Just when it looked like you could close the book on the 2019-20 Minnesota Wild, they have managed to play their way back into playoff contention in the Western Conference.
Entering play on Thursday night (when the Wild visit San Jose), they sit just one point back of the Winnipeg Jets and Arizona Coyotes for the second Wild Card spot in the Western Conference while still having two games in hand on both. They are one of the hottest teams in the league over the past 20 games and have the strong underlying numbers (indicating the right process) to backup their results in the standings.
Given everything that has happened for this organization over the past year, it is a stunning turnaround.
Just consider everything that has happened since July.
- On July 30 the Wild fired general manager Paul Fenton. Fenton had been on the job for just one year and had already orchestrated all of their major offseason moves, including the multi-year signing of free agent Mats Zuccarello.
- Less than a month later they hired Bill Guerin, making him the third different general manager for the team in three seasons.
- The Wild got off to a disappointing start that saw them hit their low-point on January 14 with an ugly 7-3 loss in Pittsburgh for their fourth consecutive loss. They played that game with only five defensemen after former coach Bruce Boudreau incorrectly filled out his lineup card before the game.
- After Fenton tried — and failed — to trade forward Jason Zucker, one of the team’s best players, on two different occasions over the past year, Guerin finally completed the task by sending him to the Pittsburgh Penguins on February 10 for Alex Galchenyuk, prospect Cale Addison, and a 2020 first-round draft pick. It came at a time when the Wild had started to turn their season around with a series of wins. Guerin issued a strong statement to the team the next day when he said: “If there is quit, there will be more trades.”
- Two days later, the Wild fired Boudreau even though the team was 7-3-1 in its previous 11 games. They replaced him with Dean Evason.
- On trade deadline day it was revealed that the Wild had been trying to trade Zach Parise to the New York Islanders. The deal ultimately fell through, while Parise has three goals and six total points in the five games since then.
Individually any one of those points is a lot for a team to deal with. Put all of them together in a span of less than a year and it is absolutely insane. Combined with how bad the team was a year ago it is remarkable they are back in a position to potentially make the playoffs.
Let’s look at a couple of key factors driving that turnaround.
Kevin Fiala has been on a roll
Chalk this one up as a win for Fenton.
One of his many in-season trades last year was to acquire Fiala from the Nashville Predators for Mikael Granlund. While Granlund has struggled to make much of an impact for the Predators (and is headed for unrestricted free agency this summer), Fiala has had a career year for the Wild and has been especially hot over the past month-and-a-half.
Over the past 20 games he has 25 points (12 goals, 13 assists) and is one of the leading scorers in the league during that stretch.
That includes nine multi-point games, including five in a row entering Thursday.
Alex Stalock has taken control of the net
This is probably the most surprising development this season.
While Devan Dubnyk has been the Wild’s rock in net for the past four years, it is the 32-year-old Stalock, a career backup, that has helped drive their climb up the standings.
He has started 14 of the past 20 games, owning a 10-3-1 record with a .926 save percentage during that stretch. It is one of the best runs of his career and has helped solidify what had been a trouble spot this season with Dubnyk struggling through the worst season of his Minnesota tenure and one of the worst seasons of his career.
They have simply found their game
One thing that probably didn’t get a lot of attention in the first part of the season is that the Wild were probably playing better than their record would indicate. During 5-on-5 play they were doing a decent job controlling the pace of the game, and most of the numbers showed that. Their share of scoring chances and expected goals were among the top-10 in the league, but it wasn’t translating into results because their goaltending wasn’t holding up its end of the bargain.
But Stalock’s play over the past two months, as well as the fact that the Wild have upped their game even more, has made them one of the hottest teams in the league.
The table below looks at their overall 5-on-5 play over the various stretches this season (league ranking in parenthesis).
If you control the share of shot attempts and scoring chances at that level, you’re going to give yourself a chance to win a lot of games. Especially if the goaltending is there. Right now, it is all clicking.
The Wild are currently on a 90-point pace which, given the current pace of every team in the Western Conference, would be enough for a Wild Card spot.
They still have a long way to go before they get there and do not have much margin for error, but they have at least put themselves back into a position where they can do it.
That is probably more than anybody expected at the start of the year. Or just a few weeks ago.
(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)