The Winnipeg Jets are in the Western Conference Final and look like a team that has almost everything figured out at exactly the right moment. The Wild, on the other hand, looked like a team that still had several things to learn and unluckily ran out of time to do so in the playoffs. Here are some of those lessons.
The Lack of an Outstanding Physical Team Attribute can Undermine a Good System
Even before Bruce Boudreau took over as head coach for the Wild, they were known as a team that was focused on using structure and disciplined play to exploit opponents’ weaknesses and control play. With Boudreau taking over, that style of play has improved and led the Wild to a 100+ point season both years under their new coach. At a baseline level, it’s been a successful approach for the team but the Jets exposed its limitations. Chief among them, good structure without some exceptional physical attributes is vulnerable to any team that has both.
The Jets imposed their system on the Wild. The Jets were able to hem the Wild into their own zone and stifle the Wild’s neutral zone play all series long. Why? I don’t think it’s because the Jets’ head coach Paul Maurice has created a better system than Bruce Boudreau. Up until this year, most people were of the mind that Maurice was holding the Jets back if anything whereas Boudreau has had an undeniably positive impact on his club. The reason the Jets won the battle of the structure is because the Jets had the physical tools to force the Wild to play the game on their terms. The Jets were bigger and faster than the Wild, and that created numerous opportunities for the Jets to disrupt the Wild’s gameplan. A good system and solid structure can’t overcome another team that is also committed to playing their system and has a big edge in speed, size, or both.
If the Wild want to have a better chance at success in the offseason, then they are going to have to have more going for them than just a good system at work. Just about every team in the playoffs has a good system. It’s the teams that can augment that system with exceptional physical tools that make the deep runs. That or their goaltender goes on an insane tear.
The Neutral Zone cannot be the Achilles’ Heel
The Wild’s struggle with successfully moving through the neutral zone was mentioned above, but it merits a deeper look. The Wild have been one of the best teams in the NHL at limiting high danger scoring chances over the past two seasons. It partially comes from allowing opponents to attempt a higher number of low danger chances than average, but all in all it shows that their play in their own zone is acceptable. The desire for more “finish” in the offensive zone is pretty ubiquitous around the entire league, much less just the Wild, but the upshot is that struggling in the opponent’s end of the ice is essentially risk-free. In any case, in the Wild’s first season under Boudreau, they were scoring plenty of goals and injuries this past season surely played a role in the struggles this season.
What has become an unacceptable liability in the Wild’s game has been the consistent struggle to control the puck through the neutral zone. Outside of Mikael Granlund, name one Wild player whose neutral-zone play is a strength of their game. Unless you count the stretch pass ability occasionally put on display by Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon, there probably isn’t anyone you would put down on that list, right? Jason Zucker sometimes can use his speed to blitz through the middle zone, and Eric Staal’s vision will result in a breakaway every so often, but there is a dearth of players on the Wild whose neutral zone-play instills a high level of confidence.
As a result, teams like the Jets are able to severely constrain the Wild’s chances. Those puck possession metrics tilted heavily against the Wild aren’t just because the Wild deliberately surrender low scoring chances. They’re like that because the Wild aren’t good at possessing the puck through the neutral zone (which in turn limits how often they can enter the offensive zone with the puck under control). This smothers the Wild’s offense and forces them to spend more time in their own zone. That leads to more scoring chances for their opponents and more work for themselves.
Create as Many Opportunities for the Offensive Defensemen as You Can
Dustin Byfuglien has been a force in the playoffs, scoring 15 points in 14 games (the most of any defenseman in the playoffs and 13th for all skaters). He’s also been a physical force, delivering 3.4 hits per game for a total of 48 (third overall). When he’s on the ice, he isn’t just a factor in the play, but rather he is very often the focus of the play. The Jets know that they have a powerful player with a big shot in Byfuglien, so they do what they can to give him opportunities to be involved in the play. Big Buff’s offense isn’t a nice bonus the Jets enjoy every once in awhile, but a key source of scoring they rely on. This is true even though the Jets have plenty of offense available among their forward group.
The Wild didn’t have the scoring depth the Jets did this past season, and yet it seems the Wild have been less willing to rely on the scoring their blueliners can provide than the Jets. Some of this is recency bias. Byfuglien has been on fire during the playoffs and the Wild’s offense was anything but. During the regular season, both Ryan Suter (6g-45a-51p) and Matt Dumba (14g-36a-50p) outscored Byfuglien (8g-37a-45p) on the season and Jared Spurgeon (9g-28a-37p) wasn’t far off either despite losing 21 games to injury (Byfuglien also dealt with injuries this past season, playing in 69 regular season games). All that being considered, a look at power play stats shows that the Wild have been reluctant to rely on their best offensive threats on the blueline. Suter leads all defensemen in all forms of time on ice. Here’s a chart breaking it down.
