Coach Mike Yeo has come under some amount of flak amongst Wild fans as we have trudged through the first 2 months of the season. His deployment of some of the young guns on this squad has been one of the major points of contention as kids like Nino Niederreiter and Jason Zucker are having career years in the NHL, yet are not getting the kind of minutes many feel they deserve. The rationale being, if they are putting up these kind of mammoth numbers, why would you not want them out there as much as possible?
There is certainly plenty of reason to question coach Yeo's deployment of the veterans over the kids. Just trying to explain in a rational manner how Dany Heatley could possibly play 76 games for the Wild last season is a sure-fire way to give yourself a migraine.
But is it all really as bad as it seems? Is Coach Yeo actually hurting this team by giving the veterans a greater share of ice time than the kids, or is it all in our heads?
The #FreeNino movement has been strong in the Wilderness, and for good cause. Nino Niederreiter has been on fire this season. Coming into tonight's game against the Montreal Canadiens, Nino has scored 11 goals with 3 helpers for 14 points. Conversely, players like Mikko Koivu have scored just 3 goals and 6 assists for 9 points, and Jason Pominville has just 4 goals, but with 11 assists on top of that it's a bit more difficult to argue that 1 winger should be favored over another. Even Charlie Coyle is putting up points that are just 1 or 2 good games away from Nino's. So, is Coach Yeo even favoring the veterans over the emerging youngsters?
It's not the easiest question to answer. When you look at a game as a whole, the argument can be made that Mikko Koivu is struggling to put up points yet he is still getting the most minutes on average. Yet, Mikael Granlund is right up there too, and with 10 points he's not far off from Nino's production early in the season. Part of the issue here lies in the position these players are slotted in at. You very well wouldn't want to bring in a Winger (not named Coyle) at center, and you can't just throw lines together by chucking darts at a cork board.
In all situations, Nino Niederreiter is shooting at an extremely high rate, the same can be said for Jason Zucker. Both players are tickling the twine at a level that rivals that of one Andrew Brunette in both the 2001-02 season and 2009-10 season when he shot at an incredible 19.8% and 19.4% respectively. The Brunette numbers are also coming from seasons when he fired the puck just 106 times in 2001-02 and 129 in 2009-10. It took Brunette no less than 81 games to get those kind of numbers, and Nino has about half those shot totals in just 1/4 of a season.
The idea that Nino can keep up this kind of pace for an entire season is welcoming, but the chances of it actually happening are not the greatest. Even Jason Zucker, who is hovering just under half of Brunette's totals in the same amount of time is a ridiculously high rate for someone that could be flirting with 200 SOG by the end of the season.
It is not so much a matter that Mikko Koivu or Jason Pominville are being heavily favored in time one ice over the course of a game, as they're being favored in time on ice on the power play or penalty kill. There is no arguing that Mikko is one of the best defensive centers in the NHL. What he brings to a team's penalty kill is what has allowed the Wild to kill penalties over 88% of the time. That's 2nd in the NHL with only the Chicago Blackhawks killing penalties at a higher rate.
When we take a peak at the 5v5 ice time, things start to level out a bit across the team.
As you can see, when you separate the situations a little, the numbers start to blend together. Nino's shooting percentage comes back down to earth, with Mikko and Pominville's raising a bit. In fact, only 2 players in these tables show a decrease in shooting percentage, with Thomas Vanek joining Nino Niederreiter in seeing their percentages go down at even strength. We also see the point production start to even out, as Niederreiter drops out of the top spot for goals scored.
When it comes down to it, in the most important part of the game, 5v5, we are seeing a distinction without much of a difference in comparing the veterans with the youngsters. If any argument can be made that Yeo is favoring, it would have to be on special teams, and the power play has been pretty terrible across the board for the Wild. Nino Niederreiter has 4 goals with the extra man, but the Wild's 9.6% conversion on the PP is still only good enough to lift them above the Buffalo Sabres PP in the NHL.
You don't need a microscope to see who is getting minutes on the power play and who is not. Jason Zucker falls into the later of the two. If there is anyone on the roster who deserves more than a sniff with the extra man it is him. Although he has yet to make anything happen, he has not really been given the opportunity to do so. Averaging under 30 seconds a game on the PP will do that to you. Against Buffalo he was gifted over 4 minutes of PP time but was unable to convert. Most games however, he only gets to spit on the ice during the power play. Even Nino is averaging over a minute per game on the PP,
With how the Wild have struggled to produce with the extra skater, you would think it might be time to shake things up. Yet he is still tapping the same guys to jump over the boards game after game with little to nothing to show for it. While it's nice to be dominating the 5v5 play for a great percentage of these games to open the season, getting the motor running on the PP should turn into a huge priority for Coach Yeo and the Wild. Teams are starting to take notice that the Wild are not ones to make you pay for penalties. The risk to reward ratio by throwing out the less experienced kids for the PP should not be something Yeo is afraid of, he should embrace it.
Mike Yeo has never been much the coach to take any real chances with his deployment. When the Wild need a hero, you can almost be assured that Mikko Koivu will be on the ice. Yet with recent history as our guide, you start to see the trend where the youth are really the ones that are finishing games for us. We saw this starting with Jason Zucker 2 seasons ago in the playoffs with his OT game winner against Chicago. We saw this in games 3 and 7 against Colorado last spring when Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter won those games in OT. We are seeing it this year with Marco Scandella stepping up and delivering much more than pizza in 2 overtime games.
We are starting to the kids stepping up and contributing in big ways, yet at the same time we are seeing some of the veterans start to slow down. Jason Pominville is not getting the kind of goals we had expected prior to the season, Mikko Koivu has never been much for scoring goals, but even he seems to have lost a step. Thomas Vanek was brought in here to score goals and he has yet to notch an even strength goal. The season is still young, they have time to catch fire, but right now the Wild need wins. Every point is important, regardless if it's game 1 or game 82. It might behoove Coach Yeo to take a chance once in awhile and throw the Zucker out there on a power play, or give Nino a shot in the shootout.
Being a fan of any sports team means many different things to many different people. The passion we all hold for the Wild means that we only want the best for our squad. It means we get to second guess the decisions being made by the front office, the call-ups and send downs the I-35 corridor to Des Moines, the decisions on who to start in net, and the deployment of the 18 other skaters dressing for each and every game. With expectations on the rise, we should not settle for anything less than a solid effort by the players as well as the coaching staff, and right now it doesn't feel like we are getting that from Coach Yeo.