Wild aren’t going away, despite injuries and trades

You’re to be forgiven if you had already written off the Minnesota Wild this season because, well, it was a pretty easy thing to do.

It was just a couple of weeks ago that they were in the middle of a stretch where they had lost nine out of 10 games, were on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture and surrounded by a pile of teams that all seemed to be in a better position to make a run at a playoff spot than they were, and the roster was in the process of being torn apart by trades and injuries.

Already playing without one of their top defenders in Mathew Dumba, they also lost their captain, Mikko Koivu, for the remainder of the season.

As if those two injuries were not enough, there were the trades that saw Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, and Mikael Granlund all get shipped off in exchange for Victor Rask, Ryan Donato, and Kevin Fiala. Those trades allowed the Wild to get younger and a little cheaper, but it didn’t seem to make the team much better in the short-term (or even the long-term where a couple of those trades are still questionable moves).

There was every reason to believe the season was teetering on the edge of collapse not long after coach Bruce Boudreau all but guaranteed a playoff berth.

Somehow, even with all of that adversity and roster upheaval, the Wild have managed to collect a point in seven consecutive games (winning five of them) and still have a hold on a playoff spot in the Western Conference, sitting two points ahead of the Colorado Avalanche for the second Wild Card spot and only two games back of the St. Louis Blues for the third spot in the Central Division.

Their past five games alone have been against Calgary, Winnipeg, St. Louis, and Nashville (twice) and they managed to come out of that stretch with eight out of a possible 10 points. That is three of the top teams in the Western Conference and a fourth (St. Louis) that is one of the hottest teams in the league. And they came out way better than could have reasonably been expected going in.

What is driving that recent success?

For one, starting goalie Devan Dubnyk deserves a lot of credit for playing some outstanding hockey over that stretch, posting a .935 save percentage and a 5-0-1 record. If you get a .935 save percentage (and let’s not forget backup Alex Stalock posted a .953 mark in his one appearance during that stretch, too)  you are going to have a chance to win a lot of hockey games no matter what the rest of your roster looks like or who you are playing on any given night.

They have also received some big contributions from some of their newest acquisitions.

Since arriving from Boston in the Coyle trade Donato has been one of the team’s best offensive players with two goals and five assists in seven games.

Fiala also had a big game on Tuesday night with a pair of goals against his former team to help the Wild secure at least a point in the standings.

Eric Staal has also been on a role as of late with nine points over the past seven games.

[Related: Zach Parise having sneaky good season for Wild]

Put all of that together and suddenly the playoffs don’t just seem to be a possibility for the Wild, they seem to have a great chance to punch their ticket even with all of the chaos that has happened within.

It certainly helped that they caught Calgary, Winnipeg, Nashville when they did, because while all three are the top teams in the West, none of them have really played their best hockey as of late.

It has also helped that the competition for the two Wild Card spots in the Western Conference has thinned out dramatically.

Vancouver, Chicago, Edmonton, and Anaheim — teams that were all within a point or two of a playoff spot just a couple of weeks ago — have fallen back out of the race and now sit as many as seven points back. None of them, realistically speaking, are a serious threat to the Wild (or anyone else in the playoff race, for that matter).

The two biggest threats on the outside remain Colorado and Arizona, while Minnesota still has a head-to-head game remaining with each.

A couple of weeks ago the Wild were a battered team whose roster was in the process of being broken apart and were one of nine teams fighting for what would only be three playoff spots.

Today that potential playoff race has been whittled down to just five teams fighting for the same three spots.

The Wild are not only one of the five teams still in it, they are probably sitting in a better position and playing better than at least three of them. That might be all they need to get in the postseason and give themselves a chance.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Hard cap hurt; Iginla talked Lucic into Flames move?

