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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.

Flyers’ Konecny injured in chaotic game vs. Senators

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It was madness in Philadelphia on Saturday afternoon where the Flyers were able to stay hot with a 4-3 win in a brutal, chaotic game against the Ottawa Senators that featured a significant injury, fights, some trash talk, and a late cheap shot.

Let’s start with the big injury that saw Travis Konecny, the Flyers’ leading scorer, exit the game in the first period because that is where things seemed to really start devolving into chaos.

Konecny was injured when he was on the receiving end of a crushing open-ice hit from from Senators defenseman Mark Borowiecki.

 

It clearly wasn’t a hit to the head, but it was still a pretty violent collision and a significant impact. Konecny did not return after the hit, while the Flyers simply called it an “upper-body injury.”

The team said an additional update on his status will be provided on Monday. Konecny had scored his 11th goal of the season earlier in the game to give the Flyers an early 1-0 lead.

The Flyers were obviously not pleased with the fact their top producer was injured, and it resulted in a physical end to the first period that eventually saw Jakub Voracek fight Nick Paul with a minute remaining.

Those tensions carried over to the second period when Philadelphia’s Joel Farabee and Ottawa’s Jean-Gabriel Pageau separated themselves from a scrum along the boards and dropped the gloves for a fight of their own just 20 seconds into the period.

Thanks to a flukey Anthony Duclair goal in the second period, where he was able to capitalize on a bad Flyers turnover behind the net, the game was tied heading into the third period. The two teams then exchanged goals (including Duclair’s second of the game) and set the stage for Scott Laughton to score the eventual game-winner with five minutes to play in regulation. He celebrated by skating by the Senators’ bench and having some words for them.

Then, with the game in its closing seconds, Senators forward Brady Tkachuk took it upon himself to cross-check an unsuspecting Laughton in the neutral zone, drop his gloves, and then jump on top of him.

He was given a two-minute for cross-checking and a two-minute minor for roughing.

Given that the Senators were trailing by a goal and still had a chance to tie the game it is hard to call that play by Tkachuk anything other than selfish.

These two teams meet in again in two weeks in Ottawa.

Saturday’s win improves the Flyers to 12-3-4 in their past 19 games and keeps them in a top-three spot in the Metropolitan Division playoff race.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

What’s driving Coyotes’ fast start, and how can they maintain it?

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PITTSBURGH — The Arizona Coyotes probably deserved a better result Friday night in Pittsburgh.

A lost face-off followed by a fluke bounce, Phil Kessel missing a wide open net, and a couple of jaw-dropping saves by Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry were just enough to turn yet another solid road effort into a tough-luck 2-0 loss, dropping them one point back of the Edmonton Oilers for first place in the Pacific Division. Even with that result the Coyotes are still off to one of the best starts in franchise history (even dating back to the Winnipeg days) and have at least put themselves on solid ground in the Western Conference playoff race.

Here’s how good their start has been:

  • Their .613 points percentage as of Friday is fourth best in the Western Conference, while they have a six-point cushion between them and the group of teams outside the playoff picture. That may not seem like a huge gap in early December with still three quarters of the season remaining, but history suggests not many teams (less than 20 percent) are able to make up that sort of deficit. The odds are in their favor.
  • Their 38 points through 31 games are tied for the fourth most in the franchise’s 40-year history, and are the most since they had 41 points during the 2013-14 season (that team ended up missing the playoffs by just two points following a second-half collapse. The Western Conference was also far more competitive and top-heavy that season than it is this season).
  • They allowing just 2.26 goals per game, the second lowest total in the league.

In a lot of ways this team has been a Western Conference version of the New York Islanders. They don’t really have an offense that is going to break games open, and they don’t rate very highly in a lot of analytical areas when it comes to shot attempts or shot rates, all of which can lead to some skepticism. But like the Islanders they help make up for the lack of quantity in a couple of other key areas. Their “expected goals against” rate (via Natural Stat Trick) is in the top-10 in the league, indicating that while they give up a lot of attempts they don’t give up the type of attempts that typically turn into goals. They are one of the most disciplined and least penalized teams in the league, almost entirely eliminating the special teams battle. And the most important element? They have one of the best goaltending duos in the league in Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta.

Those two many not be household names around the league, but since being united in Arizona the list of goalies that have outperformed them can be counted on one hand. Since the start of the 2017-18 season both Raanta and Kuemper are in the top-five (among the 56 goalies with at least 50 games played) in all situations save percentage and even-strength save percentage, while both are in the top-10 in penalty kill save percentage. When a team gets that sort of goaltending a lot of flaws that might otherwise exist suddenly go away, and given that both have been able to play at such a high level for an extended period of time it’s easy to buy into it being sustainable. Even before arriving in Arizona both goalies had shown an ability to be above average goalies but were simply in positions where they were unable to get real playing time.

So how do the Coyotes build on this start and turn it into something that can extend their season into the spring?

1. Resist the urge to trade a goalie. Don’t try to to “trade from a strength to fill a weakness,” or even try to suggest it. The strength is what is literally driving the team right now. Not only that, it is almost a necessity to have two good goalies to win in the NHL these days because of how important it is to limit the starter’s workload and keep them fresh. Having two highly productive goalies signed to cap-friendly contracts through next season is a massive advantage. Take advantage of it. Keep them both and keep each them fresh by playing them each regularly. Their success isn’t a fluke.

