As part of Puck Prose’s running series on autopsies of dead NHL teams, we”ll now take a look at the Minnesota Wild. How did they exit the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs earlier than expected?
The Minnesota Wild were expected to be a contender in the Western Conference Finals pretty much from the pre-season and forward. How did that not come to fruition? How did a team that came in second in the Central and third in the Western Conference exit the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs early? We’ll take it through three major keys, points that can be addressed in the offseason to make sure that the Wild are better able to make a run at the Cup next year.
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Where to Start
Minnesota Wild defenseman Ryan Suter (20) skates with the puck (Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports)
Minnesota outplayed St. Louis in their series consistently. I mean, they simply outplayed them. In every game except game four, the only game they won, the Minnesota Wild outshot the St. Louis Blues. In every game, they outdrew them at the faceoff dot. They only allowed one power play goal over 15 penalty kills. The Minnesota Wild had fewer penalty minutes in the series. They had more hits in the series as well.
The only two categories where the Wild got beat: giveaways and blocks. And that might be what determined this series. Yes, Jake Allen played like a world-beating goaltender throughout the series, posting 1.54 goals against average and a .956 save percentage. But that’s not the Wild’s fault, nor something they can fix.
Although there are ways around it. We’ll get to that. Devan Dubnyk himself wasn’t as bad as he’s been in the past. Nor was he as bad as I personally expected him to be. He posted a .925 SV% and a 1.86 GAA. Usually, that would be good enough to win a series. But with the Minnesota Wild’s offense unable to overpower Jake Allen, it wasn’t.
And that’s where we start. The Minnesota Wild’s offense needs to be better. It helped to oust them from the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Offensive Production Needs to Increase
Scoring one goal a game for the first three games isn’t good enough. Especially when St. Louis is putting up two twos and a three against you. And for the number of shots that Minnesota had, they should have had more. But therein lies the problem: how many of the chances were high danger or were screened? How many were easily caught by Allen?
As you can see, many of the Wild’s goals in their most scoring game (Game 5, three goals), were dirty. In that, they came from close range and were forced into the net. That’s when Minnesota was the most productive. Throughout the series, they were unable to capture that same ability. That’s how they’re going to need to fix their offense heading into next season: more guys who are able to score those dirty goals.
Minnesota Wild forward Eric Staal (12) takes the faceoff (Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports)
Because players like Mikael Granlund and Eric Staal are very much “pretty goal” scorers, meaning they’re able to beat the goaltender with pretty shots and great goals. But in the playoffs, those goals become few and harder to score. The Wild are going to need more ugly goal scorers, the guys who can grind and get down into the crease.
That’s what Martin Hanzal, for example, should have been doing with his physical frame. But the Wild were unable to obstruct Allen’s view enough or get in the way, and that allowed him to catch goals and to make great saves often. Jake Allen was then able to eliminate the Wild from the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Defense Needs to Grind
Just as the offense needs to start playing uglier, making “bad goals” more often, the defense needs to step it up and stop those. Many of the St. Louis Blues’s goals in the video above are the type that Minnesota should be focusing on, and it’s up to Minnesota’s coaching staff to figure out how to prevent them as well as score them.
The defense needs to be able to clear the crease better, and to force guys like Vladimir Tarasenko away from the net and to crowd him. You can’t give star players like Tarasenko any room to operate, and that’s what allowed him to score that first goal.
Los Angeles Kings left wing Tanner Pearson (70) shoots against Minnesota Wild defense (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)
And dirty goals like that also used to kill Mike Yeo when the Minnesota Wild played the Chicago Blackhawks. There’s a reason Bryan Bickell used to be known as a Wild-killer: he used his physical frame to force those “ugly goals”.
Minnesota still hasn’t figured out how to stop them in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and while their defense was great for the most part at limiting shots on goal against the Blues, as long as any find their way into the net the number of shots doesn’t matter. A team could have three shots on goal but if all three find their way to the mesh netting, that’s bad.
Get More Blocks
And the defense also lost the block battle. That’s a bad sign, as the fewer blocks the defense has the more Devan Dubnyk has to be relied upon to stop them. If Minnesota’s defense finds a way to put up more blocks and focus on the plan they already have, Dubnyk would have better numbers and the St. Louis Blues might have had fewer goals. That’s how the Blues limited Minnesota’s defense, and Minnesota next year needs to return the favor.
And that means next playoffs limiting giveaways. That, again, was one of the few statistics where Minnesota was outplayed, and it hurt them badly. They had two games with 9 giveaways and one game with 8. They need to crack down next season and get their players to stop being bumped off the puck so easily.
Pittsburgh Penguins center Nick Bonino (13) during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
And that means getting more size – also the thing that’s going to help with scoring playoff goals. Huh. Weird. One thing can help this Minnesota team become a better playoff team. Well, maybe it’s just time that Minnesota got bigger.
So let’s break down how they can do that. Free agency, for one, will allow Minnesota to pick up a player like Thomas Vanek (cause that experiment worked out well last time) or somebody like Nick Bonino – that’s who Minnesota should truly focus on. A depth center with the ability to play well with many different teammates and lots of playoff experience, being invaluable to the Penguins in their Cup run as well as this year.
Yeah. Minnesota, pay whatever you can to Nick Bonino and treat him well. He might be your ticket out of the Central.