My friends, I've been waiting to write this article for some time now. The day when I actually have the free time to give this the thought and effort required to do it justice has finally arrived.
When the Wild's playoff adventure ended with a stunning slap to the face in the form of a 4-0 series loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, who had the final say on the Wild's season for the 3rd year in a row, the front office, coaching staff, players and fans were left scratching their heads and scrambling to try and find some sort of answer. How were the Wild dismissed so easily after giving the Hawks fits the previous season? Who is to blame? How do they improve from here?
As local beat writer Michael Russo has pointed out many times, the Hawks aren't going anywhere. They just won their 3rd Stanley Cup in 6 years. They will have to shed some contracts to stay compliant with the salary cap, but their core will remain intact and they have young talent coming through to replace the cast-offs. They will be in the Wild's division for the for forseeable future. If the Wild want to win this Stanley Cup that they are chasing so vehemently they will need to find a way to close the gap on the Hawks and beat them in a series, because there is unlikely to be any way to win the Western Conference that doesn't involve the Wild doing just that. It's as simple as that.
So how do the Wild change this offseason so that they can beat the Hawks in the 2016 playoffs? There isn't much they can do. Their coach just signed an extension, their core is made up of veterans being paid handsomely for past performance with iron-clad contracts that would be nigh impossible to move, they don't have the cap room to make any big free agent splashes, their younger players (especially Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund) haven't quite become the future stars that fans hoped they would a few short years ago but moving them now while their value is low as opposed to just being patient with them is illogical and, beyond doing something silly and dramatic, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of realistic options for the Wild other than just regrouping and charging back into the fray with mostly the same names come October.
The lack of cap room is a worry for the front office. New contracts for Coyle, Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin kick in next season. Granlund, Erik Haula and Christian Folin are RFAs. The Wild need to re-sign Devan Dubnyk or find a new #1 goalie in free agency or by trade. Things could get very tight and Chuck Fletcher likes to have a bit of wiggle room on opening night to accommodate call-ups and other necessary roster tweaks during the season.
One idea that has been widely reported is that the Wild could look to move Jared Spurgeon.
Here are Russo's (who tends to be in the know to say the least) recent thoughts on it:
I still firmly believe the Wild may dangle Jared Spurgeon this summer. He's due $3.6 million this upcoming season and is a year away from restricted free agency. He will command a long-term deal at significant dollars the Wild may not be able to (or want to) afford with Matt Dumba emerging. I'm sure the Wild's very conflicted about this. Besides the fact that he's one of the Wild's best puck possession defensemen and a good citizen, the Wild found him, the Wild developed him.
Now it's no secret that we've been big fans of Spurgeon around here going all the way back to 2011/12 when he was one of the few bright points in an extremely bleak season, so you can imagine that all the Spurgeon trade talk was received pretty badly by us here at Hockey Wilderness. But this isn't just because we like Spurge, it's because trading him is a downright terrible idea for a whole bunch of reasons that I'm gonna explain for you right now.
Firstly, let's establish exactly what Spurgeon brings to the team in terms of on ice impact. How good is he really? Well the following numbers might give you an idea.
Here's the impact on the Wild scoring chance differential when he's on the ice versus when's he off it:
That 4.34% difference is the greatest among Wild defenceman by a huge margin. What this means is that when Spurge is on the ice the Wild are dominating even strength play way more.
Could this be because of his deployment? Well no, it couldnt. Despite being on the Wild's "2nd pair", Spurgeon plays the minutes of a 1st pairing defenceman. A few months ago, when I analysed Spurgeon's impact in another article, I found that he had the 22nd highest TOI/G of qualifying defencemen. If you take it that there are 30 teams, and thus 60 1st pair defencemen, you can see why calling him a 2nd pairing defenceman is ridiculous.
In fact the Wild pretty much roll two first pairings and then a heavily sheltered 3rd pairing. That means that Spurge and, his usual partner, Marco Scandella take the ice against tough opponents and with a hefty share of defensive zone starts.
You can see from the two player usage charts above, which show the deployment of Wild d-men this season, Spurgeon and Scandella arguably had the toughest deployment of any Wild d-pairing and yet they were easily the team's two most impressive d-men in all 3 zones, a trend continuing on from the previous season.
Not surprisingly, over the last 3 seasons, Spurgeon's 0.78 P/60 at 5v5 is the best of any Wild d-man (except for Christian Folin, but that's purely a sample size issue) followed closely by Marco Scandella's 0.76. Despite the two of them getting difficult deployment, espcially in Scandella's case, they still consistently create more offence than the rest of the Wild's d-men.
