(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.)
The Wild are bad. Look at the standings.
Dead last in Conference III, seven points out of a playoff spot, and with fewer points overall than the Ottawa Senators. They're a team that's been sliding all season, and now in perhaps their worst funk of all. They entered last night's road tilt at Chicago just two wins in their last 12 games — a type of run so bad it prompts teams with as little near-term hope as the Oilers to start thinking about canning a coach — and with their next game against the Penguins, well, things could get even uglier.
This is, on paper, a far cry from a team that lucked into advancing to the second round last season (which is to say they had the good fortune to draw a terrible Avalanche team in the first) and also made the playoffs the year before that. It seems to be a team going backwards.
But a closer look says things aren't really as they appear on the surface. Sure, the won-lost record is indefensible, as is the fact that the team has gone on three different losing runs of four games or more this year. These days, they seem like they're never going to win, and have conceded 62 goals in 17 games since the start of December, while only scoring 44.
Now, scoring 2.59 a night is solidly middle of the pack in terms of goals per game in the league this season, but 3.65 conceded means they're losing by an average of more than a goal a night, and that number places them among the worst in the league over that time (with special thanks, I'm sure, to Toronto, Arizona, and Buffalo for keeping them out of the basement). But here's the thing, apart from goals scored and conceded, even over this dismal stretch they've actually tended to be the better team most nights out.
Even when wiping away score effects and all other reasons for strong underlying numbers, the Wild are above water in terms of their possession numbers over this 12-game stretch and, indeed, for the entire season. And you say, “So what,” because obviously they're not winning the games, but when it comes to the process, the Wild are, in fact, better than most teams, sitting at a score-adjusted 52.9 percent fenwick. That's good for ninth in the NHL.
And admittedly, they've been sliding for some time now in this regard after a hot start that had many wondering just how good the club could be. But the Wild seem to slide in possession over the course of the season every single year — whether due to injuries, overwork of the team's top players, or other factors that need to be examined more closely — and this year is no different.
But nonetheless, this is the first time since the Parise and Suter contracts were signed that the Wild look like they could finish the year as a positive possession team (though the odds are dropping by the day), meaning that the club is trending in the right direction even with its myriad problems. They're also producing more shots and goals per 60 minutes at even strength than they have in the last two seasons. This is also true across all strength situations, and the numbers are comparable to the relative power play success in terms of underlying numbers they had in the lockout-shortened 2013 season. Maybe you'd like to see them improve in the goal-scoring department. They're at just 14.5 percent, down from the mid-17 percent range seen each of the last two years, but it's largely because they're neither drawing a lot of penalties, nor converting on the ones they do get, away from home. These are problems that need to be solved, but teams go on inscrutable runs of success and failure on power plays all the time. They'll be hot for five games, ice cold for three, and so on. This club doesn't strike me as having a solidly great or poor power play set-up, but they are a little better than this.
However, what's killing them — and you knew this already — is goaltending.
The team has dropped from third in the league in even-strength save percentage in 2013-14 (.932) to dead last this time around (.900). Yes, they are actually worse than the Oilers. And as outlined above, it might end up costing Mike Yeo his job.
But the question here is a simple one: If he, like Dallas Eakins, has the team moving in the right direction in terms of everything but goaltending — possession numbers, development of the club's good young players, etc. — can it really be his fault that the team isn't winning?
Please recall that the Wild made the playoffs last year simply because Josh Harding and Darcy Kuemper were very good. Even Ilya Bryzgalov turned in credible performances that were, for a last-ditch free agent signing in a short stretch of games, more or less in line with league average. But as has been said before, expecting them to do anything of the sort again this season was always a risky proposition.
Harding has multiple sclerosis, which has limited his playing time considerably in the last two years (as has that remarkably dumb wall-kicking incident that got him suspended from the team for a while there). Plus, the .933 he posted in 29 games last season was so far out of line with the numbers he posted at just about every level — not just the NHL — that it would have been difficult to believe he'd duplicate them even if he was 100 percent healthy, which was never a smart bet. That he hasn't played a game for the team this season, and only has two games at the AHL level.
And obviously the less said about Niklas Backstrom's decline in his mid-30s, the better. He's both hurt all the time and a terrible goalie when he isn't, and has really only served as an awful detriment to the team over the last three seasons. The team couldn't get away from him this summer and have been forced to unhappily wedge him into the lineup more times than it should have (which is, by the way, none at all).
Then there's Kuemper, the teams presumptive Goalie of the Future, who has battled both injury and regression to this point, following a bizarre run of jerking him around over the summer about his new contract. That they got him in at a low number is good, but that they're now getting what they're paying for is certainly not. But the thing is, every save percentage he's posted at just about every level since 2010 indicates that he isn't this bad, and if he can ever get healthy again then he might be in good shape to turn things around. Might not come in time for Yeo and his team, but it's certainly not out of the question that he'll recover. In fact, I'd bet on it.
But again, that turnaround — if it comes — being too little, too late seems increasingly likely. And while none of this was necessarily avoidable, it was very probable for Chuck Fletcher to see the team he built get, ahem, surprised like this. There weren't any good goalies on the market this summer that the Wild would actually want to pay for, and why should they have? Kuemper looked like a real enough candidate to become at least a decent starter. Hasn't turned out that way.
