The Minnesota Wild have a defense problem. They are letting in far more goals than they did last year, and have been saved only by the fact that they are scoring far more than last year. Right? That's what we've been told, what many of us (including this writer) have said. "Our defense hasn't been as solid," we say, confident in our correctness.
Let's evaluate that theory: that the problem with the Wild this season is that the defense just hasn't been there. It is the contention of some that the problem, rather than the defense, is the goalies. We should be able to determine that fairly easily, by looking at a few things.
Goals are the name of the game: the team with more wins. Last season, at 5v5, the Wild allowed a 2.2 goals-against per 60. They scored 2.5 goals per 60. "But the game isn't just played at 5v5" you say. Fine: in all situations, the team allowed 2.4 GA/60, and scored 2.7 G/60.
This year? At 5v5, the Wild are allowing goals at a rate of... 2.2 Goals Against/60. The exact same as last season. They are scoring faster, however, at 2.9 Goals For per 60. In all situations this year the Wild are allowing 2.9 GA/60 but scoring 3.1 G/60.
It's here that I'd remind everyone (myself included) that pretty much everyone who is an authority on descriptive and predictive statistics thinks that stats in "all situations" are of only slightly less use than Stu Bickel. In other words: they are next to meaningless.
Put another way: at even strength, the Wild are allowing goals at the same rate that they did last year, but they are scoring faster. Yet we also know that the Wild's 5v5 Save Percentage has dropped from 92.3% to 90.9%, so clearly there are other things going on if we are saving fewer shots, but allowing the same number of goals.
War on Ice breaks scoring chances down into two flavors: Regular and Extra Crispy High Danger. Last season, the Wild allowed 9.1 High-Danger Scoring Chances per 60, and 23.6 Scoring Chances per 60. This was good for 4th-fewest High-Danger chances per 60 in the league, and 7th-fewest regular Scoring chances. The Wild were very good at suppressing scoring chances last season.
This season, the Wild have allowed 10.5 High Danger Scoring Chances per 60, and 22.9 regular SC/60. Fewer chances overall, but more of those chances are high-danger. Still, from 9.1 to 10.5 is hardly a huge jump: slightly more than one chance per game at 5v5. Furthermore, the Wild are still near the top of the league in terms of defending against scoring chances, at 8th-fewest High Danger chances/60 as well as 8th-fewest regular chances/60.
Yes, the Wild are allowing more high-danger scoring chances, but the difference is minimal, and they are allowing fewer chances overall. By this measure, the defense has done a better job suppressing shots and scoring chances this season, and are solely being let down by their goaltending. Would it be nice to see that HD-scoring chance number drop? Of course, but an increase of 1.5 HDSC/60 over the first 11 games of the season is hardly something to panic about.
Meanwhile, the Wild are creating the same number of High Danger Scoring Chances per 60 (11.2/60 last year, 11.3/60 this year). They are also creating more regular scoring chances, increasing from 26.2/60 last season to 27.4/60 this season. The offense is more effective, and the defense is absolutely as effective.
This is, by far, the best measure at this point in the season, simply because the sample size is the biggest. I've saved the most reliable method for last, because it simply confirms what the previous information has shown.
Last season, the Wild allowed 51.2 shot-attempts against per 60 at 5v5, good for 13h-best in the league. This season, the Wild are allowing 50.5 shot-attempts/60, good for 7th-best in the league.
You read that right: the Wild are allowing fewer shot-attempts per 60 at 5v5 right now than they were last year (though not by much). What's more, the rest of the league has gotten worse, and the Wild are now among the elite in shot suppression (the teams currently above the Wild are Washington, New Jersey, Carolina, St. Louis, LA, and Winnipeg).
Put more simply: the Wild defense is still one of the best in the league and not giving the other team a good look at goal.
The Wild are fine. They are creating more scoring chances and allowing fewer shot attempts than last season, despite what the narratives floating around say. The Wild's problem right now? As with last year, it's in net. Dubnyk has returned to Earth, as we all knew he would.
Would it be nice to be winning games 5-1 or 5-2 instead of 5-4? Of course it would (it'd be easier on my heart, if nothing else). If the Wild continue to play at this level and get competent goaltending, they will make the playoffs.
Even better, we know that defensive errors have been made; if the Wild can eliminate those errors, we can see these numbers improve even more. As Tony will tell us tomorrow, Devan Dubnyk only let in 12 goals on "Low-Danger" shots in 38 games with the Wild. This year, he's given up 7 Low-Danger shots in 11 games. That is amazing, and there's almost no way for it to continue. The concern about Dubnyk will pass, and just how truly defensively sound this team has been will emerge.
All stats are score-adjusted and courtesy of War on Ice. Those guys rock