After the Chicago Blackhawks eliminated Minnesota in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring, the Wild came to a hard realization about their style.
"We weren't going to take the next step, become a serious contender, unless we changed the way we played offensively," Wild head coach Mike Yeo said Sunday. "I have bit my lip a couple of times on the bench ... but we're going to live with the risk to get more reward."
Minnesota was the ultimate dump-it-in team in 2012-13, constantly trying to put it behind the defence and chase it down. It didn't really work. Its minus-5 goal differential was the worst of any playoff team and it didn't scare the Blackhawks at all in losing the five-game series.
Through 18 games this season, though, the Wild are plus-8. Goaltender Josh Harding's unreal start is a major reason. But so is the organization's decision to try and play more with the puck.
Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher is a believer in advanced statistics. Behind the scenes, there is a lot of research being done on how much of an advantage it is to gain the opposing blue-line as opposed to dumping it in. It's a subject I'm really interested in, especially after a few people pointed to Chicago's Patrick Kane as the best in the NHL at this skill.
"We do some advanced analysis," Yeo said. "But there wasn't one or two stats that told us to do this.
"It was recognizing we weren't going to get better without doing it ... We use what the defence gives us. If there is opportunity to carry the puck, [to] allow our players to use their creativity ... wait and find the open spaces, they can do it."
It helps that the Wild are now a much faster team. Up front, there's been a veteran makeover in Zach Parise and Jason Pominville and an infusion of youth with Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter. These five have joined captain Mikko Koivu to form two strong lines.
But it's not just those players who are allowed to try. Generally, third and fourth liners are tortured if they make a mistake trying to be fancy. Yeo admits the reigns are a little tighter for those players. But he points out that Torrey Mitchell's playmaking on Zenon Konopka's goal in last week's 5-1 win over the Calgary Flames is an example of the freedom allowed them, too.
Then, there's Minnesota's defence. Take away Ryan Suter and the group combined for 54 points in 48 games one year ago. If this year's unit keeps up its current pace, it will have 69 points at the 48-game mark.
"Because we were giving up the zone and didn't have the puck, our D couldn't go up the ice," Yeo said, adding the collar is off the rearguards too.
"If the puck comes back to them [at the point in the offensive zone], we don't want them to just shoot. We want them getting involved."
The Western Conference is murder this season. But as the season reaches the quarter pole, the Wild don't look like one of the victims. Yet Yeo remembers the 2011-12 season, when Minnesota led the conference on Dec. 1, only to finish 12th. He knew that team wasn't good enough. This one?
"We'll have ups and downs," he said. "But it feels different."
1. New Jersey Devils president & GM Lou Lamoriello on the possibility of trading Martin Brodeur: "We've never had any conversations about it. I've never talked to anyone else about it and I'm not going to waste any time on it." There you go.
2. Suter is your early season ice-time leader at 29:22 per night, almost two minutes ahead of Calgary's Dennis Wideman. Suter's played over 30 minutes eight times, including in each of Minnesota's last three games, with a ridiculous 36:51 in last Thursday's 3-2 shootout loss to the Washington Capitals. Suter won't run away from the workload and Yeo compared him to Sergei Gonchar, who always said he was better the more he played. Yeo generally leaves this in-game decision up to one of the game's great defensive coaches, Rick Wilson. At some point, though, they're going to need to ease things, especially since Suter will get hard minutes at the Sochi Olympics.
3. Same problem with Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, who ran out of gas in the Stanley Cup final. Certainly, the Wild would accept a similar problem in exchange for getting that far. Chara is playing the front of the net on the power play, one of the strategies for dealing with his ice-time. Torey Krug's hot start eases the loss of Chara's shot at the point with the added bonus that the massive defenceman doesn't need to go back and retrieve it. He gets almost three minutes a game with the extra man and, if that happens without a lot of extra skating, it's a big bonus for Boston.
4. A former teammate said Harding always seemed to get an injury whenever the opportunity arose to become Minnesota's No. 1 netminder. Yeo didn't know anything about that. But he has seen a huge change in Harding, who doesn't discuss his battle with multiple sclerosis in-season. "Last year, we had a lot of meetings with the doctors and training staff to get a better understanding," Yeo said. "You never forget he has it. But it slips your mind ... because he never talks about it. He's become a real fighter."