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The hard salary cap is hurting the NHL’s brand. (Broad Street Hockey)

• With his name removed from the list, he’s the top 10 untradeable contracts after the Milan Lucic trade. (The Hockey News)

• Flames’ trade for Milan Lucic is inexplicable. (Yahoo Sports)

• The seven best free-agent deals signed in the NHL this summer. (Daily Hive)

• Ranking every NHL team by weight… a hefty ask. (Vancouver Courier)

• The Flames can blame (partly?) a franchise legend for helping sell Calgary to no-movement-clause Milan Lucic. (Sportsnet)

• Is there too much offense from the defense in today’s NHL? (TSN.ca)

• Stanley Cup-winning teams with the most Hall of Famers. (Featurd)

• The King always gets his way. (NHL.com)

• Part 1 of a look at the false sense of parity in the NHL. (Last Word on Hockey)

John Tavares is both healthy again and still upset his Maple Leafs got bounced by the Bruins in Round 1. (NHL.com)

• The best and worst moves from each Eastern Conference general manager. (The Score)

• What would an NHL team made up only of players from New York/New Jersey look like? (The Athletic)

• A look back on the Martin St. Louis trade and its impact. (Raw Charge)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Will coaching change be enough to give Ducks’ goalies some help?

Getty
1 Comment

Since becoming the Anaheim Ducks’ starter, John Gibson has become one of the best goalies in the NHL.

For the first part of the 2018-19 season he was almost single-handedly carrying the team and helping to keep it at least somewhat competitive. He was not only in the Vezina Trophy discussion, but as long as the Ducks were winning he was a legitimate MVP contender. But for as good as Gibson performed, the entire thing was a house of cards that was always on the verge of an ugly collapse.

The Ducks couldn’t score, they couldn’t defend, they forced Gibson to take on a ridiculous workload in terms of shots and scoring chances against.

Eventually, everything fell apart.

Once Gibson started to wear down and could no longer steal games on a nightly basis, the team turned into one of the worst in the league despite having a top-10 goaltending duo. That is a shocking accomplishment because teams that get the level of goaltending the Ducks received from the Gibson-Ryan Miller duo usually make the playoffs.

How bad was it for the Ducks? They were one of only three teams in the top-15 in save percentage this past season that did not make the playoffs.

The only other teams in the top-15 that missed were the Montreal Canadiens, who were just two points back in a far better and more competitive Eastern Conference, and the Arizona Coyotes who were four points back in the Western Conference and the first team on the outside looking in.

The Ducks not only missed, they were 10 points short with FIVE teams between them and a playoff spot. Again, almost impossibly bad.

It is a testament to just how bad the rest of the team performed in front of the goalies, and it continued a disturbing trend from the 2018 playoffs when the Ducks looked completely overmatched against the San Jose Sharks in a four-game sweep. It was clear the team was badly flawed and was falling behind in a faster, more skilled NHL.

The problem for the Ducks right now is that so far this offseason the team has remained mostly the same.

They bought out the remainder of Corey Perry‘s contract, will be without Ryan Kesler, and have really not done anything else to change a roster that has not been anywhere near good enough the past two seasons.

That means it is going to be another sink-or-swim season for the Ducks based on how far the goaltending duo of Gibson and Miller can carry them.

It is a tough situation because the Ducks have made an absolutely massive commitment to Gibson as he enters the first year of an eight-year, $51.2 million contract. T

hat is a huge investment in a goalie, and for the time being, the Ducks have not really done anything to support him. Even if you have the best goalie in the league — or just one of the best — it is nearly impossible to win based only on that. Great goalies can help, they can mask a lot of flaws, and they can even carry a mediocre or bad team to the playoffs if they have a historically great season (think Carey Price during the 2014-15 season). But that still puts a ton of pressure on the goalie, and it is nearly impossible to ride that all the way to a championship.

There is, however, one small cause for optimism.

A lot of the Ducks’ problems defensively last season seemed to be based around their system and structure in the early part of the season under then-coach Randy Carlyle.

Under Carlyle the Ducks were one of the worst teams in the league when it came to suppressing shot attempts, shots on goal, and scoring chances during 5-on-5 play.