Defensemen Time on Ice
|Player||TOI/GP||PP TOI/GP||SH TOI/GP|
|Player||TOI/GP||PP TOI/GP||SH TOI/GP|
I don’t hate the time on ice per game (TOI/GP). Suter can handle that among of gameplay and it’s down from the peaks of a few seasons ago. What is a problem is the power play time on ice per game (PP TOI/GP). Suter had 23 power play points on the season, but all but one were assists. Spurgeon and Dumba, with roughly one power play shift less than Suter per game, both managed to score three and two goals respectively. Not exactly a night and day difference, especially as Suter scored more assists than the two righthanders combined. Some of that comes down to the Wild’s struggle to develop an effective power play (the Wild finished the season with a very average 20.4%). Some of it is that Suter, while not much of a goal scoring threat from the point, does do some power play things quite well, namely keeping the puck in the zone. Nevertheless, I suspect the Wild could kill two birds with one stone by elevating Spurgeon and Dumba’s power play time and role, seeing both their power play scoring increase and enjoy a more effective power play overall.
Consider what some of the top power play teams in the NHL look like with the man advantage compared to the Wild. The puck movement is quick and sharp, players are often swapping positions or shifting to open areas of the ice to keep passing lanes open, and very often there are one or two designated triggermen. The Wild, by contrast, are far too slow and deliberate with their movement, preferring to take time in an attempt to thread a single perfect pass rather than make two or three quick ones. The chief offenders in this are Mikko Koivu and Suter. How many times would Suter receive the pass at the point and hold the puck, waiting and looking for the clear alley to throw the puck at the net? At least once every power play. Sometimes it worked, hence the 22 power play assists, but it usually didn’t and completely killed the momentum and allowed the penalty killers to adjust.
Spurgeon and Dumba, along with players like Granlund, are quick passers. Additionally, they both have the chops to be the Wild’s designated triggerman in the power play from the left circle a la Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals. Neither are defensive liabilities (or they wouldn’t see so much time with the penalty kill units), so there is no good reason for these two to not be receiving the top shares of power play ice time.
More than just the power play though, is the importance of taking advantage of their skills in the offensive plans. Both have the skating, vision, and hands to be effective at joining the rush or being used for drop pass or point shot plays. Dumba had 50 points this season, and Spurgeon would have had the same if it weren’t for injuries. Those are elite level offensive numbers, and they aren’t being artificially inflated by power play numbers. Imagine if they were! They could both potentially reach 60 points. That would create nightmare matchup scenarios for opposing teams. What the Wild have been doing has been okay. A league-average power play and a 100+ season is not a terrible place to be, but if the Wild want to take the next step, difference makers like Spurgeon and Dumba need to be used effectively.
Focus on What Makes Your Team Good, not What Makes It Not Bad
Consider the following quote from Jets head coach Paul Maurice:
“It’s way more fun to coach a group like this,” [Paul Maurice] added. “We don’t really manage the mistakes, you know, we’re trying to find places to be good. Where is our strengths? How can we get more of our strengths in the game?”
Does that sound like a mentality the Wild has employed this past season or during the playoffs? Nope. Some of that is inevitable, especially on the defensive side when Spurgeon and then Suter were out with injuries. Even so, this past season has been one of limiting mistakes and never letting a couple losses turn into a slump. It worked in that the Wild never suffered from a true, potentially season-dooming slump this season. It also resulted in a team that felt like it was never really firing on all cylinders or likely to make waves despite several players having excellent seasons. As soon as the Wild went up against a talented team with an aggressive mindset and gameplan, mistakes became inevitable and the Wild collapsed.
Compare that to the team from the 2016-17 season that went on a franchise record-setting win streak of 12 games. That team was rolling three lines, enjoying strong goaltending, and was getting contributions from up and down the roster. The Wild’s key strength was their depth. A different player was the hero every night. Sometimes it was Staal on the breakaway, other times it was the super line of Jason Zucker - Koivu - Granlund, and other times it was Devan Dubnyk erasing his team’s mistakes with his play in the crease. Opponents had to pick their poison with matchups and watch those decisions turn into mistakes. The Wild’s lack of success in playoffs was due to running up against a white hot goaltender, not because the team wasn’t playing to its strengths.
The Jets have been relying on their hard and fast play to wear down opponents and create vulnerabilities to exploit on offense. It is what has made them good (well, that and great goaltending from Connor Hellebuyck), and they are clearly aware of it. That awareness and the deliberate decision to pursue the team’s strength instead of limiting the team’s weaknesses has seen the Jets become the favorite to win the Stanley Cup. The Wild should pay attention to that and the other lessons the Jets have demonstrated.
*All stats are courtesy of www.nhl.com