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Have Minnesota Wild already hit their ceiling?

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Let’s talk about the Minnesota Wild for a few minutes because, well, I am still not entirely sure what to make this team under its current construction.

How do you feel about them? Do you think about them? When you hear the name “Minnesota Wild” do you think “that’s a team that I could see making some noise and going on a deep playoff run,” or do you just kind of say “meh” and not see them as much of a threat?

They have been, by definition, a pretty good team.

They finished with 101 points in 2017-18 and are one of just three teams to have made the playoffs in each of the past six seasons, joining the Pittsburgh Penguins and Anaheim Ducks. That is also — if you can believe it — tied for the second longest active playoff streak in the NHL (behind only the Penguins’ ongoing 12-year run, and tied with the Ducks).

All in all, pretty successful — right?

The thing about that success is that the past few years have at the same time been kind of a disappointment because their ceiling seems to be that of a team that makes the playoffs and then quickly disappears without much of a fight. During the aforementioned six-year playoff run they have won a grand total of two playoff series and have not been out of the second round in any of those years.

They have not been out of the first round since 2014-15 and have managed to win a grand total of four playoff games in the three years since (that coming after they swept out of the second round in four straight games in 2015. That means in their past four postseason series they have won exactly four games).

The latest postseason exit resulted in a significant change in the team’s organizational leadership when long-time general manager Chuck Fletcher was fired and replaced by former Nashville Predators assistant GM Paul Fenton. Even with a team that recorded 100 points for the second year in a row it was still a tough year for Fletcher as the Wild were one of the many NHL teams that paid too much in the expansion draft process, giving up Erik Haula and Alex Tuch to the Vegas Golden Knights.

When a team that has not achieved much postseason success changes general managers, a change behind the bench can not be far behind if results do not change for the better. That means coach Bruce Boudreau almost certainly has to be on the hot seat heading into the 2018-19 season.

That leads to another pretty big question: Are the Wild, as currently constructed, good enough to keep Boudreau employed behind the bench? And if not, is he good enough to keep squeezing more out of this roster than it should be capable of producing?

There are a lot of red flags with this team that make it seem like the whole thing could be teetering on the edge of a full-on collapse, perhaps sooner rather than later.

From a shots and possession perspective, the Wild were one of the worst teams in the NHL last season controlling just 47 percent of the 5-on-5 shot attempts. That was the second-worst mark in the NHL and had them sandwiched between the dumpster fire that was the Ottawa Senators and a New York Rangers team that was beginning to sell off half of its roster.

In their five games against the Jets in the playoffs they were absolutely steamrolled in that department, attempting just 40 percent of the shot attempts in the five games (while getting outscored 16-9, including 7-0 over the final two games of the series).

Typically, teams that get decimated like this in the shots column do not make the playoffs, and when a team is that bad it usually does not paint a promising picture for the following season. Especially when the only additions to the roster are depth players like the ones added by Minnesota this summer (Matt Hendricks, J.T. Brown, Eric Fehr, Greg Pateryn).

The one area the Wild did excel in this past season was scoring chances.

While their share of the total shot attempts was among the league’s worst, their share of the total scoring chances was, shockingly, among the league’s best.

Usually when a team finds any sort of success with poor shot metrics the argument in their favor — or the one coming from the team itself — revolves around shot quality, and not quantity. Usually that argument is bunk and the team’s success is usually because a goalie played out of their mind to bail them out, or they had a few forwards have career years to carry the offense (which kind of happened in Minnesota last year, at least as it relates to Eric Staal and maybe Jason Zucker). Then everything falls apart the next season.

In the Wild’s case, though, there seems to be at least some evidence that this was the case. How repeatable that is not only remains to be seen, but will also go a long way toward determining whether or not they are going to remain competitive or if the bottom will fall out from underneath them.

Aside from the poor shot metrics, the other concern here is that this was the second oldest team in the NHL last season and while they have some young players in Jordan Greenway, Joel Eriksson Ek, and Luke Kunin, it still figures to be one of the oldest teams in the league this season.

At the top of that list will be Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, both of whom are not only entering their age 34 seasons, but are also coming off of significant injuries.

Parise has already been mired in a steady decline across the board for about five years now in all major areas (goal and point production, his ability to generate shots, and his overall possession numbers). Suter is still a workhorse that plays close to 27 minutes per night (and still at a reasonably high level) but given the mileage on those tires you have to assume he, too, is going to start to see his play begin to decline. The Wild still have more than $15 million tied up in those two for another seven years.

