When Bruce Boudreau took over the Minnesota Wild, there was skepticism that one of the best coaches in the National Hockey League had landed with a thud.
There was no Alex Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom, no Ryan Getzlaf or Corey Perry. This was a team whose window of opportunity was pried open by the blockbuster free-agent signings of Ryan Suter and Zach Parise in 2012, but was never wide enough for the Wild to climb through and truly contend: Four playoff appearances, with first-round defeats sandwiched around a pair of second-round losses.
What Boudreau inherited was an offense that was 19th in goals-scored. He inherited a goalie in Devan Dubnyk for whom the jury was still out, although there were signs he wasn’t an aberration even as he didn’t repeat his stellar numbers from Year 1 with the Wild. He inherited a declining Parise and Mikko Koivu, a team that lacked a true No. 1 center and a collection of young players who were good, but not great.
And now this team is in first place in the Western Conference with 61 points and a goal-differential of plus-46, tied with the Blue Jackets for best in the NHL.
That offense? It’s fourth in the NHL at 3.26 goals per game, and first in the NHL in goals-per-game at 5-on-5 (2.26, after being at 1.70 last season). That goalie? Probably the Vezina frontrunner at this point, with a .940 save percentage in 33 games. Koivu’s been outstanding. Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter are all having career years in their mid-20s. Oh, and free-agent center steal Eric Staal somehow is Eric Staal again.
Again, much of their 28-9-5 record can be attributed to the way Dubnyk has played, resulting in a PDO of 103.69, second-highest in the NHL behind Washington; but there’s no question that the Wild have had The Bruce Boudreau Effect happening through 42 games. Even the team’s negative aspects have some positives, as Matthew Coller explained:
The one concern for Minnesota should be its shot attempt differential, which ranks 24th in the league. But that is a product of how Bruce Boudreau has designed his system. The Wild protect the net, then look to score on the rush and take high percentage shots.
There is evidence of this. According to the hockey statistics website Natural Stat Trick, the Wild are No. 3 in the NHL in High Danger Shot Percentage, which simply means their share of shots within areas close to the net is the third best of any team in the league. More or less, they’re getting more good shots as opposed to just more shots.
Natural Stat Trick lists the Wild as having 347 close shots for and only 285 against. That could be part of the reason Dubnyk has been as good as he has this year.
(Quantifiable results are always a surefire way to sell a Jack Adams candidate, which of course leads us to a later conversation about John Tortorella’s stranglehold on that award if the Wild win their conference.)
There are the tactical improvements from Boudreau and then there’s that intrinsic something that he brings to a team.
I covered Boudreau in Washington. I think, over time, he figured out the balance between being a players’ coach and keeping a firm grasp on his team, a balance he didn’t always strike well with the Capitals, who couldn’t handle their jokey uncle all of a sudden erupting like a volcano when things turned sour. And in thinking about what the Wild dealt with under Mike Yeo – a drill sergeant that eventually lost the room – you can see why Boudreau is getting what he’s getting out of this team.
“The one surprise has been that his is more demanding of players than I anticipated,” Fletcher said. “His reputation is of being a players’ coach but he doesn’t let anything slide.”
Fletcher said Boudreau has a way of critiquing players without undermining his relationship with them. “He never demeans players, never embarrasses them,” Fletcher said. “He meets with players all of the time and is constantly working with them with video. He’s on top of everything all the time. He’s a great communicator, completely honest. He’s adamant about correcting players’ mistakes, but he does it in a way where they feel he’s doing it in their best interest and the best interest of the team.”
So the Wild are playing great for a great coach, which should fuel delusions of grandeur about how far this team could go. But owner Craig Leipold recently said that he’s not buying that hype:
“It takes a lot of luck,” Leipold said. “And injuries are all part of luck. Right now, we don’t have any injuries. So we’re playing well. What happens if two guys go out to injuries? Three guys?
“So, what am I expecting this year? I don’t know if we’ve got the kind of team, right now, that can play four hard series in the playoffs. I don’t know, they could surprise me.
“But I don’t think we’ve got that type of team. We haven’t built it yet. We’ve got some guys coming up who within a couple of years of being in this league can start to make a difference in the weakness that we have, which is the size of our players — although we’re better than we were last year.”
If the Wild look around the Western Conference, they should be thinking “why not us?” There are no flawless teams, no juggernauts. The Wild’s fundamentals – strong goaltending and no over-reliance on special teams – are a recipe for playoff success.
But then you come back to two basic questions about the team’s two MVPs this season.
1 – Is Dubnyk a playoff goalie? He’s at a .896 saver percentage and a 2.84 GAA in 16 games with the Wild. Those numbers aren’t necessarily an indictment of his play, but he’s been a party to them.
2 – Can Boudreau win a Game 7, or at least avoid getting to one? Because as much as we want to believe this isn’t a thing, it’s a thing.
One of the dream scenarios in the NHL postseason – for fans, if not for Canadian ratings – would be a series between the Minnesota Wild and the Washington Capitals.
Not only would you get an all-world goalie showdown, but you’d get the apex of dramatic narratives: Boudreau against his old team, Ovechkin against his old coach, and the opportunity for both to earn that specious “validation” for finally having won the whole damn thing.
Now that would be wild.
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