This is the final portion of my breakdown of Rob Vollman’s latest edition of The Hockey Abstract and it couldn’t come at a better time with the injury depleted Minnesota Wild sitting at 1-1-2 to start the season. Today: the coaching staff and the prospect pool.
There are already a lot of things you could say when looking at both. Bruce Boudreau has historically never been able to break through the ceiling of a Conference Final despite several President’s Trophy-winning clubs. The Iowa Wild, though completing the league’s biggest turnaround last season, have been consistently on the outside-looking-in at the AHL playoffs in the Central Division.
It’s a development league, but so far of the 2017-18 players on the current Minnesota Wild roster, newcomers Mike Reilly and Gustav Olofsson are the only players to have spent more than 80 games in the AHL (save Mitchell’s 211 AHL GP and Christoph Bertschy’s 143 AHL GP playing on the “Iowa Line” last Saturday).
Once again, the Hockey Abstract called the pre-season incarnation of the Wild a team that “remains a strong candidate for a home playoff seed.” The metrics, however, show an average team that has since been decimated by injuries to start the season. Thank the Hockey Gods (and the scheduling department) for the much needed week of rest.
1. Possession: 18th (“Top lines are great, their depth lines are not”)
2. Shootout: 18th (“They have the shooters, but Dubnyk is weak in the shootout”)
3. Goaltending: 7th (“Dubnyk has great upside, but is without a proven backup”)
4. Penalty Kill: 15th (“It’s nothing to write home about, but it does the trick”)
5. Power Play: 15th (“Minnesota is roughly average [...] including the power play”)
6. Scoring Line: NR (“Staal really helped bring the scoring line back to life”)
7. Shutdown Line: NR (“Koivu was a Selke finalist, and Granlund could be next”)
8. Forward Depth: NR (“They have a very strong third line, but not much after that”)
9. Top Pairing: NR (“Suter finished top-10 in Norris race [...] Spurgeon finished 13th”)
10. Second Pairing: NR (“need breakout seasons from Brodin and Dumba”)
11. Defensive Depth: NR (“Just one injury, and Quincey is in the top four”)
The crown jewel of the Minnesota Wild make-up according to the team at the Abstract where they praise their leadership as being “experienced and accomplished” in an area of analytics they view as the “most undervalued and understudied aspect of team analysis” in the summer months.
So, what do they look at exactly instead of simply looking at overall points, playoff success, and Jack Adams awards? Well, they do look at points from the previous season, but then get to their conclusion by:
“regressing them towards the league average by the historical average of 35%. That means that the good teams need to stay good, bad teams need to improve by more than they would have with any other coach, and average teams just need to get better” (Vollman, 48).
The result is a stat they call PAX or “points above expectation (think GAR, but for coaches),” and Bruce Boudreau is the best in terms of PAX per 82 out of any coach in the past five seasons. With the metric from the Abstract, a bench led by Boudreau is expected to have almost ten more points (9.8) in the standings as they would without him.
Compare that to previous head coach Mike Yeo (1.1) and interim coach John Torchetti (-4.6) and you get a pretty good idea that Boudreau was a large reason why the Wild set a franchise records for points last season. Doug Weight is the next closest for the Islanders at 9.6, but only has 40 games coached under his belt.
Boudreau falls into that “elite” category, with the average being around five or six points of PAX in the NHL. In that five year span, thirteen other coaches have amassed more total points that Boudreau’s 1,006, but the closest of those 1,000+ point winners is, now Dallas head coach, Ken Hitchcock with a PAX of 5.2.
But the Abstract doesn’t stop there. Yes, the NHL is a different animal than coaching the Lincoln Stars (no offense), but then Vollman and his friends go a look at each current NHL coach’s entire body of work under (allegedly). In the case of Boudreau, they don’t count his 120 games behind the bench of the Ft. Wayne Komets of the IHL where he was also a player/assistant for one season.