Their core players are still pretty good, but they are either in a decline (Parise), likely to regress (Staal), or could be on the verge of reaching a point in their career where they start to break down (all of Parise, Suter, and Staal). They have some okay young players, but nobody that really seems to be a potential game-breaker.

Given all of that it seems this team has hit its ceiling. They have already made the change in the front office. If things get off to a bad start in ’18-19 it might be time for him to just hit the reset button on the entire operation because it is difficult to see this group turning things around in a meaningful way.

[Shot attempt and scoring chance information via Natural Stat Trick]

Adam Gretz is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

NHL announces 2020 All-Star Skills participants

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The NHL’s All-Star Skills event takes place on Friday night (coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN) and the league has announced what players will participate in each of the events.

Below is the official lineup from the NHL for each skills challenge.

FASTEST SKATER
Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres
Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders
Chris Kreider, New York Rangers
Anthony Duclair, Ottawa Senators
Travis Konecny, Philadelphia Flyers
Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks

From the NHL:

Eight players will compete in the Bridgestone NHL Fastest Skater™. Each skater will be timed for one full lap around the rink. The skater may choose the direction of their lap and can be positioned a maximum of three feet behind the start line located on the penalty box side of the center red line. The skater must start on the referee’s whistle and the timing clock will start when the skater crosses the start line. In the event of a clock malfunction, the official time will be recorded by the referee’s stopwatch. The skater with the fastest time is the winner of the Bridgestone NHL Fastest Skater™, and if there is a tie for the fastest time, the tied players will skate another lap to determine the winner.

Defending champion: Connor McDavid

SAVE STREAK
David Rittich, Calgary Flames
Tristan Jarry, Pittsburgh Penguins
Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues
Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning
Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs
Jacob Markstrom, Vancouver Canucks
Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals
Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets

From the NHL:

A minimum of four goalies and all 36 skaters will participate in the Bud Light NHL Save Streak™, a shootout grouped by division where goalies compete to make the most consecutive saves. Each goalie will face one opposing division and a minimum of nine scoring attempts. Each scoring attempt is officiated in accordance with NHL shootout rules and begins on the referee’s whistle. Players from each division will shoot in numerical order, lowest to highest, with the divisional captain shooting ninth. A goalie’s round at the Bud Light NHL Save Streak™ cannot end with a save – if the divisional captain’s shot is saved, the goalie will continue to face shooters until a goal is scored. If the goalie makes a save on the divisional captain’s shot, the order of shooters to follow is the same as the original order. The goalie with the longest consecutive save streak during his time in net is the winner of the Bud Light NHL Save Streak ™. If at the completion of the event there is a tie for the longest “save streak” the winning goalie will be determined by the total number of saves made in their round. If two or more goalies remain tied based on the total number of saves made then the tied goalies will compete in a sudden death round of “Goalie Goals.”

2019 champion: Henrik Lundqvist

[MORE: NHL All-Star Game 2020: Rosters, schedule, jerseys, more]

ACCURACY SHOOTING
Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes
Tyler Bertuzzi, Detroit Red Wings
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers
Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers
Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils
Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks
Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues
Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets

From the NHL:

Eight players will compete in the Honda NHL Accuracy Shooting™, a timed event where a shooter is positioned 25 feet from the goal line and shoots pucks at target images that appear on an LED screen placed on the goal line. Time will start at the referee’s whistle and each player will shoot pucks at the target images, which will disappear from the screen after being successfully hit. The clock stops when the player has successfully hit all target images. The player that hits all target images in the fastest time will be crowned the winner of the Honda NHL Accuracy Shooting™. If there is a tie for the fastest time, the tied players will compete again to determine the winner.

2019 champion: David Pastrnak

ELITE WOMEN’S 3-ON-3 (new)
Two teams — American All-Stars and Canadian All-Stars — each comprised of nine skaters and one goalie, will go head-to-head in the Elite Women’s 3-on-3 presented by adidas™. The 3-on-3 game will consist of two 10-minute periods, with a running clock. Teams will switch ends after the first period. All penalties will be “served” with a penalty shot being awarded to the player specifically fouled.

