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One of the big question marks coming into the year, as far as the Western Conference was concerned, was just how effective the Minnesota Wild could be over a full 82 games.
The way things shook out for Minnesota last year was odd to say the least: They were a tire fire to start last season, going just 18-19-5 (a pace for just 80 points, which would have put them in the mid-20s on the league table) before they acquired Devan Dubnyk. That goaltender, of course, went .936 down the stretch, and the Wild only lost nine more games in regulation (28-9-3) to make the playoffs. Then they beat the Blues in six before getting swept by Chicago.
So obviously the question was what the team would do for the entirety of this season given that Dubnyk or any goalie wouldn't give you .936 for an entire year. Of course, that really only served to barely balance out the atrocious start the team saw between the pipes from Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom, but you got the feeling that even a full season of, say, .918 goaltending — which is certainly in the range of Dubnyk's career average if you ignore that season he was dreadful and bounced around a bit — might not necessarily be enough to catapult this team back into the postseason.
Well the good news for the Wild so far is that they are currently in the thick of things in their division and conference. They entered Thursday night's pivotal matchup with the Nashville Predators tied at 7-2-2 in 11 games, which is a good total given the schedule they have faced so far. However, the current problem is they're arguably doing it with even more smoke and mirrors now than they did last season.
Entering last night's games, their score-adjusted PDO was fourth in the league, and it's because they shot 10.9 percent (obviously a league high) at full strength. Meanwhile, Dubnyk has been far worse than advertised, with an .898 save percentage in all situations, and the team as a whole at just .915 at 5-on-5 (ninth-worst in the league).
Obviously the shooting percentage is going to come down. It's only 11 games, and this isn't a team that should reasonably expect to score more than three goals a night all season. But will the save percentage come up? Remember, Dubnyk, with a fresh high-dollar contract, was lights-out last season after coming off the aforementioned disastrous campaign that saw him bounce between two organizations and both the AHL and NHL. While it doesn't seem particularly likely, it's at least possible that Dubnyk has another year like that. And if he does, who's there to pick up the pieces? Kuemper (.891 in just two starts, one of which he was pulled from)? Backstrom (no appearances)? That is, however, a worst-case scenario.
Fortunately, one gets the feeling that the percentages will simply normalize to where any reasonable observer would think they ought to be, with the save percentage ticking up to around or perhaps a little above league average (this is, I think, Dubnyk's skill level) while this team as a whole will see its collective shooting percentage slide to roughly or a little above league average as well (they shot 7.9 percent, 8.1 percent, and 8.2 percent the last three years, respectively, which feels about right).
So where this team might have some concerns is the foundational basis of their play, as measured by possession numbers, the ability to out-chance their opponents and so on. This season they're doing pretty well as far as keeping their heads above water in this regard, with possession north of traditional juggernauts like Tampa, Chicago, and Boston. They're also top-10 in percentage of high-quality chances, though they're doing that by generating a ton of these opportunities themselves (11.3 per 60, tied for 10th) and allowing a bunch as well (10.7 per 60, tied for 12th-worst). That, I think, safely accounts for at least some of their shooting success, and lack of success in stopping the puck, though not all of it.
A huge part of Minnesota's success last season actually came because, defensively stalwart as it is by reputation alone, it was super-effective at limiting high-quality chances (9.3 per 60, fifth-best in the league). Their chances-for number from last season is more or less in line with last year, so that's all well and good. If they can get back to keeping things calmed down in their own zone, their goal differential is going to broaden significantly, and they should continue to win games.
But here's the point of concern: A lot of their positive numbers are coming on the backs of big nights against bad almost exclusively bad opponents. Colorado, Arizona, Anaheim (twice), Edmonton, and then Chicago (the clear outlier) are the only games in which they've actually out-attempted their opponents. Worth noting, though, that Chicago was coming into the second game of an all-road back-to-back with its first night being in Winnipeg, which is no easy place to play physically.
Likewise, they've only had better high-quality chance numbers than Anaheim (twice), Columbus, Edmonton, and Chicago. So while they're certainly pushing teams around overall, they're doing so in such an impressive way against the dross of the Western Conference that it makes the nights where they get bombarded look much, much better.
Indeed, you expect to get handled in possession by St. Louis (twice), Los Angeles, and maybe even Winnipeg. Probably to give up more high-quality chances than you take as well. But the disparity between the two here is massive.
On a score-adjusted basis, examining opponents by subjective quality, here is the breakdown for what Minnesota has done this year:
Now this is obviously taking a small sample of 11 games and effectively cutting it in half, but you see the overall point. They're padding their stats considerably against bad teams and getting run over by good teams, and yet only losing occasionally because of that sky-high PDO against the better clubs. That's something you can't expect to last. However, the performances against bad teams should continue to buoy the club for some time to come, because it's easy to put up big percentages against teams that can't score and can't stop the puck (which is obviously why they're bad in the first place).
The problem for the Wild is that they play in a division with lots of good teams and only one bad team. I'd also caution that they were lucky to play Anaheim before that team inevitably figures things out and becomes difficult to beat once again.
If they can't figure out how to perform better against the many good clubs in their division, points are soon going to be much, much harder to come by. Which is too bad, really, because this is a good club. But in that cutthroat Central, good isn't good enough to get you very far.
(All statistics via War On Ice unless otherwise noted.)
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