What about defensively? Well lets look at the impact Wild d-men have had on High Danger Scoring Chances (as tracked by War-On-Ice.com) since 2012/13:
Spurgeon's had the highest on ice rate of scoring chances for, the 2nd lowest rate against (behind Jonas Brodin) and the highest overall impact. That's a pretty conclusive summary of how much of an impact he has on the Wild. I think you can make a pretty easy arguement that he is the team's best defenceman. In fact, I'd argue that he and Zach Parise are the two best and most important players on the team. Is that really so crazy?
Ryan Suter has the reputation and the big name, but whether through misuse or declining ability, he just doesn't provide the same presence on the ice as Spurgeon. Suter is passive while Spurgeon is electric. Brodin is young and talented but his game is too one-dimensional at this point to argue he's better than Spurgeon. Scandella is very good and is improving rapidly, but Spurgeon has been the more complete player in that partnership year after year. Matt Dumba might be seen as the heir to Spurgeon's spot in the lineup, but I'd argue that it will be years before he gets as good as Spurgeon defensively, if he ever does get there (unlikely I would say).
Put all the numbers aside, put aside any confirmation bias you have, forget about names and contracts and just watch a few Wild games. I don't see how anyone could and not come away thinking Spurgeon is the team's best defenceman. He is by far the team's most creative blueliner through the neutral zone and in the offensive zone and he compensates for his lack of natural physicality in the defensive zone with perfect positioning, great reading of the game and really quick stick work.
What else does Spurgeon bring to the table? Well despite being a puck possession monster, he still manages to hit people and block shots like a demon. He's got to be one of the tougher players around given how gritty he plays in spite of his small stature.
Since he entered the league, he has the 2nd best penalty drawn vs taken ratio of any d-man with 5000+ minutes played behind John-Michael Liles. He really should have a Lady Byng to his name at this point if the PWHA appreciated how tough it is for d-men to keep their PIMs down given the nature of the position.
So we know pretty conclusively that Spurgeon is the Wild's best defenceman. How does he rate league-wide? Well I'm glad you asked. I checked where Spurgeon ranks overall in several important stats since he came into the league in 2010/11 and the results I found were quite breathtaking.
Just to give you an idea of what the above means. With Spurge on the ice, the Wild have scored 53.49% of 5v5 goals. With him on the bench, that drops to 45.88%. That's a simply incredible impact for one player who plays tough 1st pairing minutes. While GF% can be skewed by various factors, Spurgeon's impact on scoring chances, Corsi, etc. shows that his impressive impact on goals is rooted in excellent process and consistently driving play in the right direction when he's on the ice.
His powerplay goals rate is impressive too. It should be remembered when fans are complaining about the team's lack of a dangerous goalscoring defenceman when they have the man advantage (trade for Byfuglien!!!) that one of the best in the league is already wearing Wild colours.
I think there's a resistance to accepting how good a guy like Spurgeon really is because he isn't a big name. For defencemen especially there seems to be this accepted group of players who are considered to be the top tier and it's hard for other guys to break into that group. Despite not being quite the same players since they stopped playing together a few years ago, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter still get plenty of Norris votes and are still considered elite by the average fan or writer. It seems to take a high profile playoff run for under-the-radar guys to get accepted into that group. Anton Stralman and Viktor Hedman, for example, have been excellent d-men for a number of years, but neither really received much recognition until the Lightning's run to the Final this year.
This is likely because defence is harder to quantify as you can't just look at points totals and determine who is better. In the end, I don't want a blueline full of big names, I want guys who make the team better every time they hit the ice. Spurgeon is a guy that does that, and does it to a great extent. That is true value.
I think we should be very mindful of the recent trend of guys who were once considered "fancy stat allstars" (players who stats heads love but don't get mainstream recognition), finally gaining that recognition in the playoffs as they help their teams on deep runs. Spurgeon could be the next one, following in the footsteps of the aforementioned Stralman and Hedman, along with Jake Muzzin, Justin Williams etc.
So it's pretty clear that, not only is Spurgeon probably the Wild's best defenceman, he's also right up there with best right handed d-men in the NHL and, at just 25 years of age, has a ton of good hockey left in him.
How in the world can anyone argue that the way the Wild should go about closing the gap on the Chicago Blackhawks is by trading one of their best players? It simply makes zero sense. People keep talking about the need for a true #1 centre and the return a guy like Spurgeon could bring (because small players are so highly valued in the NHL, right?) but are you making your team better if you trade Spurgeon and then some for, say Logan Couture? Sure the forward group just improved dramatically, but now your defence is missing a key piece and you've just created another hole in the team.
I don't have a ton of faith in the Suter/Brodin pairing which I think is deeply flawed due to their lack of offensive impact and I wouldn't be surprised to see Marco Scandella's play dip a small bit without his long-time defensive partner beside him. Without Spurgeon you've got Matt Dumba, who hasn't even played a full season in the NHL yet and who is being confirmed as Spurgeon's replacement based on a good stretch towards the end of the season in which he was slaying bums in soft minutes alongside Jordan Leopold, helping Scandella take on top line forwards while starting in the defensive zone a bunch. This smells a lot like "buy out Koivu because you've got Erik Haula, who is clearly a top-6 centre, as his ready-made replacement" from the Summer of 2014. Remember how that worked out?
