The Minnesota Wild are riding a three-game win streak as they embark on a four-game road trip Monday night. Their first opponent is the Arizona Coyotes, who currently sit in the fourth spot in the Honda West Division (TM) with a 2-20-5 record and a minus-20 goal differential. They’ll likely be passed by the St. Louis Blues, who have two games in hand on Arizona and are a single point back in the standings, but those two teams appear primed for a true battle to determine the final playoff team in the West.
This means that Minnesota is going up against a desperate team on Monday night, and it’s one which has given the Wild trouble over the course of this season. While the Wild are 4-1 against the Coyotes this season, MoneyPuck.com’s Deserve-to-Win-O’Meter considers the matchup closer than the Wilds season record vs. AZ makes it appear. The tool works by charting the shot location from a game, valuing the scoring probability of each shot attempt based on location and other factors in their expected goals model, and then simulating whether each shot scores in one-thousand hypothetical games. It’s more reliable than win-loss record in a small sample size, and by adding up the expected win rate that the Wild “deserved” in each of the past five games, we can get a record that’s closer to the truth. According to this method, the Wild have earned a record of 2.67-2.33. Certainly coming out ahead in a stable metric such as this is good, but it’s been surprisingly close between a high-scoring Wild team and the Coyotes, who are widely regarded as a bubble team or even a basement dweller.
MoneyPuck considers Arizona to be one of the worst teams in the league, ranked third-to-last in their statistical power ranking. The Wild are favored with a 57% chance from MoneyPuck and a 59% chance by the Vegas money line to win in tomorrow’s road matchup, but this is surprisingly close to a coin flip. So, why does Arizona give the Wild so much trouble, and what do we need to watch out for?
One reason is that this team is possessed with shooting talent and goaltending. MoneyPuck charts shot locations and estimates the chance of every shot attempt turning into a goal. Using this information, they can also estimate each player’s true shooting talent. The Coyotes are 8th in the NHL in general shooting percentage, but they’ve only scored 1.1 goals more than expected based on shot locations and the shooting talent of their individual skaters. This is mostly driven by Phil Kessel, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Derick Brassard, Tyler Pitlick, and Alex Goligoski, all of whom score 10% more often than expected based on shot location.
The team’s goalies have allowed only 2.4 goals above expected, so their defense isn’t getting burned by poor goaltending to offset this shooting talent. This is carried by Darcy Kuemper, who is out week-to-week with a lower body injury. One of Adin Hill and Antti Raanta will be filling in for Kuemper, and both are slightly below-average performers. However, the Coyotes’ shooting talent more than offsets this shortcoming, assuming that shot quality is held equal.
What this means is that xG models , frankly, don’t apply to the Coyotes as much as they do to other teams. The Wild do have many shooters at forward and on defense who have excellent shooting numbers based on shot location, and our shooting % is 4th in the NHL; the kicker here is that this conversion rate has been lucky, as the Wild have scored nearly 15 more goals than expected based on shot location and true shooting talent. The Wild are perennially loved by expected goals models because of our ability to generate to generate quality shot locations on offense and prevent quality shot locations against us, but we could get burned in the end by Arizona’s high-value shooters. Minnesota could realistically out-chance Arizona without earning a win, so we’ll need a fairly large edge in quality creation in order to defeat the Coyotes.
Can the Wild weather Arizona’s high-pressure forechecking system?
One reason that the Coyotes have been able to keep the advanced metrics close against the Wild comes down to style of play. Arizona employs a forechecking system similar to the Edmonton Oilers (whose system is shown below) in which two of their forwards pressure each opposing defenseman on the breakout.
Most NHL teams use variations of the 1-2-2 forecheck (shown below), which forces teams to choose a breakout that starts on either the left or side of the ice. Once the breakout has “played its hand,” the defending team uses its remaining four skaters to smother play into the play-side boards.
Two-high forechecking systems are especially tough on the Wild, who rely on puck-moving defensemen like Brodin, Spurgeon, and Dumba to skate or pass out of the zone in order to exit our zone with control and enter the opponent’s zone with speed. Minnesota also often utilizes regroups in the neutral zone when failing on a zone entry. Both of these tasks are easy when two defensemen read off of one forechecker, who is forced to choose between cutting off the D-to-D pass or pressuring the puck-carrier.
With pressure in the face of both defensemen, they have man-to-man passing options in front of them, but less time for them to open up and less time to make the correct decision with the puck. It also eliminates space in the defensive zone for defensemen to build speed and carry the puck themselves. Furthermore, because the Wild like to press their forwards into the neutral zone as soon as we acquire the puck, it makes these passes up-ice into much harder passes to execute, much like deep passing in the NFL compared to a quick West Coast style offense. If Dean Evason can game-plan an alternative breakout strategy which solves the Coyotes’ two-man forecheck, the Wild will likely see success.
Can the Wild stay out of the box?
One area in which Arizona outperforms their power ranking on MoneyPuck is share of power play time. They’re very disciplined and draw a lot of penalties. Part of me wonders if the penalties they draw are mostly due to frustration in playing their aggressive forecheck - are they the Joel Eriksson-Ek of hockey teams? Whether or not that’s true, it would be great to see the Wild offset this with a combination of disciplined defense and drawing penalties of our own via the smooth-skating Kaprizov and Fiala.
What to do with Fiala-Johansson-Hartman?
On Saturday night’s home game vs. San Jose, this line was the lone dark spot in a raucous victory for the Guys in Green. In spite of possessing one of our starring scorers, the kind who makes you jump out of your seat and can make opposing defenders take a seat of their own on the ice with his stickhandling, this line was bad against a bad Sharks team. They logged fewer 5v5 minutes than any of the other four lines, posted a dismal 31% xG rate, and generated only .18 xG. This means that not only were they failing to get the best of the opposing team in the chances battle, but that they weren’t pushing the offensive pace whatsoever (arguably their primary objective).
Faceoffs cannot be the scapegoat for this group either. They possess a righty in Hartman and a lefty in Johansson, both of whom have experience at the center position. What’s more, they barely started any shifts with a faceoff - one in the offensive zone and three in the neutral zone. They had 12 shifts started on the fly. They can’t be trusted with a defensive zone start because nobody on the line has the skillset to defend or retrieve pucks on the boards, and so three of the best transition players on this team are unable to do what they specialize in - exit the zone with control and stickhandle into the opponent’s end with speed. This has been a consistent problem for this line and needs to change soon. Otherwise, the 6’6 Nick Bugstad seems destined to kick one of these players out when he returns to the lineup from injury.