American All-Stars
F Alex Carpenter
F Kendall Coyne Schofield
F Brianna Decker
F Amanda Kessel
F Hilary Knight
F Jocelyn Lamoureux-Davidson
F Annie Pankowski
D Kacey Bellamy
D Lee Stecklein
G Alex Rigsby Cavallini

Canadian All-Stars
F Meghan Agosta
F Mélodie Daoust
F Rebecca Johnston
F Sarah Nurse
F Marie-Philip Poulin
F Natalie Spooner
F Blayre Turnbull
D Renata Fast
D Laura Fortino
G Ann-Renée Desbiens

HARDEST SHOT
Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames
Seth Jones, Columbus Blue Jackets
Shea Weber, Montreal Canadiens (three-time winner)
Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks
John Carlson, Washington Capitals

From the NHL:

A minimum of four players will compete in the Enterprise NHL Hardest Shot™. Each player will attempt two shots measured in miles per hour (mph), with the highest speed of their two shots recorded. For each attempt, a single puck is positioned on the ice 30 feet from the center of the goal. Starting no further than the nearest blue line, the shooter may skate towards the puck and shoot it from its positioned spot into the goal. Shots must be on goal to be calculated and all shots are recorded by radar in miles per hour. If a puck enters the goal uncalculated due to a malfunction of the radar equipment, the shooter will be allowed an additional attempt. If the player breaks his stick he will be given another attempt. The player who records the fastest speed is the winner of the Enterprise NHL Hardest Shot™. If there is a tie for the fastest speed, the tied players will shoot again to determine the winner.

2019 champion: John Carlson (102.8 mph)

SHOOTING STARS (new)
Women’s Elite All-Star (CAN) — TBD
Women’s Elite All-Star (USA) — TBD
David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins
Matthew Tkachuk, Calgary Flames
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
Tyler Seguin, Dallas Stars
Brady Tkachuk, Ottawa Senators
Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues
David Perron, St. Louis Blues
Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs

Here’s how the NHL explains how this trick shot competition will work:

Ten players — eight NHL All-Stars, and one American Elite Women’s All-Star team member and one Canadian Elite Women’s All-Star team member — will compete in the Gatorade NHL Shooting Stars™. Players from the American and Canadian Elite Women’s All-Star teams will be selected by social media vote. Players will be positioned on an elevated platform behind the goal, approximately 30 feet above the ice surface, where they will shoot pucks at a variety of targets located on the ice, with each target possessing different point values. One at a time, each player will attempt seven shots and earn points for each target hit.
· Pucks that do not hit a target will earn no points.
· Pucks that bounce, deflect, or otherwise ricochet onto or into a target will be counted for the highest scoring value they hit.
· A puck that hits the face of a target then falls into the center will be scored as if it went directly into the center.
· A puck that hits the center and bounces out will be scored the point value of the center.
· A puck that bounces off the ice then up onto or into a target will be awarded the corresponding value.
· A puck that hits the base of the target will not be awarded any points.
· Players may hit the same target multiple times.
All scoring denominations will be decided by the on-ice officials. If at the completion of the event there is a tie for the highest score, players will shoot three pucks each to determine a winner. If the players remain tied after the three pucks, a sudden death “score-off” will occur.

Please note that special protective netting will be installed at Enterprise Center for the Gatorade NHL Shooting Stars™.

The 2020 NHL All-Star Skills Competition will take place on Friday, Jan. 24 (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2020 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 25 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

MORE NHL ALL-STAR GAME COVERAGE:
All-Star Game rosters
NHL All-Star Game captains
All-Star Game coaches
Pass or Fail: 2020 All-Star Game jerseys
Alex Ovechkin will not play in 2020 All-Star Game
NHL Skills Competition to feature women’s 3-on-3, pucks shot from stands

Sharks stick with GM Doug Wilson — for better or worse

Sharks Doug Wilson vote of confidence
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The San Jose Sharks are sticking with GM Doug Wilson despite a huge letdown of a season.

Majority owner Hasso Plattner gave Wilson a vote of confidence on Thursday. While it makes sense to comment on a disappointing season, it’s interesting to see it in an official release.

“While we are all very disappointed in the team’s performance thus far this season, Doug has a long history of leading our team to success,” Plattner said as part of the statement. “The last time we failed to meet our winning standards in the 2014-15 season, we were able to quickly rebound and re-establish a winning culture for the next several years. I am supportive of Doug’s plan to get our team back on track.”

Wilson has overseen a long run of Sharks success

Wilson deserves credit for a remarkably strong and consistent run since being named GM in May 2003. The oft-tanned executive must make other GMs feel like he’s a shark smelling blood at times. While the Joe Thornton trade is Wilson’s masterstroke, he often wins other trades — sometimes by a lot.

The Sharks have also won a lot since he took the reins.

The Sharks won four Pacific Division titles in a row from 2007-08 to 2010-11, grabbing the 2009 Presidents’ Trophy along the way. Those peak years ended with heartbreak, yet a run to the 2016 Stanley Cup Final silenced a lot of the “choker” claims.