The Wild need to be patient with Dumba. Just a few months ago everyone was saying how he needed more time in the AHL to develop. Trying to suddenly turn him into a top-4 d-man next season with Christian Folin as the Plan B is an incredibly risky plan and is almost certain to fail. Letting Dumba develop on the bottom pairing for a couple more years isn't a bad thing. Having too much defensive depth isn't possible. Why turn a strength into a weakness?
Another point I keep hearing is that the Wild need to acquire a true goalscorer and Spurgeon is the ideal bargaining chip. This team has issues, but I don't think it's as clear-cut as "they don't score enough goals" anymore. It's about their overall two-way game dipping for stretches and them not being able to maintain dominant play. They seem to always go from crushing the opposition to relying on hot goaltending to bail them out. This should be enough of an indicator that scoring too few goals ain't the problem:
Don't even talk to me about trading Spurgeon for Nail Yakupov. I like #YakCity but to suggest that's even a reasonable return for a player of Spurgeon's calibre is insane. I'd begin any Spurgeon to Edmonton trade with RNH and then some.
So what about the financials? The Wild are gonna be tight to the cap next season for sure, but Spurgeon will only be costing them a measly $2.6 million against the cap. Trading him this Summer is especially ludicrous for that reason. Next year he will be an RFA and due a big contract and that's when the trouble will start. I understand that maybe the Wild want to trade him now as opposed to when they're capped out and clearly in a desperate position but that's not a good enough reason to do it.
Having Spurgeon on such a low cap hit for next season should be hugely beneficial as it gives the Wild another year to assess their young defence and make better decisions in a year's time. Maybe by next Summer we will have seen Brodin or Scandella take a step back in their development. Maybe we'll see Dumba make a huge step forward. Maybe Spurgeon gets even better. It's impossible to predict, but moving Spurgeon now is risky and unnecessary when the Wild could give themselves another year to see a clearer picture of each young defenceman's ability.
Also, it's worth remembering that, with rumours that the cap will be increasing next season, there could be enough flexibility for the Wild to fit a new contract for Spurgeon under the limit. Personally I think they should negotiate a long term extension with him now because he could cost even more next year. They should try to get him to sign a long term deal and try to shave off some of the cap hit by adding a couple of years. It's a worthy risk in my opinion given what he brings to the ice.
The team's goal is to win the Cup. They're built to do that right now but they won't do it without their best defenceman. It's as simple as that. Keeping him might be a real headache, but you just have to find a way to keep your best players if you want to win.
Teams always have a few million dollars wrapped up in depth players who aren't really key to their success. Why not save some cap room by not signing those players and instead using players from the farm system who are on cheap entry level contracts?
Theoretically, the Wild could roll these very economical lines next year:
Using guys like Jordan Schroeder, Michael Keranen, Brett Sutter, Tyler Graovac and Zack Mitchell to cover the depth forward positions instead of bringing back the likes of Kyle Brodziak, Ryan Carter and Sean Bergenheim or similar players is gonna save some money. Mike Yeo has drilled excellent defensive instincts into enough of the team's forwards to the point where PK specialists are unnecessary.
In the end, what's worse? Your 4th line that hits the ice against other 4th lines being made up of cheap, young players or being forced to trade one of your best players? I know which I'd prefer.
While we're talking cap space. How does trading Spurgeon help the Wild in that regard? If the goal is to go out and get a #1 centre, what kind of cap hit do you think they're gonna have? I bet it's a hell of a lot more than what Spurge makes next season and probably more than he'll cost after he gets his extension in 2016. Logan Couture for one costs $6 million against the cap. So should the Wild just trade Spurgeon for picks and prospects and start rebuilding? Maybe they can get some young talent that'll develop just in time for the core to be aged beyond usefulness and the cup window to be shut.
It seems crazy to me that a team, who's major complaint is that they're lacking in players who are in their prime as the roster is made up of veterans who are past their best and prospects who haven't got their yet, would trade a 25 year old defenceman who is totally out-performing his contract and most of his peers.
Anyway, I could ramble on this topic forever and ever but I'm gonna try to keep this to a readable length and I gotta go get some sleep before work soon.
I'd love to hear a strong rebuttal of this piece that convinces me the Wild; A) Have to trade Spurge and/or B) Wouldn't be dramatically worse as a result. Good luck with that because as far as I can see, trading him is downright insane. I can't emphasise that enough.
I'm out. *drops mic*
Thanks to War-On-Ice for all the stats.
Share this thing on Facebook and Twitter so we can keep the discussion going and leave a comment below.
Follow me @GerWilderness