comment section!
Now, on to the mid-season reviews.
Top 3 Performers
1) Josh Harding-He's taken a huge leap forward this year and currently sits 2nd in the league in ES Sv%, albeit facing very low shot totals. Harding's season has simply been incredible, and he has bailed out this snakebitten Wild team many times.
2) Jared Spurgeon- Spurgeon has been quietly turning into a top tier defenceman over the last couple of years, and now, at the age of 24, that transformation is almost complete. He has been outstanding this year. He plays slightly softer competition than Suter, but with tougher zone starts and has posted fantastic underlying numbers all season (+4.0% Corsi rel).
He leads all Wild defencemen in Primary Points/60 and probably has a few more goals in the tank judging by his 1.6% Sh%, which should regress to the mean over the second half of the season. His positional sense and skating have been great, he carries and passes the puck out of the zone brilliantly, he uses his stick very well and he brings a surprising level of grit and physicality for a small guy.
3) Mikko Koivu- It was really tough to choose between Koivu and Parise for this 3rd spot. They have been extremely close in terms of performance this year. I gave it to Koivu in the end because his points per game is almost in line with his career average, while Parise is scoring at a slightly slower rate than he has done during his career. Also, Koivu has a better P/60 at 5v5, more total points and a slightly better Corsi number (+7.4% rel).
The Kaptain has been the target of a fair bit of criticism this year, but he has been quietly having himself a very strong season. He's one of the best puck possession-driving forwards in the league and has been very good in the face-off circle (55% success rate).
- Marco Scandella's resurgence this year has been a joy to watch. He's gone from being banished to the AHL to being a solid 2nd pairing defenceman. He's put-up great numbers this year in tough minutes.
- Nino Niederreiter has been a revelation, going hard to the net, getting nasty with defenceman and chipping in offensively. His underlying numbers are terrific and he seems to perform no matter who he is on the ice with or what role he plays.
Bottom 3 Performers
(Before I begin, I must say that I didn't include Heatley because he is actually exceeding the very low expectations I had for him before the start of the season)
1) Niklas Backstrom- After a pretty poor season last year (35th in ES Sv%) that may or may not have been down to his too-heavy workload (worth noting that 3 goalies played more games and performed way better) Backstrom basically lost his starting job this year because of the amazing play of Josh Harding. When he did get chances to play, he was somewhat unlucky, with the team seeming to save their worst games for when he was in net, but his performance this year has been absolutely terrible.
You can blame the team, you can blame luck, but there is simply no way to defend a 90.9% ES Sv%. Plenty of other goalies get shelled night after night and are left hanging by their defence constantly but still find a way to put-up good numbers (looking at you, Ryan Miller, James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier). Besides, Backstrom is 34th among regular goalies in shots faced per 20 minutes, so he doesn't have much of an excuse.
2) Jonas Brodin- Brodin has taken a huge step back this year after a simply stunning debut season. He's still very young and is gonna have a lot of ups and downs, but this season he has just been bad. Instead of the cool, calm and collected player we saw last year, this year he looks frantic and nervous. His 46.3% Corsi For% (-7.7% relative) makes for ugly reading, considering how good his numbers were last year.
His offensive numbers are better this year, as he has scored 7 goals, but his 20.6% Sh% suggests that it's not a very sustainable output. Also, it's worth noting that he is 5th among Wild D-men in P/60 at 5v5 and he is a long way back from 4th.
3) Ryan Suter- Before you start spitting venom that I've included Ryan Suter here, remember that this isn't about which 3 players are the best and which 3 are the worst, it's about which guys have played the best within their roles and which guys haven't. For me, Suter, as one of the most expensive players in the league, has been a huge disappointment this year. His play just hasn't reflected that of an elite defenceman. If you compare the kind of influence he has on a game to that of say Keith, Chara, Pietrangelo or others, you can see that they just dominate when they're on the ice, making all of their teammates better and shutting-down the opposition's best players. I haven't seen that with Suter at all. It might be unfair, because there is no question that he is a good defenceman, but a guy with his reputation and cap hit should be judged by these lofty standards, not given a free pass just because he is a big name player.
