Sometimes it takes a few years for a plan to come together. Just ask Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher.
Fletcher made a huge splash in the summer of 2012, signing winger Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter to matching 13-year, $98 million contracts. They were Fletcher’s cornerstone signings, the building blocks on which the rest of the team would be centered. And while there were growing pains in the two seasons that followed, it’s looking as though the third time may be the charm in Minnesota.
In the lockout-shortened season of 2013, the first of the Parise and Suter era, the Wild were a mediocre team, squeaking into the playoffs by the thinnest of margins, the only team with a negative goal differential to do so. In the first round, injuries sidelined goaltender Niklas Backstrom, then his backup Josh Harding, and third-stringer Darcy Kuemper mopped up in a five game series loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.
2013-14 went much the same, with the added wrinkle that the Wild were pitted against the Colorado Avalanche in the first round, a team whose seeding was greater than the sum of its parts. The Wild picked up a seven game series victory in round one, but were eliminated the next round by the Blackhawks.
Aside from the end result, both those teams had something in common: they were far from good at playing a possession game. The numbers for Minnesota in 2012-13 and 2013-14 are actually eerily similar. Their PDO, shooting percentage plus save percentage, at 5-on-5 close was 99.9 in both seasons, their possession metrics were nearly identical with a Fenwick For of 48.6 and 48.7, respectively, and the same for their Corsi For, which was 48.1 and 48.2.
Some blamed the Wild's woes on the fact they had too much tied up in Parise and Suter. But Fletcher has gone out and made sure to do everything to stop that talk in its tracks. With some savvy trades, signings, and a bit of good fortune at the draft, Fletcher has built a team that's gone from mediocre to the cusp of something of something greater. And this season has shown that growth.
Those same metrics which hampered the Wild are up across the board – their Fenwick For is up to 58.5 percent, while Corsi For is sitting at 55.9. And even PDO, which usually regresses to 100, is at 101.5, not so high that the Wild should be expecting some great correction in the way things are going. The team is shooting the lights out at 10.39 percent with the score close, scoring 63 percent of the goals. These are the kind of numbers teams like Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles have had in the past.
Part of what’s holding the Wild back is that goaltenders Kuemper and Backstrom have combined for a .911 save percentage at even strength with the score close. However, Minnesota is in the top five in both shot suppression metrics, Fenwick Against and Corsi Against per 60 minutes, and allow the least shots per 60 minutes of any team in the league. It would be a bit strange not to see the goaltending improve as the season moves forward, especially with the defensive play they’re getting in front of them.
The tremendous shot suppression is thanks to the play of Suter, who sees almost 30 minutes of ice time a game, along with that of Parise, captain Mikko Koivu and the line of Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, and Erik Haula. The combination of Coyle, Niederreiter, and Haula has started primarily in the defensive zone but still posts a positive Corsi, quite the showing from a line that has been largely unheralded.
Surely, all these numbers are an outstanding leap forward for the team, yet somehow the Wild are sitting middle of the pack in the Central. Aside from inconsistent goaltending, a big part of that reason is a feeble power play, which is firing more blanks than any other team in the league.
With the extra man, it’s of paramount importance to get pucks at least directed on goal. A rebound here or there will often add up to a few more goals, the obvious reason being the ability to outnumber the penalty killing team and win loose pucks. When it comes to getting pucks on net with the extra man, Minnesota is the sixth best team in the league, but the issue is they’ve got the second worst power play shooting percentage in the league, better only than the lowly Buffalo Sabres.
But that, and at times in goal, are the only places the Wild have been weak.
They may not be flashy and may not have the pure name value of other teams, but this 2014-15 edition of the Minnesota Wild are getting things right. If it keeps up, it might be time to consider them a contender.