(Note: This article will be analyzing the recent cases of mumps from purely a "how this affects the team" standpoint. I will note here that I have equal concern for the welfare of all NHL players who are at risk to contract mumps, regardless of skill level, and even if they're Corey Perry. With that in mind, let's continue.)
Going into the season, the Minnesota Wild's strengths lay in two areas. The first was their forward depth, and while it hasn't resulted in a ton of goals in November, it's very apparent when you see that the Wild have yet to be out-shot by their opponent this season.
The other area was their Top-4. Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella, and Jonas Brodin entered the season primed to be a very solid Top-4. Not flashy, but a group of players that could move the puck up the ice and defend well. So far this season, it's been more than advertised. Ryan Suter has upped his point production, all while logging 29 minutes a night. Jared Spurgeon is one of the leading scorers among defensemen in the NHL. Marco Scandella is flashing a big shot with his two-way game. And finally, Jonas Brodin isn't getting on the score sheet, but he's rebounded from the tentative player we saw last year and is looking much more like the calm, collected rookie he was in 12-13.
So what's the problem? Why was I concerned with the defense going into this year when we had such a good Top-4? Because when you went beyond that, it was shaky. Really shaky. The veteran third-pairing options on this team were (and still are) Keith Ballard and Nate Prosser. The Wild did have a few rookies they hoped would step in and perform right away, but both Mathew Dumba and Christian Folin have been underwhelming thus far.
In fact, none of them have managed to have a positive impact on the ice this season, as the Wild have yet to out-score their opponents (at 5v5) with any of them on the ice. Some of it has to do with luck, but the eye test corroborates with this- the Wild's third-pairing options are not ready, or not good.
Thankfully, the Wild were able to mitigate these issues at the start of the season by simply relying more on their Top defensemen. The Wild currently have 3 defensemen who average over 23 minutes a night- only the New York Rangers rely on their Top-3 as much. Marco Scandella isn't far behind them, either, logging "only" 21:18 minutes of Time on Ice per game. Thanks to the Top-4 logging such heavy minutes, the Wild have been able to keep all other defensemen averaging 14:10 minutes a night (Folin) or less.
This ecosystem was disrupted, however, after 9 games, when Jared Spurgeon went down to injury. Other factors played into this, of course (Parise was injured during this span, poor shooting luck occurred), but the Wild went 1-4 in Spurgeon's absence. With Wild fans getting a glimpse of what life is like when you have to turn over 18-20 minutes to inferior defensemen, they were understandably excited at his return last night.
And then mumps happened. To be fair, this isn't the first round of mumps infection the team suffered- a few weeks ago Ballard had them, and Folin almost certainly contracted them as well. But the loss of Ballard and Folin hurt the team only slightly at best. This time, it's going to hurt a lot more for the Wild, as Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin are ill from the mumps virus.
The Wild adjusted to these losses last night, playing Suter and Spurgeon a combined 58:57. Even with Spurgeon playing Suter-esque minutes, that meant that the Wild had to distribute over an hour of ice time among four less-than-ideal third-pairing options. This ended up being good enough to curb-stomp Buffalo last night, but this lack of reliable depth could easily mean the Wild will continue to struggle until their Top-4 is healthy again. Not obtaining a defenseman that could provide quality depth to the blueline this season looks to be the Wild's Achilles' Heel, and a hole they certainly had the cap space to fill short-term instead of settling for Nate Prosser.
In fairness, no one could have anticipated a mumps outbreak ravaging the Wild's defense. But unless it's a chronic issues, injuries in general are hard to anticipate. The trick is to prepare the best you can for scenarios where you'll have to rely on your depth. The Wild were hoping that either Folin or Dumba were advanced enough, or that Ballard and Prosser were good enough to step up in such a scenario. The early results suggest they aren't, or at least aren't enough to be a net positive in such a role.
But enough being Captain Hindsight- is there any way the Wild can insure against this problem in the future?
A quick fix may be recalling Jonathon Blum from Iowa (AHL). Blum hasn't seen much playing time last season, last year's playoffs, or this season, but from an outsider's perspective, it's hard to see why. In a limited sample (16 games) since the start of the 13-14 season, Blum actually leads Wild defensemen in some major possession statistics. This is in part because he's played softer minutes than other third-pairing options, but Blum's performance has been good enough that it merits a greater opportunity. Frankly, I'm baffled that the Wild have been so reluctant to utilize his puck-moving to try and replace the skills of Spurgeon and Brodin.
As for an outside solution, there aren't any free agent options that would represent an upgrade to the bottom-pairing defense, but there's still the option to improve their depth via a trade. Our own Ger Devine has been on the bandwagon to acquire either Jeff Petry or Martin Marincin from the Oilers, both being rumored to be on the trade block. Rob Vollman of ESPN.com speculated about a potential Mike Green trade a few days ago. Jason Brough of Pro Hockey Talk highlighted a few other defensemen that could be moved.
Defensemen in this league tend to not come cheap, but making a trade for even a rental defenseman could solve the Wild's depth problem short-term, and bolster their Stanley Cup hopes six months from now.