Heading into Thursday’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Wild have won just five times in the last 13 games since the league mandated bye-week because of the World Cup of Hockey. An odd stretch of losing in a season filled with much more winning for the Minnesota Wild. It’s a negative trend that even after a victory against the San Jose Sharks - a game in which the Wild seemed to right a lot of the wrong that has plagued them, the head coach was still reluctant to call them “back.”
While there’s been a lot of conjecture as to why the Wild, firmly atop the Western Conference heading into the bye, have had a struggle as of late, no one theory gets tossed out more is the trade for Martin Hanzal and Ryan White as the Wild concluded the break had messed with the team chemistry. Because why else would a team looking as strong as the Wild did, have its first two consecutive losses since November, and ultimately culminate with the longest losing streak of head coach Bruce Boudreau’s coaching career at five games? It has to be chemistry, right?
First we have to go back leading up to the bye-week to place the move, and the losing into context.
Minnesota was in the midst of an eight-game home stand (partially broken up by the bye-week), and had gone 4-3 prior to the five-day break. They weren’t particularly spectacular in those games. The Wild were getting out-shot (28-33 per 60 minutes), out-attempted (51-68), and were showing signs of cracking having lost to the Chicago Blackhawks twice, and getting shutout by the Anaheim Ducks,
The final game before the bye the Wild sported the following line-up.
Nino Niederreiter - Eric Staal - Charlie Coyle
Jason Zucker - Mikko Koivu - Mikael Granlund
Zach Parise - Erik Haula - Jason Pominville
Chris Stewart - Tyler Graovac - Jordan Schroeder
The fourth line was a line that was constantly getting hemmed into the defensive zone and were giving up a more shot attempts than it was getting itself. In fact, both Tyler Graovac and Chris Stewart were on the wrong side of 50 percent for shot attempts with 38 percent. Jordan Schroeder was only slightly better at 42 percent. That’s a line that no coach, even a future Hall of Fame kind of coach, couldn’t trust on the ice in tight games.
Enter Martin Hanzal. This large-bodied Czech native, was on a bad Arizona Coyotes team. He was a player on the Coyotes that was a positive relative to his teammates in terms of shot and other shot-based metrics. Hanzal could be inserted into the line-up immediately and provide much needed center depth on the lower lines so that head coach Boudreau could comfortably roll all four lines.
The Wild have since controlled shot attempts quite drastically. The trade for Hanzal took place on February 26th (highlighted in the chart below, and the shot-attempt average has risen sharply, mind you, with Mumps, Strep throat, and Norovirus running through the locker room.
And when you look at it, there’s really only two players that have been displaced Erik Haula and Tyler Graovac. The line-up for the win over the Sharks looked balanced with size, speed, and maybe, dare I say, “grit” on each line.
The fourth line alone is strikingly different. Haula can have his ups and downs, while Jason Pominville has been solid all season. Those two should be able to carry the giveaway machine that is Chris Stewart. Martin Hanzal fits on the third line with speedy Jordan Schroeder, and ukulele maestro Nino Niederrieter able to create chances. that leaves Staal and Koivu solidly in their spots, and a line up that can control play.
The numbers agree.
The fourth line of Stewart - Haula - Pominville are all above 50 percent in shot attempts. That means, in nearly one month from the trade, Chris Stewart has improved in shot-attempt percentage by 22 percent! Pominville is close to 60 percent! And all it cost to the previous lineup was a fringe player like Graovac getting sent back to Iowa.
Did it mess up the chemistry? Looking solely at the numbers, it appears the Wild has gotten better. Did it displace any good players? Adding players to the line-up will have a trickle down and some players on the team will be affected, but only one player is now missing out on ice time...and he was having issues staying on the head coach’s good side prior to the move. And this is the NHL. These guys understand the business of professional sports. This isn’t the first time Minnesota has been effected by a trade in the middle of the season. My guess is the locker room welcomed both Hanzal and Ryan White with open arms.
So what is the issue? It’s clear shooting percentage and save percentage is down. Teams have done a great job of taking away the middle of the ice and forcing bad, or lower-percentage shots. It’s something the Wild had done so incredibly well this season - they took away the high danger areas of the ice on defense while going to those tough areas on offense. If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, go back and watch the March 7th 2-1 loss against the Blues. Minnesota will just have to press through and learn to fight to get to those areas if they are looking to be successful into the post season.
So now can this idea that the trade messed with the team chemistry be put to bed? There was a clear issue that needed to be addressed and it was addressed. Sure, defense and a back-up netminder would be useful at this moment as well, but remember, that idea was deemed, “silly,” and “stupid for the Wild to give up more than a 6th round pick to make a seemingly unnecessary upgrade our defensive depth,” when it was brought up prior to the trade deadline.
Either way, a trade was likely to happen and this move made the Wild a better team, even if the results aren’t there at the moment.