2. Hope for a rebound from the top players. One of the most surprising aspects of their start is the trio of Phil Kessel, Clayton Keller, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson has combined for just 13 goals this season, putting them on a pace for only 34 goals over 82 games. A year ago that trio scored 55 goals. All three are currently being crushed on the shooting percentage front, and while Keller has never really been a high percentage scorer, the other two have been. Kessel has shown signs the past few games that he could be on the verge of one of his goal-scoring binges, while Ekman-Larsson has scored at least 12 goals in each of the past six seasons, at least 14 goals in five of those seasons. He is due. If those two can get their puck luck to change the offense will suddenly look a lot different (and better).

3. Get Niklas Hjalmarsson back. The other surprising element of their success has been that they have played almost the entire season without Hjalmarsson after he was injured back in October when he was hit by a shot. He is back on the ice skating, and given his original time frame is probably a couple of weeks away from returning to the lineup. It would be a significant add because Hjalmarsson is one of the team’s best defensive players. If he can return to that level it would be a significant addition to a lineup that is already one of the best teams in the league at preventing goals.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

The Buzzer: Another shutout for Jarry; Draisaitl puts Oilers back in first

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Three Stars

1. Tristan Jarry, Pittsburgh Penguins. Another big win for the Penguins on Friday night, and they owe this one to Jarry as he recorded his second consecutive shutout and stole the show in Phil Kessel‘s first visit back to Pittsburgh as a visiting player since the offseason trade. Jarry has been getting the bulk of the starts over the past couple of weeks and is making a pretty convincing case to keep getting them as he improved his season save percentage to .942 with Friday’s win. He has stopped all 61 shots he has faced over the past two games and has won six of his past seven appearances.

2. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers. Thanks to the Arizona Coyotes’ 2-0 loss in Pittsburgh, the Oilers were able to jump back ahead of them for first place in the Pacific Division with their 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings. Draisaitl was again one of the big impact players for the Oilers by factoring into both of the team’s goals. He opened the scoring in the first period by banking a shot in off of Kings defender Drew Doughty, then set up Alex Chiasson‘s game-winning goal just a few minutes later. With his two points he takes over sole possession of the league lead in the scoring race with 53 points, moving one point ahead of his teammate — and linemate — Connor McDavid, who now has 52 points. No other player in the league has more than 44 points right now.

3. Jakub Vrana, Washington Capitals. Vrana continued his hot streak — and great season — on Friday with a pair of points, including the game-winning goal, in the Capitals’ 3-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks. He now has at least one point in seven of his past nine games, including three multi-point games. His goal on Friday was already his 15th of the season and has him on pace for close to 40 goals this season.

Other notable performances from Friday

  • Shea Weber was great for the Montreal Canadiens in their 2-1 win over the New York Rangers, but he also had a painful night by taking a puck right to the face. Read all about it here.
  • Alex DeBrincat scored for the second game in a row (his seventh goal of the season) as the Blackhawks were able to get a 2-1 shootout win in New Jersey. Corey Crawford was also great in net for the Blackhawks, stopping 29 out of 30 shots throughout regulation and overtime three out of five shots in a five-round shootout.
  • Mikko Koskinen stopped 35 out of 36 shots for the Oilers in their win over the Kings.

Highlights of the Night

Nate Thompson gives the Canadiens the lead with his game-winning goal against the Rangers.

When you record consecutive shutouts you probably have a lot of big saves on your individual highlight reel, and this was probably Jarry’s best of the night on Friday against the Coyotes. This helped protect what was at the time a one-goal lead.

The Blackhawks were 2-1 shootout winners in New Jersey and it was rookie Kirby Dach scoring the winning goal in the fifth round on this slick move.

Blooper of the Night

This could have been a problem for Capitals goalie Braden Holtby as he nearly put the puck in his own net.

Factoids

  • The past two days have seen almost every game across the NHL be decided by just a single goal. The only two that have been decided by more than one goal were only decided by more because of late empty net goals. [NHL PR]
  • Claude Julien moved into a tie for sixth place on the Canadiens’ all-time coaching wins list on Friday night. [NHL PR]
  • The Oilers’ power play is one of the big reasons they are in first place in the Pacific Division so far this season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Pittsburgh Penguins 2, Arizona Coyotes 0
Montreal Canadiens 2, New York Rangers 1
Chicago Blackhawks 2, New Jersey Devils 1 (SO)
Edmonton Oilers 2, Los Angeles Kings 1
Washington Capitals 3, Anaheim Ducks 2

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Canadiens’ Shea Weber bloodied after blocking shot with his face (Video)

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The Montreal Canadiens picked up a hard fought (and much needed) win in New York on Friday night by knocking off the Rangers, 2-1, thanks to a late goal from Nate Thompson with a minute to play in regulation.

It was a painful win for captain Shea Weber.

He was once again a workhorse on the Canadiens’ blue line, playing a game-high 24 minutes, finishing as a plus-one, attempting five shots, and blocking five in the defensive zone. One of those blocks in the first period left him bloodied as he slid to the ice and was hit directly in the face by a shot from Rangers center Ryan Strome.

You can see the play in the video above. He somehow did not miss a shift after that play.

Weber has been one of the consistent bright spots for the Canadiens this season and is showing that he can still be a dominant, impactful player. His biggest problem the past few years has been staying healthy enough to remain in the lineup so he can make that impact. So far this season that has not been a problem. He already has 23 points (nine goals, 14 assists) in the Canadiens’ first 30 games this season while posting some of the best possession numbers of his career. His 0.76 points per game average would also be the highest mark of his career.

The Canadiens’ win on Friday was only their second in their past 11 games.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.