Instead, they look at the 865 games coached in his time in the AHL (655) where he won a title with Hershey, and his ECHL tenure (210) with the Mississippi Sea Wolves, where he also won a league title. Other coaches are judged by their NCAA and CHL stats.
It bears mentioning that since he became the head coach of Mississippi back in 1996, he’s only missed the postseason three times as a head coach: twice outright (Mississippi/Anaheim Ducks) and once because he was handed his pink slip (Washington Capitals).
With the adjusted PAX for all head coaches at the beginning of 2017-18, Boudreau is still “elite” with the second highest PAX per 82 all-time at 7.6 points per season. Doug Weight is at #1 with a 9.6. However, this is only because Weight has 0 games of head coaching experience after his retirement from the NHL after playing 18 games for the Islanders in 2010-11, but has been behind the bench as an assistant and in the front office as the team’s Assistant GM to Garth Snow.
The next closest NHL head coach? Jon Cooper, a full point behind the career PAX per 82 of Boudreau with a 6.6 rating.
The “staff experience” that was mentioned is also deep. Bob Woods joined the bench this year after two years in the WHL and as an assistant with Buffalo last year. Prior to that, Woods’ relationship with Boudreau goes back to his playing days as a player/coach with the Mississippi Sea Wolves in the 1998-99 season. He took over as head coach for the Sea Wolves when Boudreau left for the AHL and the two reunited in Hershey in 2005. When Bruce left to take over the Capitals gig, Woods stayed behind and took Hershey all the way to a Calder Cup championship.
Assistant John Anderson and Boudreau played two seasons together as members of the Toronto Marlboros in the OHA; the precursor to the OHL. They were also off-and-on teammates with the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1977 to 1983. After their playing days, Anderson won two IHL and two AHL titles as the skipper for the Chicago Wolves from 1997 to 2008. He was promoted to NHL head coach with the then-Atlanta Thrashers, and headed back to the Wolves in 2013, where he stayed until Bruce gave him a call to join the bench last season.
Darby Hendrickson, who dressed from Wild practice on Monday, has been a Wild assistant coach since 2011. A former stand-out at the U and an NHL veteran of 518 games, he helps bridge the gap between the youth and the elder statesmen on the coaching staff. Also in this group are development coaches Brad Bombardir and Richard Park who are act as the communication between Des Moines and St. Paul.
Bob Mason has been with the Wild since 2005 and has been Dubnyk’s goalie whisperer through all of his success. GM Chuck Fletcher and Boudreau did alright by not rocking the boat here.
So, what can we conclude? Boudreau has been successful everywhere he has been all the way back twenty years ago with a team that no longer exists. He’s been to the mountain top in two different development leagues, but still has yet to reach the Stanley Cup Final after coming a game seven away from it in 2015. But he also hasn’t done it all on his own. He and his NHL staff account for seven development league titles. All have tasted success at some level, but now they’re pulling together to get to a Cup final, something a Minnesota team hasn’t done since 1991.
With the added challenge of having to coach with a team that has a line of AHLers, Minnesota fans are about to see what kind of coaching Boudreau can do on the fly.
At the time of it’s publishing, the Abstract said of the Wild’s prospect pool, “Joel Eriksson Ek could be a factor, but that’s about it”. If your name is Luke Kunin, a gold medal winner at the junior level as captain for Team USA, that’s a prognosis that could put a chip on your shoulder.
To be fair, JEE has also captained a WJC squad for Sweden. He also won the award for the SHL’s best junior player last season with 16 pts (8G/8A) in 26 games for Färjestad BK and there wasn’t much discussion about whether or not he would make the Wild roster out of camp to start this season. The only guy really competing against him for his third line center spot would be 40-year-old Matt Cullen, fresh off a Cup run with Pittsburgh.
What the Abstract did was compile a “Subjective Assessment of Organizational Strength” for the 2017-18 season based upon rankings from AHL performance the previous season, The Score, ESPN, the Hockey Writers, and Last Word on Sports. The rankings are then added up, and the lowest score denotes the strength of the organization prospects-wise.
