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Wild Improvements: Offense From the Blue Line

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The team needs to be able to generate more shots from its defensemen if they want to improve this year.

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

In a recent interview with the Pioneer Press, head coach Mike Yeo stressed how the Wild need to score more goals.  To do this, the team is trying to integrate its defensemen into the offensive play.

"Number one, we've got to score more goals so we're trying find different ways to create offense and different ways to try to outnumber the opposition.  The second part of it is, looking at our personnel, we have a mobile group of defensemen, a group that all has the ability to generate offense because of their skill sets," said Yeo.

It's been no secret that this team has trouble scoring goals.  Last year's average of 2.43 goals per game was good for 24th in the league.  It's also been established throughout franchise history that the team struggles to produce offense from the blue line, especially at even strength.

Last season, Wild defenders put up 18 goals at even strength.  At first glance that number is at least somewhat respectable.  It's the third highest total in franchise history and the most since the 2005/2006 season.  It's a far improvement over recent years, with only 4 total goals in the 2013 shortened season and 9 in 2012/2013.  Individually, Jonas Brodin's 5 even strength goals were the most since Marc-Andre Bergeron put up 7 in 2008/2009.

Furthermore, 18 goals was about league average last year, with Ottawa leading at 33 and the New York Islanders at the bottom with 10.

However the stat most concerning isn't the amount of goals scored, but the number of shots taken.  Last year, the Wild defensemen put up only 389 shots on goal, good for 28th in the league, just above Montreal and Edmonton.  In contrast, Boston almost doubled that total with 717 and even Buffalo produced more with 432.

Here's a chart of last year's totals.

5v5 Scoring Totals from Defensemen
Team Shots from Def Goals from Def Def Sh%
Boston 717 32 4.5%
Vancouver 648 22 3.4%
Ottawa 630 33 5.2%
Chicago 598 19 3.2%
Winnipeg 597 31 5.2%
Tampa Bay 592 25 4.2%
Phoenix 585 27 4.6%
NYR 581 19 3.3%
San Jose 576 22 3.8%
St. Louis 576 20 3.5%
Nashville 557 31 5.6%
Los Angeles 526 19 3.6%
Pittsburgh 520 23 4.4%
Washington 520 22 4.2%
Carolina 511 18 3.5%
Columbus 506 15 3.0%
Anaheim 475 21 4.4%
Calgary 471 16 3.4%
Colorado 468 30 6.4%
Toronto 464 26 5.6%
NYI 463 10 2.2%
New Jersey 458 13 2.8%
Dallas 457 15 3.3%
Philadelphia 452 21 4.6%
Detroit 448 16 3.6%
Buffalo 432 14 3.2%
Florida 431 17 3.9%
Minnesota 389 18 4.6%
Montreal 367 12 3.3%
Edmonton 315 19 6.0%

Ouch.  To put this in more context, last year's league average for even strength shots on goal by defensemen was 511.  The Wild were 122 shots below average, about 1.5 shots per game.  The team may have been lucky to get to 18 goals, shooting .5% above league average at 4.6%.

Another way to look at it is from an individual perspective.  Shots per 60 measures how many even strength shots on goal a player will have if he plays a full 60 minutes.  The league average for all 276 players who played at least 50 minutes last season was 3.81 shots/60.  The only Wild players to beat that benchmark were Jonathan Blum and Matt Dumba.

5v5 Scoring Totals
Player Total Shots Goals Sh% iFenwick Sh/60
Ryan Suter 92 3 3.3% 134 3.13
Marco Scandella 71 3 4.2% 109 3.57
Jared Spurgeon 63 3 4.8% 107 3.26
Jonas Brodin 54 5 9.3% 81 2.17
Clayton Stoner 46 1 2.2% 59 3.72
Nate Prosser 26 1 3.8% 47 2.33
Keith Ballard 20 2 10.0% 33 2.26
Jonathan Blum 11 0 0.0% 16 4.07
Matt Dumba 6 0 0.0% 14 3.78

In fact, Blum was the only Wild defensemen to eclipse 4 shots per 60.  In contrast, Vancouver had 8 different skaters beat that number, Ottawa had 7 and almost every team had more that 3.

Of course, the above stats only measure shots on goal.  Are the Wild just missing the net and therefore not registering as many shots?  Well yes, but only to a point.  By measuring iFenwick, you can see how many unblocked shots an individual takes.  The Wild's defense iFenwick was 594 last season, again putting them in 28th in the league and well below league average.  The Wild hit the net on 65.5% of their shots.  That number isn't great, but it's only slightly below average and doesn't explain the low shots on goal.

Forward Struggles

Now it is worth noting that the Wild forwards also struggled to put up shots on goal.  You can't blame the entire goal-scoring problem on the defense and you really shouldn't.  After all, the job of a forward is to produce offense first and foremost.

Wild forwards produced 112 even strength goals last season, good for 24th in the league.  They put up 1,286 shots, putting them at 23rd in the league.  Obviously that's not ideal, but it may not be as bad as it seems.

The forwards were only 86.9 shots below average, shooting at about the same rate as teams like Pittsburgh and St. Louis.  The numbers aren't elite in any way, but they are not hopeless.

While both groups struggled offensively last season, it is the defensemen that need the most improvement this year.  For the stats enthusiasts out there, defensemen put up 122 shots below the league average, about 1.38 standard deviations from the mean.  Forwards were only 87 shots below average, only .8 standard deviations from the mean.

Going Forward

It's a good thing Mike Yeo and the coaching staff are realizing the importance of using defensemen as part of the offence.  It looks as if the players are getting the message, with 22 shots and 2 goals from defensemen in the first two games.

This team has the potential to have a dangerous D-corps.  We've seen Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella jump into plays to create odd man rushes.  Ryan Suter can do just about anything.  Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba have big offensive upside.  None of them have to be Erik Karlsson, but slight improvement by the entire corps can go a long way.

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Data obtained from Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com