Each time the window appeared ready to close on the Sharks, Wilson would pull a rabbit out of a hat, drafting gems like Logan Couture or trading for key players such as Brent Burns.

Sharks seem stuck

Unfortunately, the 2019-20 season might represent Wilson running out of magic.

Strangely, the Sharks are so stuck that they might just be better off sticking with Wilson, though.

An incoming GM would only be able to do so much about an aging, expensive defense and other concerns. So, again, hoping Wilson has some tricks up his sleeves ranks as an understandable gamble.

Back on Jan. 13, The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reported (sub required) that the Sharks are looking more at a “reset” than a tear-down, trades-wise. LeBrun points to sensible pieces to auction, such as defenseman Brenden Dillon and defensive-leaning forward Melker Karlsson.

Maybe Wilson could pull off a sequel to getting a bucket of picks for marginal players, like he did with Ryane Clowe and Douglas Murray in 2013? If anyone can pull that off again, it’s Wilson.

The Sharks see little incentive to tank since Ottawa owns their 2020 first-rounder anyway. Taking baby steps seems like the only reasonable option, really.

How Wilson must succeed where he once failed

For all of the smart (and/or “smart at the time”) moves Wilson made, goaltending continues to doom the Sharks. Navigating that problem with better results should be Wilson’s top priority, even if it’s a tricky challenge.

Martin Jones served as a nice answer for a while, but the Jones – Aaron Dell tandem has been a disaster for some time. The Sharks could no longer outscore such problems in 2019-20. Jones and/or Dell show up on the wrong end of far too many charts like this GSAA one from Charting Hockey:

Jones, 30, stands as one of the more cringe-inducing Wilson contracts. He’s been abysmal, has a no-trade clause, and the $5.75M AAV runs through 2023-24. (You just cringed, didn’t you?)

(Did I mention that a different GM would face a huge mess if they wanted to blow this up? Yeah, it’s a dicey situation.)

Whether it’s making life easier for Jones or finding a different answer in net, the Sharks need to fix this. Doing so quickly is crucial, too, with an aging core.

Honestly, many of us — probably Wilson included — figured that this team would hit a wall eventually. It’s just that the wall popped up faster than expected, and the Sharks went splat.

It’s up to Wilson to make sure that the Sharks leap over that hurdle next time around, kind of like a … well, a killer whale.

Otherwise it could be, you know, crushing.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

‘Matthew Tkachuk Friendship Tour’ billboard starts popping up in Edmonton

Tkachuk billboard in Edmonton
via CJAY 92
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Fans must wait about a week for the next round in the “Battle of Alberta,” but if they need a reminder, the “Matthew Tkachuk Friendship Tour” billboard began showing up in Edmonton on Wednesday.

Calgary radio station CJAY 92 made it happen, and also helped to make this Tkachuk-centric trolling effort turn into a boon for charities. The billboards hype up the next meeting between the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers, which happens in Edmonton on Jan. 29. Deliciously enough, the two teams then meet again in Calgary on Feb. 1. Think of all of the opportunities for friendship.

Take a look at the Tkachuk billboard in Edmonton

CJAY 92 shared photos of the billboards that began sprouting up:

You may, however, notice an omission. The final version includes Tkachuk’s name, the amusing “friendship tour,” and his jersey number. It does not, however, feature Tkachuk making a face like he smelled something rancid, or really didn’t appreciate that pun.

Yeah, that bitter beer face plus the heart background did kind of tie the billboard together.

That said, there’s the real fear of Oilers fans defacing the image in Edmonton. Heck, there’s the risk of someone getting injured trying to vandalize a billboard with Tkachuk’s actual face on it. Maybe it was also a rights issue with getting that picture?

So … yes, it’s a very, very mild letdown. Nonetheless, this adds another wrinkle to this fun, silly rivalry within a rivalry.

Recap of feud with Kassian

As a reminder, the ball got rolling as a feud formed between Tkachuk and Zack Kassian. Tkachuk delivered multiple hits — ones that Kassian found dirty — and then Kassian ragdolled the pesty winger. You could say that Tkachuk got the last laugh, as the Flames scored the game-winning goal during power-play opportunities stemming from Kassian’s penalties. The two also traded trash talk after the game.

After letting the two-game suspension sink in, Kassian warned that Tkachuk “messed with the wrong guy.” Kassian implied that the previous outing was merely a skirmish in a larger war (or, you know, “Battle of Alberta”).

This feud would rank as one of the most glorious in hockey if it stayed onto the ice. Yet, off ice moving and shaking really brings this to another trolly, splendid level.

