The narrative surrounding the Wild following the 2014-15 season was a message that a few minor tweaks could solve a lot of problems. The team was riding high on the play of a hot goaltender over the second half of the season, while boasting the league's best penalty kill, and allowing the 4th least shots against. A resurgent offense that placed 12th in the league over the full season indicated that things were going the right direction offensively, especially at even strength. But the glaring weakness was the team's power play, mired in a a lowly season-long funk as both units failed to launch, and the coaching staff made minimal changes, which resulted in a full season 15.9% success rate good for 27th in the league. This was the most glaring weakness for a team that made it to the Division Finals by posting stellar defensive stats and above-average offense throughout the regular season.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing for Wild fans to watch throughout the course of last season was not just the ineffectiveness of the power play, but the insistence of the coaching staff to continue to deploy the same personnel and system that was clearly not working. It was a demonstration of the definition of insanity: "Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result," and it was incredibly frustrating to watch. It also led to resounding calls for the firing of Andrew Brunnette, who has been aggressively defended by the head coach and general manager.
Fast-forward to the past offseason, in which Alternate Captains Zach Parise and Ryan Suter did some independent work with NHL hired gun Adam Oates to work on their performance on the PP. This was publicly admonished by Mike Yeo but ultimately contributed to a change in both the personnel and the system as the Wild added Mikael Granlund to the top unit to distribute the puck, and a switch to setting up on the left side. The new look showed some pizzazz in the preseason, which carried over to the regular season. Zach Parise held onto the league lead for goals scored for several games on the back of 3 PP goals early on and the team climbed back up out of the dregs to a respectable but not-dominant 23% through the fist 11 games.
However, in one of the season's most pivotal moments, Zach Parise would be lost to the knee of James Neal on a fateful night in Nashville. The Wild actually managed to score 2 PP goals on 6 tries in that game, but it has been all crickets since then. The team was on an 0-13 slide before last night's game in Pittsburgh without Parise in the lineup, bringing the PP back down to 17.9%, good for 19th place and dropping back to a below average success rate. Over those games, the Wild have lost precious points in the standings with their inability to convert on the PP, most notably last Saturday in Dallas where the Wild had the opportunity to stick a dagger in the Stars with a 3rd period PP in a game they had just tied and swung the momentum back in their favor.
Zach Parise is commonly considered the Wild's best and most important player, and the PP is one of his specialties. It is a situation in which Parise's character matches his role and allows him to excel. The coaches made a surprising substitution by throwing Marco Scandella out in Parise's spot in the right circle and found immediate success as Scandella scored on his first try with the unit. But with Scandella also missing time due to his ailing father, the first unit has been in flux over the 4 games as Parise has been out of the lineup. This has caused the unit to stall and it has descended into chaos over the last couple games as the Wild have failed to hold the zone and register shots on the PP.
This is not only an indictment of the first unit, who has carried the load thus far, but even more so against the second unit, which has again failed to launch. Players from the second unit have 4 PP goals total (Scandella 2, Spurgeon 1, Vanek 1), but as already mentioned, Scandella scored one of his playing on the top unit. To this point in the season, the second unit has 3 goals to the first unit's 7. With players such as Nino Niederreiter and Jason Zucker regularly on the second unit, the expectation has to be higher - even though the first unit gets the lion's share of the minutes.
It appears other teams are catching up with the strategy the first unit has deployed and the second unit has not yet found its groove, and the sadly recurring theme in this situation is that the coaches are again deploying the same system, time and time again, and expecting different results. The personnel has changed, but only due to necessity from injuries. The one exception to that is Thomas Vanek was flipped to the first unit with the incredibly snake-bitten Jason Pominville as the net-front presence just before Parise was injured. That switch gave a glimmer of hope that the coaching staff was willing to make changes, but there haven't been enough changes to either the system or the personnel, as was promised by the coach before the season started.
The solution here is to do something - anything - to get out of the slump. The new system looked good, but teams have adjusted. The second unit is struggling and needs some help as the Wild need to have balance in their attack. This is the best time to scramble the units a bit and see if it sparks some chemistry and offense. Charlie Coyle is playing the best hockey of his life and is barely seeing time on the PP. An elite shooter can score lots of goals from the circles, and with Parise out, guys like Scandella and Niederreiter should be getting a look in his spot. Jared Spurgeon is an elite passer, so the second unit could take the first unit's scheme but flip to the right side and put Spurgeon in Granlund's role as distributor. Coyle should get some time as the net-front presence. There are lots of unexplored possibilities with the talent across the Wild lineup. But whatever the solution is, it starts with the coaches living up to their words in the preseason and changing out struggling players and systems in an effort to get back on track.