Wait, a Minnesota Wild blue line that is overperforming and has a problem of being too good no matter the personnel? Well, I never.
When Jared Spurgeon went down with an unfortunate injury eight games ago, I am sure I am not alone in worrying about Jordie Benn coming in and newcomer Alex Goligoski being forced to run his own pairing on this team with Jon Merrill — and without the anchor of Jared Spurgeon to bail out the albeit infrequent overextensions into the zone. No one was sure how it would pan out, but we should have all known that Dean Evason’s system would allow some discrepancy on individual talent and how much that matters in such a straight-ahead system that allows free rein for blueliners to move around the ice.
Everything is fine the way it is right now, but with Spurgeon coming back from his injury some time this week, there will be an odd man out on the blue line. So who will it be?
Merrill was handed Spurgeon’s spot next to Goligoski, and has been exactly what he was signed to do: Not be noticeable at all at either end of the ice.
The free agent acquisition is just one of those perfect examples of defensemen opting for the “if you’re not visible, then you’re doing your job correctly” kind of play. Which, maybe on this team can be a good thing, but it’s not who you want in your top-four. Spurgeon will no doubt be taking back his spot next to Goligoski, so would Evason decide to keep Merrill in the lineup and split up Kulikov and Benn on that bottom pairing?
It’s tough. Since the captain went down on Nov. 20, Merrill has the lowest on-ice shot attempt share (47.23 percent) and the second-lowest expected goals share (47.14 percent, just slightly above partner Goligoski) among all Wild defensemen at 5-on-5. And during that stretch, has just two points to his name — another low among all blueliners.
Even though Merrill has been able to step up and play that all-important role next to Goligoski as Spurgeon’s direct replacement, his play has just been bang average. A straight swap that wouldn’t disturb any chemistry on the blue line is no doubt enticing for Evason as well.
Certainly a straight-forward option and thought process of subbing out the dude that came into the lineup because of Spurgeon’s absence; the only thing preventing Jordie Benn from going back to being a healthy scratch is his recent play.
He has looked good! And no one would have guessed that was possible after watching his appearances in the pre-season exhibition games where he appeared to skate with trainers on and handle pucks as if they were curling rocks. Maybe it was just the games actually meaning something or the increased familiarity with the tactics, but Benn has been rejuvenated into a serviceable player. Hell, only Dmytri Kulikov has a higher shot attempt percentage than Benn during the stretch without Spurgeon among blueliners at 5-on-5, so at least he’s outplaying the opponents to enough of a stretch (or being carried by his partner).
Speaking of his partner, Kulikov is included just to round out the bunch. There is simply no way that Evason can justify benching this guy over the previous two players. Kulikov has even been scoring goals — something that no one really expected him to do when he signed his two-year deal in Minnesota.
He has just been so completely solid in his role and has been much more than just a replacement of Carson Soucy or Ian Cole from last season’s regular season success. He runs his pairing and has simply proven that he can be paired with anyone — including Jordie Benn — and just make it work.
So who will be scratched for Spurgeon? My money is on Benn, but who truly knows at this point.