In terms of his offensive ability, he is 53rd in P/60 among D-men this year, 70th in ES P/60 and 135th in Primary P/60. His puck possession numbers are, once again, negative, with a 49.1% Corsi (-0.7% rel). Maybe the struggles of his partner, Brodin, are to blame, but an elite defenceman should be able to carry Brodin, not be hampered by him. He is deployed against tougher competition than the other Wild defencemen, but not by much. In fact, while the 1st pairing plays tougher compeition than the 2nd pairing, the 2nd pairing sees much tougher zone starts to negate that. Suter is starting 55.6% of his shifts in the offensive zone, which should make it a lot easier to post a positive Corsi on a team that has good overall numbers.
Somehow people are talking about Suter winning the Norris this year, which shows that a lot of media types don't bother watching the games and just rely on the easy narrative about his huge ice time. If the Wild want to turn this season around, finding a way to use Suter more effectively could be the key.
- Keith Ballard has really come down to Earth after a strong start. While I had low expectations due to his poor play during his time in Vancouver, a lot of fans expected him to be a 2nd pairing defenceman. Right now he is being outplayed by Clayton Stoner, which is worrying. His Gophers history will get him a pass with fans for now, but Ballard needs to improve.
Top 3 Performers
1. Zach Parise (15g-12a-27pts) - Before he was injured, he was the best forward for the Minnesota Wild. When Parise is out of the line-up, the Wild aren't a very good hockey team. The Wild need Parise to be healthy if they're going to make a run in the second half of the season.
2. Mikael Granlund (3g-12a-15pts) - When he's healthy, the second year forward has shown that he has a skill set to play on the second line. Granlund has shown flashes of greatness and will only get better with more ice time.
3. Jason Pominville (17g-11a-28pts) - The more I watch this guy, the more I like what I see from him. I think Pominville brings a natural goal scorers touch to the Minnesota Wild line-up.
1. Dany Heatley (8g-4a-12pts) - This is a no-brainer, not the kind of numbers that you expect to see from a guy being paid 7.5-million dollars a year. I can't think of a player that has played this bad, and been paid this much money, since the Wild have been in existence. This season, Heatley has been a turnover machine, giving up the puck at inopportune times.
2. Jason Zucker (0g-0a-0pts) - Meh! I don't know what else to say about Zucker. The kid is a great talent, with an incredible offensive upside, but in seven games with the Wild he not proven that he deserves to stay with the big club.
3. Charlie Coyle (4g-6a-10pts) - The Second year forward's play has been uninspiring and lackluster at times. Coyle's another young player that has an amazing upside that hasn't realized his full potential, yet. The Wild will need him to pick up his game, if they're going to be successful in the second half of the season.
Players who need to keep it up:
Josh Harding- MVPMVPMVPMVPMVP!
Jason Pominville- The Wild's other MVP. Without him, the Wild are totally boned. You know, even more than they are now.
Jared Spurgeon/Marco Scandella- Coming into the year, Scandella was a question mark, and Spurgeon was yet again underrated. They don't have the points, but they've quietly been the Wild's best pairing.
Mikael Granlund- Shaking off that "bust" label quite nicely. Lit the world on fire with Pominville earlier. Needs to shoot more, stay healthy.
Nino Niederreiter- A tough December, but he's big, physical, and has some nice skills to him. Chuck Fletcher needs to trade with the Isles more often, apparently.
Players who need to step up:
Niklas Backstrom- He's been the polar opposite of Harding. The Wild need to be able to rely on him, and Bax's .893 Sv% doesn't come close to allowing for that.
Ryan Suter- Playing a half hour each game is nice, but the results make him look stretched thin on both ends of the ice. Maybe he should go more for quality over quantity?
Charlie Coyle- Looked primed for a breakout in training camp, has been pretty quiet since the injury that saw him miss most of October. Nothing disastrous, but untapped potential that the Wild need to come out.
So bad it's not worth mentioning:
Dany Heatley- Does he even hockey, bro?
