Four games into the season is too soon to declare the Iowa Wild's season lost. And yet, it already looks like the Iowa Wild could be in for another season of struggles. They are currently the only team in the AHL that has zero points in the standings after two weeks. It's a bit disheartening, but there could be any number of reasons that Iowa has yet to post any wins.
Drafting NCAA Players
Last spring, Hockey's Future rated the Wild's prospects as a group at 25th in the NHL. In 2011, the Wild was ranked 2nd. The overall quality of the prospects in the pipeline decreased because Chuck Fletcher and management used the prospects and draft picks in trades to obtain impact players for the NHL team.
Most NHL teams draft heavily from the three junior leagues of the CHL. Once a player drafted from one of these leagues graduates to the pro game, he generally plays in the AHL until he is ready for NHL duty or until the team decides that he will never be ready to play for their NHL club. Under Chuck Fletcher, the Wild have chosen a slightly different strategy, favoring players who are NCAA bound. Typically, college bound players spend more years in college than a junior player does in the CHL. It makes sense that the college route would take longer since college student plays fewer games in a season because they are also attending school and are balancing education with their athletic pursuits. But when these players are ready to turn pro, they are physically more advanced than the average younger junior player who turns pro. They are more likely to be ready for NHL action which can cause them to spend less time in the AHL. That's great for the player and for the NHL club, but it can leave the AHL club lacking in talent, which could be one reason that Iowa is struggling.
The good news for Minnesota Wild fans is that prospects are graduating into being NHL regulars at such a quick pace that the AHL team can't keep up. Minnesota has a better chance to be successful in a salary cap based league with contributions from cheaper, entry-level contracts from players who were recently only prospects. That's little consolation though to the fans in Iowa or the players still trying to develop.
Bringing in New Faces
Because of last year's terrible season, Iowa was bound to have some roster turnover. Only 8 guys that have played for the Iowa Wild this season played more than 20 games with Iowa last season. It's hard for a team with that many new players to develop the kind of chemistry necessary to play hockey at a high level. In both of their away games opening weekend in Texas, Iowa was out-shot, but last weekend Iowa out-shot Milwaukee in both games and still lost both games. The new players are combinations of guys who just started their pro careers and free agents acquired to create depth for the Minnesota Wild and have an impact in games for the Iowa Wild.
As can be seen with Thomas Vanek with the big club, it can be hard for even one new guy to get comfortable with his teammates and start to contribute in a big way. Remember how long it took Ryan Suter to finally score when he joined Minnesota? But now that Suter has gotten comfortable, there is no player who is more important to team success. Learning takes time. For Iowa, it's more than just one player who is trying to adjust to the new squad. It's more than half the team! Additionally, there are several players the Wild signed after their time in junior was done, so these players are still adjusting to life on their own. They have to cook for themselves and clean their own places for the first time ever. A lot of these guys are going through life changes and it could have an impact on their production.
Playing a Bad System
Obviously Iowa needs to run the same system that the Minnesota Wild runs so that when a player is called up, he is not lost. Playing within the system needs to be second-nature, especially for a depth player who may not be as skilled as the player he is replacing on the NHL roster. But perhaps the system does not work as well for the prospects in Iowa because they are less skilled than the players on the big club. The 169 goals that the Iowa Wild scored last season was absolute worst in the AHL. The team nearest in scoring futility were the Adirondack Phantoms and the Hamilton Bulldogs which each scored 182 goals. The Minnesota Wild were tied with the Carolina Hurricanes for 7th worst in league scoring by scoring 207 goals, so the system that both Wild teams play is not one that fosters offensive output. That's not to say that a team that doesn't score won't win. The Stanley Cup Champion LA Kings only scored 206 goals last season, and they still managed to win their second Cup in the last three seasons. Would a system less focused on defense give Iowa more success?
Blame Bad Goaltending
There is hope that Johan Gustafsson will take large strides forward this season, but so far, he has struggled. Last Friday, he got pulled after allowing 4 goals on 8 shots. But these weren't all bad goals. The second one probably shouldn't have gone in (first goal in the clip), but the entire team lets Leipsic slide past them like his pants were coated in butter. It's no wonder Gustafsson would be confused about who had the puck and where the puck was!
And on the last two goals, the skaters cannot let the puck get to those areas. A goalie should make a tough save if he has to, but it would be even better if the team would not put him in a position where he has to make a big save.
The goals on Saturday were much softer. The goaltender needs to make a save when an opponent is skating in and there is no traffic.
Even though he allowed a few goals that he should have saved, I'm not ready to panic. Goalies have bad games sometimes. Gustafsson is still developing. The only season he has spent in North America was one where the organization he belongs to had so many goalie problems, and so much instability that it is not surprising that he struggled. If the Minnesota Wild can have more stability in their own net this season, it could really help Gustafsson feel comfortable in his starting role with Iowa. The only way to find out if he can have success in professional hockey is to let him try.
Small Sample Size
Iowa has only played four games. In half of them, they only lost by one goal. If a couple of bounces had gone the other way, Iowa could have won any or all of the games that they played so far. It's too soon to pronounce that Iowa will miss the playoffs again because there simply isn't enough evidence to determine that yet one way or the other. Move along. Nothing to see here.
Wait and See
While it's in vogue to blame Mike Yeo's system or claim that losses must be the goaltender's fault, I don't think it's quite time to panic. Four games is not enough to make judgments even if waiting too long to make changes could also harm the Iowa squad. This team can be better this year and can succeed. Hopefully a week of practice can help build team chemistry, so that the Iowa Wild can try again on Friday to get that first win of the season.