The NHL All-Star Break is not the season’s halfway point, of course. The Minnesota Wild have played 49 games and have 33 remaining. However, even though we’re long past halfway in this season, one thing seems pretty clear: this team stinks. It’s going nowhere.
You don’t have to dive deep into the numbers to see that. The standings show that the Wild are 21-28 this year, with five losing bonus points; just 16 of those wins are regulation wins. Remove the overtime and shootout circuses, and they’ve won fewer than one out of three games they’ve played this year.
That said, it’s worth a look at some of the underlying numbers to see why this team - which is much the same, personnel-wise, as the playoff teams of years prior - has fallen so far down the standings.
First of all, this doesn’t seem to be an unlucky hockey team. The Wild have scored 47% of the goals in their games, and they have a slightly losing record; they’re 27th in the standings, and 25th in goal differential. They have the record they deserve.
When you drill down, three themes emerge:
- The team’s focus on defensive shot prevention instead of offensive shot creation
- The penalty kill, which is a historical outlier
- The goaltending, which is not a strength
Let’s break this down into four facets of the game: offense, defense, goaltending, and special teams.
(Unless noted, all numbers herein are from Hockey Reference.)
Goals for: 146, 25th in NHL
Expected goals for (5-on-5 only): 87.8, 29th
Actual goals for (5-on-5): 98, 20th
Just from those numbers, you can tell that the Wild aren’t generating much in the way of offense. At 5-on-5, they’re in the bottom ten in the league in unblocked shot attempts. In terms of “high-danger” shot attempts - basically, rebounds and shots from the slot - they’re in the bottom three; only Chicago and Detroit have fewer.
What’s kind of amazing is that, in terms of finishing, Minnesota’s actually better than anticipated. They’re top-ten in the league in terms of scoring from those high-danger chances, and fourth in shooting percentage from those chances; you can see this simply from the number of goals they’ve scored above expected.
You probably don’t need the numbers to figure out who’s been good, offensively, and who hasn’t. Despite missing seven games, Kirill Kaprizov leads the team with 45 points; Mats Zuccarello has 31 assists; and Joel Erikkson Ek leads everybody with 21 goals, 9 on the power play.
It’s been down the lineup where the Wild have struggled. Freddy Gaudreau, in particular, has been awful this year, and Marcus Johansson has provided almost nothing. You can criticize the fourth-liners if you want, too, but Pat Maroon and Connor Dewar and Brandon Duhaime aren’t really on the team for their scoring; it’s the middle-six guys like Gaudreau and Johansson that really torpedo the Wild’s scoring with their almost total lack of offensive contribution.
One of the narratives of the season has been “Isn’t it amazing how much ice time Brock Faber has been getting?” Faber’s leading the team, playing 24:51 a night overall and an even 20 minutes per night at even strength, and - given that he’s a defenseman - this is one of the leading stats that people use to support his Calder Trophy candidacy.
I think Faber has been excellent, but another way of looking at this is, “Can you believe how much ice time the Wild have had to give to a rookie?”
Faber’s been on the top pairing defensively because Jared Spurgeon is out for the year, and Jonas Brodin missed 17 games with an injury - but also because the rest of the Wild’s defenseman are the type of players you either try to hide on the third pairing, or scratch entirely. The Wild didn’t want to give Jake Middleton almost a thousand minutes, so far this year. They would have preferred to get zero minutes from Dakota Mermis and Alex Goligoski, instead of 450-plus each. They’ve tried to hide Jon Merrill, they traded away Calen Addison, and Zach Bogosian was never meant to be anything except a third-pairing guy.
That’s too many defensemen to hide.
All of that said, the Wild have been mostly okay on defense. They’re top ten in the league in shot prevention - 10th in Corsi against, 10th in Fenwick against, 8th in expected goals against.
This is probably partially because the team is playing defense-first, given that they’re in the middle of the pack in the percentages for these numbers… but it’s keeping the scoring chances against down. Only two teams, Edmonton and Florida, have given up fewer high-danger scoring chances this year.
This is the Wild’s rep, over the years - defense first, offense last. The numbers do back this up - since Hockey Reference started tracking shot stats, in 2007, the Wild have fewer unblocked shot attempts than any other team (excepting Vegas and Seattle, of course). Add up all the unblocked shot attempts, both for and against, and only New Jersey and St. Louis have fewer than the Wild.
Trying to win zero to negative 1; that’s Wild hockey.
A lot of the focus for the Wild this year has been centered on Marc-Andre Fleury, who finally passed Patrick Roy for second on the all-time wins list. Fleury is a no-doubt Hall of Famer, and might be the most-loved teammate in NHL history, and by each and every account seems to be one of the nicest guys in sports today.
This makes looking inside the numbers painful, because two things seem to be true: the Wild are scraping the league bottom, instead of fighting for the playoffs, because their goaltending is terrible.
It’s also arguably true that the Wild have never had worse goaltending.
Money Puck says that only Ottawa (which, looking at the numbers, may be forgetting to play a goaltender most nights) and New Jersey have gotten worse goaltending performances overall this year.
This is why the Wild are decent at shot prevention, but 8th-worst in the league in terms of goals allowed; their overall save percentage is tied for fourth-worst in the NHL.
I looked up the numbers on Hockey Reference - in terms of 5-on-5 save percentage, this is the worst the Wild have ever been in net, dating back to the 07-08 season. Over that entire span, they’re 4th in the NHL in the same category.
If you want a single thing to point to this year, as to why the Wild stink, you could start with the goaltending.
Hockey-Reference’s penalty kill numbers go back to the 1963-64 season, so I can tell you that, since 1963-64, only 56 times has a team finished the year killing less than 74% of its penalties.
The Wild are at 73.5% for the year.
Unbelievably, this has represented an improvement, under John Hynes; the Wild were at 66.7%, under Dean Evason, and have been at 78.3% since (though in 2024 so far, they’re right back at 66.7%, so how much of an improvement has it really been?)
Their power-play numbers are right in the middle of the NHL pack, so I’m not sure there’s a lot of information to be gleaned there - they’re not particularly good or bad, which is in line with their offensive numbers overall.
Ultimately, Bill Guerin has a pretty rough choice to make, for the remainder of the year.
It was Guerin that decided that he had the right team to make a run, that he needed to reward players (like Marcus Foligno and Ryan Hartman) with new contracts, that he should add or keep veterans (like Maroon and Johansson, and later Bogosian) to give the team a final push, rather than start giving experience to youngsters.
The Wild may try to point to Spurgeon’s injury, or the absences of Brodin and Kaprizov, to explain away their troubles, but that doesn’t help them right now.
Minnesota’s playoff chances are down to 17%, according to the Athletic, and that’s with them still accorded better chances than two teams (St. Louis and Arizona) that they trail in the standings.
They’re seven points behind the Blues for the final wild-card spot, with four teams ahead of them.
To give you some idea of how hard it is to climb the standings: On December 19, Edmonton was seven points out of a wild-card spot, with four teams ahead of them.
Since then, the Oilers have won 16 games in a row… and are only five points up on the final wild-card spot.
Are the Wild about to win 16 in a row? Even if they did, and they made the playoffs, would you have any hope for them - even to win a round, with struggling goaltenders and special teams?
Or might it be time to start doing what’s best for the 2024-25 and 2025-26 editions of the Wild?