For the past several seasons, the Wild’s defensive depth has been considered among the league’s best. Ryan Suter is the minute-munching foundation of the group. Jared Spurgeon is the all-around threat that doesn’t receive as much attention as he deserves. Jonas Brodin is the smooth skating, mature, shutdown defenseman that plays well beyond his years. Matt Dumba is the offensive dynamo that sows chaos and reaps points. Marco Scandella is the big body that can punish opponents with big hits or big slappers. Christian Folin, a college free agent steal, is a Swedish bruiser that has a little ways to go but definitely can handle the third pair role. Lastly, Nate Prosser is the seventh man, capable of playing on either side of the puck and can come into games after long stretches and play as well as he normally does.
Some of that praise is deserved. The Wild’s blueline is a good group. They help make goaltenders look good, play an overall responsible game, are able to step up into plays, and most members can step up into the next pairing without causing a mass panic.
Some of that praise, I suspect, was due to the less formidable forward group that the Wild has had before this season. In contrast to the forwards that suffered from little depth, low goal scoring, and an occasionally painful divide between the veterans and the young guns, the Wild defensemen looked very shiny indeed.
The contrast this season is not so favorable to the blueliners, which is a good thing. The forward group has improved as Eric Staal bolstered the center depth, allowing Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund to play on the wings. None of the forwards are scoring goals at a league-setting pace, but as a unit they are one of the best. Naturally, the defensemen’s prestige has come down a little.
An injury to Spurgeon early in the season also revealed that the Wild’s defensive depth is not as strong as it would like to believe. While the Wild do have NHL-caliber RHS defensemen in Dumba and Folin (and Prosser is a serviceable seventh defenseman), neither of them hold a candle to Spurgeon’s all around game.
Scandella’s struggles this season have also been telling. Although he has been on a small hot streak the past several games, Scandella’s game has been noticeably weaker this season. This is likely due to him having to spend the offseason rehabbing from a surgery instead of getting to do his normal exercise regimen to prepare for the season. Instead of being the reliable LHS second-pairing caliber defenseman the Wild could rely on to anchor the third pairing, his game has seemed weak in both physical intensity and ability to clear his own zone.
Scandella’s struggles might be the single most concerning issue for the Wild’s blueline corps. Instead of being able to anchor all three defensive pairings with a solid, defensively sound left defenseman, the Wild are left with a shaky third pairing that can be exploited by the opposition.
There is a possible solution worth trying that comes to the Wild from the Chicago Blackhawks of all places. The Blackhawks have one of the best defenseman in the league in Duncan Keith
even if he was a thugish goon to Coyle’s face. Chicago also has an excellent #2 in Brent Seabrook and have reacquired their solid #3 Johnny Oduya. Niklas Hjalmarsson rounds out the second pairing. However, in 2015, the Blackhawks faced a pretty dire situation with the blueline. Blackhawks head coach Joel Quennville didn’t trust their sixth defenseman with more than nine minutes a night, forcing them to play with five defensemen for most of the time during games. Then Michael Rozsival was injured in the second round against the Wild. This effectively left Quennville with four defensemen he actually felt he could play.
His solution was to split his top pairing of Keith and Seabrook and ride those top four into the ground on the way to a Stanley Cup championship. He divided the top level talent represented by Keith and Seabrook to better bolster the weak defensemen he had to play when they were on the ice and capitalized on their skill as much as possible when he could combine them with Oduya or Hjalmarsson. This strategy worked, in part, because Keith and Seabrook are excellent defensemen, and it worked because the forward group had the talent and depth to offset the disadvantages of overplaying the defensemen.
This is obviously a simplified look at Chicago’s strategy in 2015, but it does illustrate the value in splitting up the top pair. After all, Quennville liked his decision so well that it hasn’t been until late this season after reacquiring Oduya that he reunited Keith and Seabrook for 5v5 hockey.
Boudreau could do likewise. By splitting Suter and Spurgeon, he will be able to anchor his top two pairings. The third pair can be anchored by Brodin. By doing so, the weaknesses in the games of Dumba, Scandella, and Folin can be minimized. Here’s the lineup I suggest:
Suter - Dumba
Scandella - Spurgeon
Brodin - Folin*
*This would be in a few weeks’ time when Folin is able to rejoin the team
Suter and Dumba actually have a (slightly) higher Goals For % (GF%) with each other than with their regular partners, Spurgeon and Scandella respectively. Folin plays far better with Brodin than any other defenseman. While this season has not seen it, Scandella and Spurgeon have been a highly effective duo in seasons past, and I would love to see Boudreau give them a chance to recapture the magic.
The current skid might make it seem like now is a terrible time to mess with the defensive pairings, but the Wild are still in phenomenal playoff position and can actually afford to experiment. A defensive group with no obvious weaknesses will make the Wild that much harder to play against. Any edge the Wild can gain for the playoffs is worth pursuing.