When a coach gets fired, a lot of the analysis turns to what effect their replacement will have in the locker room. Over the course of a coach's tenure, their mannerisms, their habits, their tropes lose effectiveness and cause players to roll their eyes.
This happens not only with the players, this can happen with the fans. Once we've been around a coach for a few years, something we may not have thought was a big deal in his first season becomes insanely frustrating. "Wait, Yeo's scratching Fontaine again?!" "Jarret Stoll on the third line?!" "Why on earth is Ryan Suter playing all 2 minutes on this power play?!"
A new coach means a chance to break out of these habits, and breathe new life into the team with creative personnel changes. Here are 5 things that John Torchetti can do to shake up and improve the Minnesota Wild.
Make the Suter-Dumba pairing permanent
This makes too much sense to not happen. Ryan Suter and Matt Dumba have done really well when on the ice together. At the beginning of the season, Yeo paired Suter with Jared Spurgeon, hoping to get more offense out of Suter than when he was paired with Jonas Brodin. And that worked out pretty well, as Suter and Spurgeon were the Wild's best pair for quite a while.
So when I say that the Suter-Dumba pair has been better, don't take that lightly. Suter's controlled play better with Dumba than he has with any other player, getting a whopping 58.4% of shot attempts at 5v5. And it's not just that they're controlling play, they're getting results. Suter-Dumba have out-scored opponents 5-1 at even strength.
They've been great together because their skills complement each other so perfectly that they're able to play their respective game. Dumba can effortlessly create offense, taking the pressure off Suter, who prefers to keep it simple. And on the flipside, Suter's strength and positioning enable him to erase the mistakes that Dumba is prone to making.
In addition, a top pairing of Suter-Dumba enables the Wild to put Spurgeon back with Marco Scandella, giving the Wild two defensive pairings with excellent chemistry.
Put Nino Niederreiter on the penalty kill
Here's some fun stats for you. Among forwards with 25+ minutes on the penalty kill in the last two seasons, Nino Niederreiter's the stingiest defensive player in the NHL, allowing just 24.85 Shots/60. Who's the next-best player? Miikka Salomaki, who allows 29.80 Shots/60. That's an astounding 5-shot gap from Niederretier to the next best player. That lockdown defense has allowed Niederreiter to score as many goals (1) as he's allowed (1) on the penalty kill.
Now, are those numbers at least partially because of small sample size? Of course. But Niederreiter is big, a good defender, and has the speed and shot to score off the rush. Those are the ingredients for an elite penalty killer in today's NHL. With his skills and results, he deserves way more than the 36 short-handed minutes he's gotten these last two seasons.
Emphasize speed, counter-attacking on 3-on-3 OT
One of the Wild's biggest flaws this season was the amount of points they left on the table in overtime. Minnesota went 1-8 in the extra frame, and did so while giving a hefty amount of ice time to players like Mikko Koivu, Mikael Granlund, and Ryan Suter, players who either don't excel in open ice, or don't have the shot to be a serious offensive threat.
A big reason Yeo seemed so married to these personnel decisions in overtime was that he highly valued winning the face-off to establish possession. This isn't a bad thing to go for, but when your best face-off men are far from your best 3v3 options, it's not optimal. Besides, 3v3 overtime means that one mistake by the team with possession almost guarantees an odd-man rush. Losing that faceoff isn't the end of the world.
With that in mind, Torchetti should move away from the Koivus and Suters, and try to get as much speed into the lineup as possible. Dumba, Niederreiter, Jason Zucker, Erik Haula, and Mike Reilly are players whose skill-sets merit more of a look than they've gotten thus far. A bonus suggestion would be trying to take advantage of their many mobile blueliners by playing units with one forward and two defensemen.
Whatever Torchetti decides to change, one thing's absolutely certain: The Wild can't get worse at overtime.
Reunite the Zucker - Koivu - Niederreiter line
A long time ago, back when the Wild were keeping pace with the best the Central Division had to offer, this line was the most dominant in hockey. Getting tough minutes, this line constantly kept opponents hemmed in their zone and generated scoring chance after scoring chance.
But after a scoring drought from Niederreiter, this line, which had been so good, was broken up, never to be united again. And then Stoll came in to do the defensive heavy-lifting, giving Koivu more offensive zone starts. This looks good on paper, but it diminished two key strengths for this line: Koivu's amazing defense and Zucker's ability to get behind a defense and create scoring chances. It's amazing that Yeo never went back to this line, so perhaps Torchetti will try seeing if they can repeat their success.
Put skill over grit on the 4th line
Putting the Koivu line back together gives the Wild a line they can use to absorb the tough defensive minutes. With that, there's not really a reason to focus so much on defense with the 4th line.
Ryan Carter and Chris Porter are good penalty killers, but at even strength, they're one-dimensional, and throwing out them both- or one of them with Stoll- on the 4th line means you've got a line that's not really a threat to score. It's been bad news for Justin Fontaine and Erik Haula, both skilled players who've had struggles scoring when with grinder-types.
The Wild don't have a ton of talent in the minors, but they do have players that can step in and be threats to score. Putting guys like Jordan Schroeder or Tyler Graovac in a 4th-line role would give the Wild the ability to roll 4 skilled lines. Here's a possible configuration that resembles the lines the Wild rolled when they were on their hot streak last year:
Zach Parise - Granlund - Charlie Coyle
Zucker - Koivu - Niederreiter
Vanek - Haula - Pominville
Schroeder - Graovac - Fontaine
These are just a few suggestions. The possibilities to shake up this team are endless. What matters more than Torchetti implementing any one change is him showing the willingness to experiment, tinker, and find creative solutions to get this team out of their rut. Because the Wild simply can't get back into the playoff bubble by rigidly sticking to the status quo.