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[Wild About Numbers]: The Wild Are Good, So Why Aren't They Climbing The Standings?

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The Wild are 15-10-1 through 26 games and languishing outside of the playoff spots. That record is not indicative of their ability.

Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

The Wild have made a miraculous transformation from last season to the present. The first 3 seasons under Mike Yeo were characterised by suffocating defence but totally inept offensive play that led to the team being out-shot more often than not. Something major changed during the 2014 offseason and the Wild came out in October playing fast, aggressive, exciting hockey with d-men jumping into the rush every shift and the puck being carried through the neutral zone consistently with speed and precision. They've gone from being completely terrible at scoring in previous years to 2nd behind only the Tampa Bay Lightning in Goals/60 at 5v5 in 2014/15.

In terms of their overall 5v5 play, the Wild are 1st in the league in Score Adjusted Fenwick. Score-Adjusted Fenwick (or SAF) is the team possession stat with the most predictive value. It's essentially a refined Fenwick Close/Fenwick Tied. If you're new to Fenwick, it's just the on ice unblocked shot attempt differential. Teams who dominate in Fenwick have been show to create more scoring chances, win more games and win more Cups.

Travis Yost wrote a good piece on it before the playoffs, saying that you would have nearly a 70% success rate picking series winners between 2007 and 2013 if you based your picks solely on who had the better SAF over the last 20 games of the season. That's a really good percentage without even applying some common sense to factor in things like injuries, goaltending, special teams etc.

So anyway, all you need to know is that if a team is doing really well in SAF%, it's a safe bet that their process at 5v5 is solid.

Here's how the Wild are doing compared to past seasons in terms of SAF% and league ranking:

saf

In 4 seasons the Wild have gone from 30th to 1st. Now obviously this season is still in the relatively early stages and it's how they play in the latter stages that will really count come playoff time, but that improvement is dramatic to say the least.


So why aren't they winning?

Well the powerplay might seem like an obvious reason, but that #28 ranked powerplay is somewhat negated by a #2 ranked penalty kill.

The major reason for the Wild underperforming this year as far as I can tell is their goaltending. 46 goalies have played 350 minutes or more this season; here is how Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom have ranked in terms of Save%, Adjusted Sv% and Sv% when facing shots of varying degrees of danger:

Sv%

Adjusted Sv%

Low Danger Sv%

Medium Danger Sv%

High Danger Sv%

KUEMPER

89.69%

45th

88.57%

45th

96.10%

40th

86.42%

42nd

75.34%

41st

BACKSTROM

89.73%

43rd

89.67%

43rd

95.77%

45th

92.68%

16th

73.53%

43rd

To put it simply, the Wild's goaltending has been awful. Whenever a goalie underperforms, blame will often be placed on the team but, in my opinion, the Wild haven't been having a significant amount of defensive breakdowns more than other teams. There's no way a blueline that mostly features Suter, Brodin, Spurgeon and Scandella could turn good goalies into sub-90% guys.

Kuemper has struggled with shots from all zones, from low danger to high danger. Backstrom has had some success against medium danger shots, but zilch elsewhere. Out of the 31 goalies to play more than 600 minutes this season, Kuemper is 2nd last in saves from the high danger area, with only Brian Elliott having fewer (he's also played 6 fewer games).

The Wild pretty much had no choice but to trust Kuemper as the starter this year and I still think that was the right decision, but he needs to get out of this funk and get back to his great play from last season. Backstrom has looked like a rusty 36 year old who's come off major surgery. I'd be concerned about any situation that sees him playing a significant amount of minutes this season.

You can argue forever and ever about who's fault it is that both goalies are struggling, but the bottom line is that no matter how good this team is at 5v5, they're gonna struggle to make the playoffs if their Sv% continues to be this bad. If Kuemper gets back to his best, then I think this team could be contending for a Cup at the end of the season.

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Stats for this article sourced from Stats.HockeyAnalysis.comFenwick_Stats.com and War_On_Ice.com