5. Harding leads the NHL with a .947 save percentage in 14 games. According to hockey-reference.com's marvelous "Play Index," no other goalie has finished a season with a save percentage that high playing more than seven games. Harding himself was at .960 for seven games in 2006-07. Anaheim's Frederik Andersen is giving this challenge a run, too.
6. Lost in all of the P.K. Subban craziness last week was news that fellow Montreal Canadiens defenceman Andrei Markov is switching agents. Markov has not yet said who his new representative will be. But a couple of NHL GMs said they hate when this happens right before contract time (Markov is slated to become an unrestricted free agent). "You're always worried the new guy is telling him how much better a deal he can get," one GM said. "Then, he has to live up to it."
7. Another thing to remember about Markov, who remains one of the game's smartest players, is that his upcoming deal may not be insurable for pre-existing conditions. It's a common issue for guys who've battled a lot of injuries. It adds risk for teams, especially since he will soon be 35 years old, meaning his next deal cannot come off the salary cap.
8. Things sure got quiet after Subban played 27:09 last Thursday and 25:34 on Sunday. We're going to get a clear indication of what he really thinks when contract talks begin sometime this month. If the reigning Norris Trophy holder says he'll go for a two-year arbitration award, which would probably be around $7 million per and take him to a UFA payday, then you'll know he's terribly unhappy. You can expect Montreal to try for a much longer term than that.
9. For all the talk about the Toronto Maple Leafs looking for a centre, the team's lesser-known need might be a right-shooting defenceman. They have one in Cody Franson and Dion Phaneuf, who shoots left, prefers the right side. But word is the Leafs have been looking for another, although it's been an on-again/off-again search. At one time, they poked around Mike Weaver. But it sounds like they would like someone who can play a little higher in their lineup.
10. Other NHL teams believed to be looking for a defenceman are the Ottawa Senators and, for a time, the Dallas Stars. The latter team's improved play of late changed things.
11. The word on Toronto's goaltending tandem of Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer: Barring an obscenely good offer that Leafs GM Dave Nonis can't say no to, those two will spend the year together. Why not? They're forcing each other to be very good.
12. A similar situation will play out in Ottawa with Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner. Lehner is forcing the Senators to make some very interesting decisions. They'll have to do a new contract with him this summer. One of the reasons why they traded Ben Bishop was they knew it was time to get Lehner into the NHL full-time. He's ready for the big gig and is pushing Anderson hard. Not sure, though, if the Senators would consider dealing Anderson because they're a little concerned about their overall goaltender depth. They would need one in return and seem to like the internal competition.
13. It was a tough week in Florida, where Panthers GM Dale Tallon was under a lot of pressure to do something. He really wanted to make a trade. But when that couldn't get done, he fired Kevin Dineen and the coaching staff instead. One of the questions being asked: "Is this the end of assistant Craig Ramsay's career?" At 62, he's been in the NHL for almost 40 years as a player and coach. He beat prostate cancer in 2006 and is a well-liked teacher. You want to see him go out on his terms.
14. Tallon had trouble making a deal because the guys he really wants to move have unpalatable contracts in both money and term. Aside from youth, which he doesn't want to deal, there are a couple of players of interest to other teams: Marcel Goc ($1.7 million this year) and Shawn Matthias ($1.75 million this year and next). Both are UFA's at the end of their contracts. Goc is a centre, which is very valuable (Matthias plays some, too). But it sounds like the price is higher for these two.
15. I spent some time on the Panthers website. The way their hockey operations department is listed is a little, um, odd. Panthers owner Vinnie Viola made it very clear when he bought the team that it would be a family-style operation, which is no problem. But is son Travis the No. 1 hockey person in the organization? Maybe some time in the future. But this seems a little soon.
16. The Edmonton Oilers looked at goalie Ilya Bryzgalov a couple of weeks ago, then backed away. It sounds like their interest was rekindled after last week's games in the Sunshine State. The Oilers beat the Panthers 4-3 in overtime and lost 4-2 to Tampa Bay in a game they outchanced the Lightning. Bryzgalov's cap hit will be $2 million, with a $1-million bonus and a pro-rated $1-million salary.
17. I heard the Nashville Predators poked around Bryzgalov, too. But that was denied like a layup attempt over Dikembe Mutombo.
18. One of the rumoured goalies Edmonton checked out was Jonas Hiller of the Anaheim Ducks. A couple of GMs thought there was no way this would happen because Ducks GM Bob Murray tries hard not to trade within his own (Pacific) division. Apparently, some of the offers for Bobby Ryan were from that area. Murray wanted no part of that and Ryan was traded to Ottawa.