And yet somehow, Yeo's the one on the chopping block? He doesn't make the player acquisition decisions, and the rotating cast of a broken-down Backstrom and a below-normal Kuemper is going to make any coach in hockey history, regardless of quality — from Scotty Bowman to Pierre Maguire — look worse than he actually is. It's hard to make a team look like they're putting in effort when the guys behind them are only stopping 90 percent of the shots they face.
The forward corps and defense is doing their part, but the goalies aren't, and probably were never going to be able to. This is a Fletcher problem, not a Yeo problem. But we all know who's gone if things go further sideways.
What We Learned
Anaheim Ducks: So that whole “There's going to be a real western AHL conference” stuff that popped up over the last year seems like it's more true. The Ducks are one of what might be a few teams that are moving their farm club to the West Coast.
Arizona Coyotes: Dave Tippett is really going to war for Mike Smith at this point, but probably because every decision to start him and his .885 save percentage becomes more and more indefensible.
Boston Bruins: Has it really gotten to the point that the Bruins are really only getting a token All-Star? Patrice Bergeron is great and everything, but the things he does well don't exactly get the fans out of their seats in a glorified shinny game. “Ohhh, nice back check in this game that's 8-6 in the second period.”
Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres are very enamored of this kid they just took second overall who might have been the best player at World Junior. And he's only gonna be their No. 2 center in like two years.
Calgary Flames: Yeah the Flames are really smartening up. Now they only have two guys who fight a lot and aren't good enough to play in the NHL otherwise.
Carolina Hurricanes: The Hurricanes seemed very intent on losing Saturday night's game against the Blues. They had leads of 1-0, 2-1, 3-1, and 4-3, and still lost in a shootout.
Chicago Blackhawks: If the Blackhawks can't afford Johnny Oduya this summer, I wouldn't be surprised to see that defense take a huge step back. Dude is awesome.
Colorado Avalanche: Did you guys know Jarome Iginla is a nice guy? Hard-hitting journalism out of Denver.
Columbus Blue Jackets: There have to be truth in advertising laws that prevent the NHL from publishing headlines like this. Nick Foligno “highlights” the All-Star game? Which Nick Foligno are we talking about here?
Dallas Stars: You can say it just about every other day, but the Stars really ought to be better than this.
Detroit Red Wings: If Jimmy Howard is out for any serious length of time the Red Wings could be in a bit of trouble here.
Edmonton Oilers: Weird how they Oilers are playing well lately now that their goalies are stopping more than 88 percent of the shots they face.
Florida Panthers: Friday's Flames/Panthers game might have been the craziest one in the NHL all year. Even the game-winner was wacky as hell.
Los Angeles Kings: Maybe next time Jonathan Quick wants to start out the game by stopping any of the first three shots he faces.
Montreal Canadiens: I don't care who is and isn't snubbed for the All-Star Game, but not bringing PK Subban certainly means the weekend will be less fun.
Nashville Predators, America's Favorite Hockey Team: The Predators are the best team in the league at its halfway point. And it's not smoke-and-mirrors lucky bounces either. This is a weird situation.
New Jersey Devils: They must have been really hard-up for a Devils All-Star is Patrik Elias was their guy. Dude has 18 points this year. So does Brad Boyes.
New York Islanders: Look at the puck movement in the attacking half of the ice on this Matt Martin goal. Four good, crisp passes in five seconds. Impossible to defend.
New York Rangers: This big Ranger win in San Jose was their fifth in a row, and 13th in the last 14 games. More important, it capped an undefeated three-in-four-days run through the state of California. They outscored three of the best teams in the league 11-5.
Ottawa Senators: The Sens might want to think about moving to the Western Conference. They're now 8-6-3 against Western teams this year, versus their 9-10-5 run in the East. Even Buffalo has more in-conference wins than that.
Philadelphia Flyers: Hoping for the best for Kimmo Timonen. What a player.
Pittsburgh Penguins: I could watch this Crosby knee-drop forever.
San Jose Sharks: Rookie Melker Karlsson — maybe the new Best Name In The League — has goals in five straight games for the Sharks. Which is a good streak.
St. Louis Blues: If you give up four goals to the Hurricanes, I'm not sure you really “backstopped” anything.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Steven Stamkos thinks he hasn't been very good this season. Given that he's quote-unquote only on pace for a 40-goal season or so, he's probably right.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Hate to say it but maybe this Leafs team is........... good?
Vancouver Canucks: RIP to the Canucks as we know them (maybe).
Washington Capitals: Power plays remain a hell of a funny thing to try to analyze.
Winnipeg Jets: If the Jets are getting healthy guys back, all that stands between them and a playoff spot is Paul Maurice's insistence on starting Ondrej Pavelec 60 percent of the time.
Play of the Weekend
What a pass from David Krejci. Good lord.
Gold Star Award
Turns out this Malkin kid is pretty good. Someone to keep an eye on.
Minus of the Weekend
It is deeply saddening to me that Paul Kariya didn't make it out to Teemu Selanne's jersey retirement. No. 9 really ought to be going up to the rafters with him.
Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week
User “Ronan” wants to clear out some uncoachable players.
2015 1st, 2nd
Why don't we say 9:30, and then make it your beeswax to be here by 9:30?