It's no secret that the Minnesota Wild have been trying for years to obtain an offensive superstar to fill the void left by Marian Gaborik 7 years ago. These attempts have been a mixed bag, with Zach Parise having come closest to accomplish this. Without a Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Vladimir Tarasenko, or Nathan MacKinnon to terrorize opposing defenses, the Wild have had to win games in a different way.
Over the last two seasons, their answer for their lack of a game-breaking star has been their depth. And it's actually worked decently for them, as they won a playoff series in each of the last two years before running into the Chicago Blackhawks. It was especially crucial last season, when Minnesota was able to topple a tough Blues team with perhaps their deepest team ever. Check out these lines the Wild iced in Game 1 of last years series against St. Louis:
Parise - Mikael Granlund - Jason Pominville
Jason Zucker - Mikko Koivu - Chris Stewart
Thomas Vanek - Charlie Coyle - Nino Niederreiter
Sean Bergenheim - Kyle Brodziak - Justin Fontaine
There wasn't a line that was nightmare inducing as ones that, say, a team like the Capitals, Penguins, or Stars could ice. But then-coach Mike Yeo was able to put any of those lines out there with confidence.
This strength has vanished this season, and is perhaps the biggest factor in the Wild's decline from being a 100-point team last season to an 87-point team this year.
Some of this was due to salary cap issues. Say what you will about players like Stewart, Bergenheim, and Brodziak- they were fine role players who generally worked well within the Wild's system, and weren't outright liabilities on either side of the puck. Without them, the Wild's fourth line has gone from decent to one of the worst in the league.
Some of this was due to unexpected steps back. Zucker scored 21 goals in 51 games last season, leading many fans to wonder if he could reach 30. Zucker fell well short of that mark, scoring just 13 goals in 71 games. Pominville had his detractors after a disappointing 18-goal season, but I don't think anyone imagined him falling off a cliff and scoring only 11 goals on the year.
The scary thing about the Wild's issues with their depth? They were actually healthy this year. Really healthy. Minnesota had just 141 man games lost this season- the 4th fewest in the league. And they were only able to scrape together 87 points. Can you imagine how awful things could've been if this team was getting pummeled by injury woes?
Well, luckily for all of us fans in Minnesota, we're about to get a taste of that.
Parise & Vanek will not travel with #mnwild for Games 1 & 2. Parise is out indefinitely with an upper-body injury: https://t.co/UnyWGtxXwc— Minnesota Wild (@mnwild) April 13, 2016
And that's bad, right? Parise and Vanek are two of the biggest scoring threats on the team. But hey, at least the Wild didn't also lose one of the hottest centers in the NHL, right?
Erik Haula likely won't play in Game 1, #MNWild interim coach John Torchetti said.— Chad Graff (@ChadGraff) April 13, 2016
The #MNWild will enter Game 1 of their series against the Conference-best Stars w/o their 3 best per-minute scorers. pic.twitter.com/MUsr6VeYg1— The Narrative Slayer (@TonyWiseau) April 13, 2016
CONFIRMED: The injury bug has bitten Minnesota hard at the worst time possible. Here are the lines the Wild will bring to Game 1 tomorrow night:
Zucker - Koivu - Coyle
Niederreiter - Granlund - Pominville
Chris Porter - Zac Dalpe - David Jones
Ryan Carter - Jarret Stoll - Fontaine
What a difference a year makes. The Wild will go from having 3 scoring lines to being a two-line team paired with a duo of lines that are markedly worse than what Minnesota used as a fourth-line the year prior.
This hurts doubly for a team like Minnesota. Without an elite scorer to potentially carry the load through these tough times, the Wild are left with no fall-back to provide offense if they can't get it going offensively.
And remember- Games 1 and 2 are in Dallas, meaning Stars coach Lindy Ruff- not John Torchetti- is going to be able to dictate the line-matching for this squad. For a team that has issues defensively like the Stars, this is a dream, as they now have multiple options to attack the Wild's Top-6.
They can go best-on-best, attempting to tire out Koivu and Niederreiter lines by forcing them to defend the likes of Benn, Seguin, Jason Spezza, and Patrick Sharp. This has been a strategy used effectively by the Chicago Blackhawks, as forcing Koivu to defend the Jonathan Toews - Marian Hossa line leaves him without much in the tank offensively.
Or they could send their defensive lines out against Minnesota's Top-6 and let the Stars' stars pick apart a bottom-6 that's just barely a notch above AHL-caliber (but only thanks to Fontaine).
With Parise, Vanek, and Haula in the lineup, this match-up was going to be extremely tough for Minnesota to pull off. Without those three giving the Wild any semblance of depth to their forward corps, it'll take miraculous goaltending for the Wild to even have a chance.