19. The minimal return the Oilers received for Ladislav Smid stunned some people. But ultimately, this will be decided by two things: How well Laurent Brossoit develops and what Edmonton does with the cap space. There weren't a ton of teams who knew Smid was available, either. One exec expressed surprise at hearing the trade, while another scout said he'd known for about two weeks. I had heard Washington was very interested, which makes sense. But that was denied (I was denied more this week than in all of high school - impressive feat).
20. Amid the Wayne Simmonds to Edmonton rumours were similar reactions from execs. You can never, ever, predict what the Philadelphia Flyers will do. But trading Simmonds would be an unexpected move in the eyes of others.
21. As Oilers GM Craig MacTavish was tracked across the Eastern seaboard last week, another GM said he finds it impossible to scout games in person because his presence creates a zoo.
22. I heard that a couple of NHL teams were thinking about signing Colin Suellentrop of the OHL's Oshawa Generals. The 20-year-old defenceman was drafted in 2011 by Philadelphia, which decided against signing him. Suellentrop then went unclaimed last June, although he did attend Montreal's rookie camp. He's from Florida, which makes the Panthers a possibility. But it's also believed the New York Rangers are looking at him. He's worked hard to improve his skating and might be a classic late-bloomer.
23. Ryan said there was one on-ice adjustment with his transition from Anaheim to Ottawa. Senators head coach Paul MacLean wants his forwards to engage opponents who go to the half-wall with the puck in the defensive zone. Ryan remembers then-Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle demanding they stay in the middle of the ice. "If the goalie can't stop it from out there, we'll get another one," Ryan said Carlyle would say.
24. Other than that - and it's a relatively small thing - both Ryan and the organization are very comfortable with each other. Ryan is similar to Leafs sniper Phil Kessel in the sense that he's an underrated playmaker and passer. The Senators have been pleasantly surprised by that. If there's one thing they'd like to see more, it's a little less unselfishness and more shooting.
25. A couple of opposing players said they noticed that Senators defenceman Erik Karlsson is still not 100 per cent certain about his stride. Karlsson agreed that it's not all the way back yet, although Senators GM Bryan Murray and MacLean will remind you that Karlsson at 80 per cent is as good as much of the league at 100 per cent, which isn't necessarily wrong. Karlsson wasn't able to do his full workout routine last summer because he was still recuperating. It will be interesting to see if he gets it fully back this season or needs another summer of workouts before his stride comes all the way back.
26. MacLean has a good line about the Senators: "We couldn't get the puck out of our zone, which led to penalties, faceoffs in our end and then faceoffs at centre ice." They have spent much of their practice time working on breakouts. Other teams say Ottawa's young players had some trouble with the adjustment from being a surprise team to being a team with expectations. MacLean didn't disagree with that. What will also help is they already played many of their toughest Western games. They're finished with Anaheim and the San Jose Sharks, for example.
27. One of the interesting things MacLean said the Senators wanted to do this summer was add players who were important contributors in the NHL at the 400-game level. Ryan entered this season with 395 career appearances, Clarke MacArthur at 419. They felt their youth saw Daniel Alfredsson (1,196) and Sergei Gonchar (1,194) and felt that was how long you needed to play before taking a leadership role. Ottawa wanted them to understand you can take that role earlier in your career.
28. Expect a lot of talk about goalie fighting at the GM meetings. Hybrid icing will be a discussion point as well. A few execs see more picks being set up-ice to affect races. They'd also like a clearer method of deciding who won "the race," although I'm not sure how that can be done now. As a group, they're nervous about its effect in the playoffs - no bad injuries, though, which is the point.
29. It's not as bad for the Colorado Avalanche, but the other Central Division contenders must be looking at the possibility of a Pacific Division crossover and thinking, "Boy that's really what we need for travel in the first round. Thought re-alignment was supposed to fix this." That team won't be easy to play against, either.
30. Monday's Hockey Hall of Fame inductions are being done the right way, ie. no NHL games up against them. This is how it should always be done. Entering the Hall are Chris Chelios, Geraldine Heaney, Scott Niedermayer, Brendan Shanahan and the late Fred Shero. Jay Greenberg and Harry Neale are the media recipients. Congratulations to them, their families and friends.
Follow Elliotte Friedman on Twitter @FriedgeHNIC
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