Tkachuk billboard becomes a boon for charities in Edmonton and Calgary

Once CJAY 92 took care of the more fun aspects of the Tkachuk billboard, Mohamed Elsaghir’s Go Fund Me drive instead focused on raising money for ALS. Between that drive and a $10K donation by entrepreneur W. Brett Wilson helped bump the total contributions above $20K.

While that charitable run came via Flames fans, Oilers devotees made waves for a good cause, too. What started with a fun tweet and $25 donation from Oilers fan Samantha Costa ended up being a boon, too.

Brown Bagging It, one of the benefiting charities, summed everything up nicely:

***

Overall, great stuff. It makes you wonder: could enterprising Oilers fans come up with a billboard idea for the next game on Feb.1? Maybe something along the lines of, “Thanks for James Neal?”

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Most dangerous lead in hockey? This season, it’s all of them

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Joel Quenneville remembers years past when NHL teams leading going into the third period could feel comfortable chalking up two points. A win was a pretty sure bet.

Earlier this season, his Florida Panthers erased a four-goal deficit to win a game. And then they did it again. Even the three-time Stanley Cup-winning coach didn’t see that coming.

”We didn’t envision coming back either game,” Quenneville said.

It’s becoming easier than ever to envision. There have already been five four-goal comeback wins this season, tied for the most in NHL history. And the 18 three-goal comebacks are the most through the same number of games in 30 years.

No lead is safe.

”Used to be the dreaded, two-goal lead is the most dangerous in hockey, but now it seems like the four-goal lead’s the hardest one to hold on to,” Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. ”Teams believe they can come back at any time.”

Coaches and players point to a number of different factors for all the rallying going on, ranging from rules designed to create more offense to better power plays, more skill and talent, and human nature when it comes to holding a comfortable lead or facing a difficult deficit.

”It’s very difficult to hold leads now just with some of the rules that have been added,” said coach Todd Reirden, whose Washington Capitals recently erased a three-goal deficit to beat the New York Islanders. ”Just different little nuances that have helped scoring increase in the league. It’s just the way that penalties are called, too, and the league wants offense and they love that aspect of teams coming from behind like that.”

Those rules include more penalties called for obstructing, hooking, holding and slashing and increased advantages on faceoffs for the offensive team. Just like the standings that are set up to be neck-and-neck down the stretch to the playoffs, the modern game is designed for no team to be out of a game.

When David Quinn’s New York Rangers went down 4-0 at Montreal this season, the second-year coach considered it a little unfair based on their effort. They won 6-5 in regulation.

”One of the things we talked about in between the first and second period was: ‘Don’t play the score. If you do the right thing over and over again, the game will reward you,”’ Quinn recalled. ”And I thought that’s what happened. Within a game, you’ve got to be mentally tough, and you’re going to have to have resiliency.”

See the Panthers, who stunned Anaheim and Boston with those four-goal comebacks. Quenneville has been behind an NHL bench for a long time and doesn’t have a scientific explanation for this phenomenon.

”You get a fortunate break on a bounce here, and it can really shift the momentum,” Quenneville said. ”There’s been a lot of offense in this year’s game, teams going for it. You’ve got a 4-0 lead, whether you take your foot off the pedal and all of a sudden you maybe relax a little bit, but the other team’s pressing, they’re pinching, they’re taking more offensive zone chances and thinking that way. You get a couple of breaks and all of a sudden, the other team’s on their heels.”

Much of it is psychological. Players after building a big lead could naturally think their heavy lifting is over for the game. Those on the other side are just getting started.

”The team that’s ahead, as much as you fight it, there’s a natural instinct to just ease off the gas a little and give (up) opportunities,” said Matt Niskanen, whose Philadelphia Flyers recently beat the Bruins in a shootout after trailing by three goals. ”Mentally, you tell yourself, ‘Don’t let up, keep playing the same way because we’re having success for a reason.’ It’s a really hard thing to fight.”

After reaching Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, the Bruins lead the Atlantic Division at the All-Star break despite a penchant for blowing leads.

”We’ve got to bear down,” Boston center Patrice Bergeron said. ”You can’t just have a good effort, be satisfied with that, and then just play for a half a game.”

Half a game isn’t enough, especially since hockey has moved toward more offensively skilled players and away from those tasked with keeping the puck out of the net. There’s also the fact that 25 of 31 teams are either in or within 10 points of a playoff spot, and it’s hard for teams to dominate a whole game — let alone a season.

”It just shows the parity of the league and that on any given night, everybody can beat somebody else” Reirden said ”It’s extremely competitive.”