Jared Spurgeon B+
Nino Niederreiter B+
Mikael Granlund B+*
Jared Spurgeon continues to be a solid defensmen even as diminutive as he is. He has been the the only player capable of some bit of consistency for this team. Niederreiter because I like to say and write "Nino Niederreiter," that and we had no idea what to expect and has been a pleasant surprise. His crash-the-net mentality is fun to watch, and it seems like he thrives on receiving face washes. Lastly, Granlund has taken the 2nd line center role and run with it. He's better in his own end and is the only one that is creating offense with his skill. I have a hard time putting him in here because of his injury and smaller sample size.
Charlie Coyle C-
Jonas Brodin C+
Dany Heatley F-
I was hoping after we all witnessed "The Shift" Coyle had last season against Vancouver something would click and he'd learn how to use his size to his advantage. His terrible numbers in the faceoffs make me never want him there again. Jonas Brodin has added some offense this year. He has a great shot, but has sacrificed his defensive play. The kid still skates like the wind and still young. I expect to see him starting putting it wll together the second half and into next year. Lastly, The All-Star. I never really had much for expectations for him coming into this season. Although we were all surprised with how good he looked in training camp, he has just failed to provide ANYTHING this far into the season. He's the plow that can't be unhitched.
#3 Mikko Koivu - Kaptain Koivu could also be called Kaptain Klutch this season. His frequent late game heroic, whether it's in the final 5 minutes of games or the shootout, have given the Wild a much better record than they could have had at this point. Other than that, points-wise he's about on-par with his usual. His advanced stats, I'm told, are top-notch, especially at the start of the season. A lot of people will doubt his leadership skills AGAIN just because the Wild are losing, but they will continue to make as much sense as a beehive that lives, breathes and dispenses rainbow gummy bears.
#2 Mikael Granlund - Without a doubt the most improved player on the Wild squad. He's truly starting to look like the savior we hoped he would be. He's shown dynamite chemistry with Jason Pominville, his vision is amazing and he's improved in all three zones. For one thing, he stopped falling over for no apparent reason. That was pretty frustrating to watch last year. Now, he's the bonafide second line center the Wild wanted and needed and his absence was sorely missed when he was injured. He's also shutting up some people that said he was garbage, compared him to 4th line scrubs, or thought he'd be a bust.
#1 Josh Harding - There's no possible way he doesn't make every single one of our top 3 lists. Heck, I'd be surprised to see him anywhere other than #1. I mean, even just playing a professional sport with MS would be enough to at least get him an honorable mention, but the fact that he's playing at the highest level he ever has played, and continues to be one of the top goalies and top stories in the league. Leads the NHL with a ridiculous 1.65GAA (Despite a 5-goal shellacking against the Islanders), 5th in the NHL in wins (18), and sv% (.934) and tied for 2nd in shutouts (3). Simply put, Harding is the sole reason the Wild aren't having an absolutely terrible season right now.
Honorable mention: Justin Fontaine - Apart from Harding's super-duper-mega-season, Fontaine has been the most pleasant surprise of the season so far. This guy about 5% of us expected to make the season has posted 8 goals (tied for third on the team) and 3 assists in 38 games. He's also quite versatie, despite most people thinking he would only be good in a scoring role.
Honorable mention: Nino Niederreiter - Eat your heart out, Islanders and fans. Finally given a REAL chance to play in the NHL, he has proven he belongs. 5th on the team in points with 18, but the only thing preventing him from truly breaking out, in my mind, is the constant line shuffling that prevents him from finding his groove and chemistry with other players. The Granlund - Pominville - Niederreiter combo seems to work pretty well though. This is a big, strong kid with massive potential and a point to prove. Thanks again, Isles.
#3 Dany Heatley - Heater sympathizers will say ''But he's tied for 3rd in team goals''. Sure, but he's also 39K shy of 1st in team for cap hit and has 12 points in 41 games. That is beyond horrible. This gives him 0.29 points per game, which his BY FAR the lowest in his career. His previous worst? Last season. 0.58 points per game. Atrocious. Say what you will about him being 3rd on the team in goals, but the rest of his game is not exactly very good. In fact, it's bad. Really bad. Really, really bad.
#2 - Jason Zucker - It may seem unfair to judge him on his 7 games with the Wild this year, but I'm also judging him on his dubious hits, attitude and effort level this year. Disappointing doesn't even begin to describe this potential-filled player this year. Such a shame. He's been given plenty of chances too, but hasn't been able to capitalize and ultimately lost his spot to Justin Fontaine and now Erik Haula seems to have passed him on the depth chart.