As you might guess, the Toronto Maple Leafs have emerged from their rebuild cocoon, and are now a beautiful goal scoring butterfly behind a ton of youth picked up from their playoff drought with a aggregate of 19. Vegas didn’t have an AHL-affiliate last season, so there are only thirty teams on this list and Minnesota’s organization comes in at 26th with a score of 116.
Some would argue that AHL success shouldn’t be a barometer by which to measure franchise success. It’s a development league, and you develop the best players with the talent that you can accrue. Brian Flahr, the GM for Iowa, was able to go out and get a bunch of support this summer to complement the NHL contracts for guys like Cal O’Reilly, Landon Ferraro, Alex Grant, and Ryan Murphy. To Iowa’s credit, they also had the biggest turnaround in the AHL last season (+31 points) without these additions and a roster that was led in scoring by 30-year-old Pat Cannone.
A lot of this credit can be paid towards coach Derek Lalonde, who is of the belief that the best way to foster success for development players is to win, something that Iowa hasn’t had a lot of success with since beginning operations back in 2013.
Apart from ESPN’s prognosis at 17th out of 30 NHL teams, the other scores are pretty similar. The Score gave development structure 27th, Hockey Writers at 28th, and Last Word at 25th. I for one, would want to rank Minnesota’s prospect structure closer to ESPN’s diagnosis (Corey Pronman now works at The Athletic). Though there are some concerns.
First off, it’s hard to judge AHL talent and how success in the “Always Hungry League” translates to the NHL. Teemu Pulkkinen is still trying to figure things out after successes with now three different franchises at the AHL level (Detroit, Minnesota, and now Arizona). He got the name of Pul-cannon, but looked more like Pul-musket as his AHL speed didn’t quite match-up with the NHL’s.
This summer, the Wild had to trade away arguably their best, NHL-ready prospect in Alex Tuch to soften the blow of Vegas pillaging all 30 teams in expansion.
There are a variety of problems facing the Wild’s prospect depth, namely that some of their most promising ones are playing in Europe. Kirill Kaprizov, the third of Minnesota’s youngin’s to captain a WJC team, is the leading scorer for CSKA Moscow through 17 games played and 18 points (10G/8A). After this summer’s announcement, his future for the Wild is far from a lock.
Kaapo Kähkönen has been the most successful netminder in the prospect pool, and he currently plays for Lukko in Finland’s Liiga. Through fifteen starts, the 21-year-old leads the league with a 1.63 GAA and .936 SV% as the team from Rauma sits at fourth on the league table at 10-5-0 (3 OTW).
If you need something to believe in, look at the blueline. Iowa is starting two rookies, Carson Soucy and Brennan Menell, and both seem to be up to the task to start the season. Both have multi-point games through the first four games of the season. Both have been members of the penalty killing unit. Soucy has a few starts on the top pairing. Menell has been a member of Lalonde’s 4F1D power play and ousted Gustav Bouramman as the team’s youthful, offensive-defenseman to start the season.
Both Menell and Kähkönen have come out of relative obscurity to being a few of the system’s top performers. Neither were mentioned in our Top 25 Under 25.
I haven’t even mentioned the college level prospects, but there are a few guys in the system outperforming highly touted Jordan Greenway to start the season.
Luke Kunin made his much anticipated NHL debut last Saturday against Columbus, but it could be construed as a move out of necessity rather than out of readiness as he is still adjusting to moving from center to wing to center and back to wing all summer.
Should the Wild be ranked higher than 17th that Pronman bestowed upon them all the way back in August? Probably not. That could be considered obvious since Minnesota is currently using a line of AHLers to round out their depleted roster. If Kaprizov was in North America, I’d have more hope. If Kähkönen was showing that kind of success in Iowa, I’d be bordering of ecstatic. But there is some promise. There are some flashes.
That wraps up a closer look into Rob Vollman’s Hockey Abstract, 2017. Given the woes of Minnesota thus far, let’s hope that this is the end and the team can start building towards being a playoff team.