They were 29th or worse when it came to shots on goal against, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances, and 26th in total shot attempts against. This is something that always happened with Carlyle coached teams and they would always go as far as their goaltending could take them. In recent years, Gibson masked a lot of those flaws by playing at an elite level and helped get the Ducks in the playoffs. He was able to do it for half of a season this year before finally playing like a mortal instead of a goaltending deity.

But after Carlyle was replaced by general manager Bob Murray, the Ducks showed some massive improvement defensively, shaving multiple shots, shot attempts, and scoring chances per 60 minutes off of their totals.

They went from 26th to seventh in shots on goal against, from 29th to 19th in shot attempts, from 30th to 17th in scoring chances against, and from 29th to 17th in high-danger scoring chances against.

Still not great, but definitely better. Much better. So much better that even though Gibson’s overall performance regressed, the Ducks still managed to win games and collect points at a significantly better rate than they did earlier in the season. They were 14-11-1 from Feb. 10 until the end of the season under Murray.

That is a 91.3 point pace over 82 games. That would have been a playoff point total in the Western Conference this past season.

Under Carlyle, it was a 74.6 point pace. That would have been one of the four worst records in the league.

Coaching changes are very rarely a cure-all. It is still a talent-driven league, and if you do not have talent you are probably not going to win very much. But there are always exceptions and outliers, and sometimes a coaching change is a necessity and can help dramatically improve a team.

New Ducks coach Dallas Eakins has an incredibly short NHL head coaching resume so we don’t have much to go by when it comes to what he will do What we do have to go by came in Edmonton where it has become abundantly clear over the past 15 years that the problems go far beyond the head coach (because they have all failed there). The Ducks are still short on talent at forward and defense, but it should still be able to perform better than it did a year ago. And with a goalie as dominant as Gibson can be (with a great backup behind him) there is no excuse for them to be as far out of the playoff picture as they were.

The Ducks don’t need to be the 1995 Devils defensively to compete.

They just need to not be the worst shot suppression team in the league.

If Eakins can figure out a way to build on the momentum the Ducks showed over the final two months of the 2018-19 season, they might actually have a fighting chance.

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.

Calgary Flames set with arena plans to replace Saddledome

Getty Images
7 Comments

CALGARY, Alberta (AP) — The Calgary Flames have a tentative agreement for a new arena to replace the Saddledome.

The city, NHL team and the Calgary Stampede have agreed in principle to terms. The Stampede, a rodeo exhibition, owns the land.

The deal was to be presented to the City Council on Monday and then put to a vote. Calgary citizens would then have a week to voice their opinion before a council vote next week to ratify the deal.

The Saddledome is almost 36 years old. The cost of the event center is $550 million to $600 million. It is to have a seating capacity of about 20,000 for sports and would be the heart of a larger revitalized commercial and residential district.

Penguins sign Zach Aston-Reese to 2-year deal

Getty Images
1 Comment

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Penguins and forward Zach Aston-Reese avoided arbitration on Monday, agreeing to a two-year deal that runs through the 2020-21 season.

The deal is worth $1 million annually. The two sides came together minutes before heading to arbitration.

”We were actually setting up for the meeting and kind of right before it started, right at nine o’clock, it got done,” Aston-Reese said. ”Right on time.”

Aston-Reese, 24, posted career highs in goals (eight) and assists (nine) despite being limited to 43 games because of a hand injury. Aston-Reese – who skated alongside Sidney Crosby on the top line but also put in work with the fourth line – gives the Penguins more options as they try to bounce back from a first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders.

”Zach is a responsible player who plays a solid two-way game,” general manager Jim Rutherford said. ”He has a heavy style of play that is especially effective on the forecheck and penalty kill.”

Aston-Reese admitted he was relieved to get a new contract ironed out before going through arbitration.

”It’s a little bit awkward and I was just really happy to get the deal done before that meeting began,” he said. ”You hear stories of things like that and it’s no coincidence that only what, 5% actually go through with the meeting. I was happy to avoid that.”