#1 - Niklas Backstrom - It pains me to put him #1, but we have to face the facts: The man who, on paper, should be the starter has barely performed well enough to be a suitable back-up. Something's just off. It's not all on him, of course, but he just hasn't been on top of things. Blame it on injury, blame it on rust, blame it on the Hockey Gods, but something just isn't right. I'm putting him number one because an off night for Heatley or Zucker doesn't have quite the same impact as an off night for Backstrom, and there have been more off nights than on nights for him this season.
Dishonorable mention Charlie Coyle - It's not that he's not playing well, quite the opposite in fact, but to me, it seems like his production is nowhere near where it should/could be. His shooting percentage is pretty low though, so maybe if he can bring it up a little bit and get into a groove, we'll see a better second half from the big guy. Maybe our expectations from him after the pre-season needed to be lowered a bit also.
3- Nino Nieddereiter: When the Wild traded fan favorite Cal Clutterbuck for "Knightrider", no one was sure what the team was getting. Islander fans spent copious amount of energy telling anyone who was listening that Knightrider was a locker room cancer, had a bad attitude, and was a horrible player who couldn't crack an NHL roster. He's tied for 6th in goals, in a 3-way tie for 3rd in assists (with Zach Parise and Mikael Granlund), and in 5th for pts overall. He doesn't look out of place on the top line, and is one of the few players who gives everything he has every game. If there's a scrum going on in front of the opposing teams net, it's a safe beat that Nino is in the middle of it.
2- Josh Harding: Harding has been standing on his head almost all season, and frankly has won almost every game he's played by the sheer fact that for the most part he doesn't allow many goals. He's always had the potential, but after injuries and his illness many people questioned whether he could even goaltend anymore, let alone carry the team most nights. Thanks for proving the doubters wrong Hards.
1- Mikael Granlund: The biggest surprise of the season, by far. After last season, many fans labeled him a bust. He worked his butt of during the offseason, and was one of the best players during training camp. He lost the 2C spot to Charlie Coyle out of camp, but made the opening day roster. When Coyle went down with an injury, Granlund showed fans just how much he had improved, and became the best wing man in Wild history (may be an exaggeration, but still. Insane). The team took a huge nosedive when he went down with a concussion. He's 4th on the team in points, 5th in assists, all while missing 13 games due to injury.
Honorable Mentions: Erik Haula, Justin Fontaine, Jason Pominville, Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise
3- Jonas Brodin: It pains me to have to put him here. After last season, Brodin became a huge bright spot after having an excellent rookie season. He started off the season with the strong offense everyone hoped he improved on over the season, but his defensive play started off decent, became rocky, and then took a complete nosedive. He's been shuffled off the top pair pretty consistently lately. He'll recover and find his game eventually, but the Wild could really benefit from him doing that sooner rather than later.
2- Dany Heatley: Heater came into training camp looking awesome. He was in great shape, played hard, and looked like a completely reformed player. Then the season started. He's typical slow skating returned, he fell down a lot, whiffed on shots and passes, and when he did get a pass off, it went to an opposing player or into the skates of his teammate. His play has improved recently, so maybe there is hope he'll get off this list. Or he's raising hope just to crush it again.
1- Jason Zucker: Once thought to be a lock for the NHL team, Zucker has played a whooping 7 games with the Minnesota Wild. When he was sent down to Iowa earlier this season, he ended up in fights (right or wrong), made very questionable hits, and has managed to rack up 55 PIM, which is tied for the most on the team. Not good for a guy who is suppose to be a top 6 goal scorer. His defensive game appears to not exist on the NHL level, and he keeps trying to use his speed to make plays without realizing that most players at this level are just as fast as he is. There's still hope for him, but he needs to figure himself out quickly.
Dishonorable mentions: Ryan Suter, Keith Ballard, and Niklas Backstrom- He's not in the top threes only because most of this list shouldn't be in the bottom three with their talent. Backstrom is 35, and anyone who didn't think his play was going to decline at least a little is lying. But it should be decline this much, this quickly.