As the playoffs loom ever bigger on the horizon, pundits and fans are discussing each team’s chances of contending for the Stanley Cup. This year the Minnesota Wild are in the mix as one of the widely accepted contenders as they lead the Western Conference in points and have enjoyed strong performances in all phases of the game. Nevertheless, some fans have expressed concerns that the Wild’s playoff dreams will be undone by the lack of a superstar player that can put the team on his back when the chips are down.
I’ve got some good news for anyone that shares that fear: the Wild have superstars on their team. I don’t just mean Vezina favorite Devan Dubnyk either, although at this point I would argue his superstar status can’t be denied (even if I challenged it a bit myself recently). It’s just that they’ve only recently attained that level of play so they aren’t recognized as superstars.
Part of why that might be is that “superstar” is an ambiguous and occasionally meaningless term. Superstar status isn’t just earned by becoming one of the league’s top performing players. If that were the case, Nicklas Backstrom would receive the same hype that his longtime teammate Alex Ovechkin does. After all, Backstrom has actually scored more points over the past three and half seasons than Ovi. Defenseman Erik Karlsson has not only outscored the NHL’s favorite wookie-on-ice Brent Burns, but also Joe Thorton, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Jonathan Toews. Karlsson is a well known player, but he doesn’t receive anything close to the same amount of attention as those players. Other factors clearly come into play including personality and the size of the team’s market.
Here’s the thing though, personality and market size don’t matter when it comes to winning the game. What matters is what happens on the ice. So for the sake of argument, I’m going to define “superstar” as any skater that is among the top ten in scoring at his position. I didn’t consider goalies for this piece, but as stated above, if goalies were being counted, Dubnyk would count.
The Wild have three superstars by this definition this year: Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, and Charlie Coyle. Jason Zucker is three points outside the top ten at left wing. Ryan Suter is two points outside the top ten for defensemen. Eric Staal is three points outside the top ten as a center.* How does this stack up against the playoff conference finalists from the last three years?
*This article was written before last night’s game.
Conference Finalists and Their Superstars
|2016-17||Wild||59.36||2nd||Granlund, Niederreiter, Coyle|
|2015-16||Sharks||53.62||5th||Thorton, Pavelski, Burns|
|2013-14||Blackhawks||55.2||5th||Sharp, Kane, Keith|
|2013-14||Rangers||53.52||8th||St. Louis, Nash|
|2013-14||Canadiens||51.11||12th||Vanek, Subban, Pacioretty|
|*Stamkos missed most of the 2016 playoffs with an injury|
|All stats courtesy of www.puckalytics.com and www.nhl.com|
If you accept my definition of “superstar”, it appears every conference finalist has had at least one player playing like one that season. However, more superstars do not guarantee success. The Stanley Cup-winning 2013-14 Kings only had one superstar. They defeated the New York Rangers, who had two superstars. The two teams they beat to advance to the final both had three superstar caliber players. Last year, two of the four conference finalists essentially had only one superstar (Steven Stamkos missed most of the playoffs with injury). The Sharks had three superstars and fell to the Penguins who had two.
Ultimately, a successful playoff team simply needs to score more goals than their opponent. The Stanley Cup winners from the last three years finished the seasons with GF% ranks of 2nd, 5th, and 6th. Only two of the 12 conference finalists have finished outside the top 10 in GF%. World beating performances are obviously helpful for that, but many players are capable of going on that kind of run during the small sample size that is the playoffs. Last year, Jason Pominville scored at slightly better than a point per game pace. Relatedly, players widely considered superstars can go cold like Toews during the first half of this season.
Currently the Wild boast the second highest GF% in the NHL, behind only the Washington Capitals. What’s more, that GF% is higher than any conference finalist from the past three years by more than two percentage points. It’s doubtful that the Capitals and the Wild finish that high above the conference finalists, but clearly they will be among the highest finishers in GF% the league has seen in recent years.
Opposing teams focus on shutting down the other team’s star players. Sometimes those stars are able to overcome that extra attention, but sometimes it hampers their production and can leave their team in trouble if someone else can’t step up. Who will the Wild’s opponents key in on? Deploying their best defensive players against Granlund would leave Niederreiter and Zach Parise open to strike from their two lines. Keying in on the Staal line opens up the team to the Koivu line which has been one of the best in the entire league.
While you might disagree with my definition of superstar, the Wild’s depth is more than enough of an answer to that (the Wild are tied with the Capitals for first for most 10+ goal scorers with 10; no other team has more than eight). And if you don’t think Granlund, Niederreiter, and Coyle have the superstar x-factor of putting the team on their back on going out and getting the win, please consider the following: