Comfortably ranked first in the Central Division — and within range of the West’s top seed — the Minnesota Wild are ahead of schedule through the first quarter of the season.
When you consider the mile-high expectations of the Colorado Avalanche, and other factors, that’s a mild surprise. Still, this Wild franchise raised the bar when they were better-than-expected last season, so it’s not outlandish to see them remain in the thick of things.
No, the surprising part is how the Wild got here. Ranking fourth-best in the NHL with 3.68 goals per game, the Wild boast one of the league’s best offenses.
That brings us to some key questions. Why are the Wild scoring so much? Are these fluke successes, or is this something sustainable? And what should the Wild focus on to keep the good times (/offense) rolling?
Wild scoring this much is, well, wildly unusual
Truly, the Wild haven’t generated offense like this before.
Over 21 seasons in the NHL, the Wild have only scored 3+ goals five times. Short sample size and all, this season is easily the Wild’s most explosive.
1. 2021-22: 3.68 goals per game
2. (tied) 2020-21 and 2016-17: 3.21
4. 2019-20: 3.16
5. 2017-18: 3.05
Beyond those seasons, the Wild averaged 2.77 goals (2014-15) or less. They’ve never dipped below 2.02 goals per game … but, yeah, this defensive-minded team hasn’t exactly enjoyed the luxury of outscoring their problems very often.
One of the most peculiar elements of the Wild’s red-hot offense is that, frankly, their power play stinks. So far, the Wild’s power play is only clicking at 14.3 percent, which would rank fourth-worst in franchise history. (Again, this is a team whose early previous offensive stars were Marian Gaborik and, uh … Marian Gaborik, but half-injured?)
In case you’re wondering, that 14.3 power-play percentage ranks eighth-worst in the NHL. At least they’re not alone in less-than-special special teams.
Let’s get more detailed on what is and is not working for the Wild’s offense.
Some luck at even-strength, but definitely some skill, too
When a team’s scoring a little over its head, there’s likely some luck involved — and often some nuclear power play results. Obviously, a hot power play isn’t powering the Wild’s offense.
They’re getting some puck luck, however.
At 5-on-5, the Wild’s 9.89 shooting percentage is the second-highest in the NHL. Only the perpetually-hot-shooting Capitals rank higher at 10.68-percent. Along with the Wild and Capitals, the Hurricanes and Avalanche are the only teams at 9+ percent.
For the most part, such shooting percentage luck doesn’t seem repeatable. Yet, chew on this. The Wild topped all teams in 5-on-5 shooting percentage last season (10.38), with (wait for it) the Capitals placing second (10.07). Only six teams shot at 9+ percent last season.
[No surprise that the Wild are climbing PHT’s Power Rankings.]
On one hand, most signs point to gravity pulling the Wild’s shooting percentage down. On the other hand, the Capitals have defied those expectations for ages.
Ultimately, I do expect the Wild’s offense to deal with a lower shooting percentage over the long haul. That said, a lot of their underlying numbers indicate that they’re strong at controlling scoring chances. We’re talking about quality and quantity with Minny.
The Wild also sport commendable depth. No doubt, Kirill Kaprizov is a huge catalyst (25 points in 22 games), but eleven different Wild players — even Dmitry Kulikov — have at least 10 points this season. Only the powerhouse Panthers enjoy more depth (12 players at 10+ points).
So, yes, the Wild’s offense is driven a bit by luck, but also skill. Crucially, could the Wild improve on the power play, thus softening the likely fall of that bloated shooting percentage? They should certainly try.
How much better can their power play be?
With any struggling power play, it’s key to ask: what can they change, and what can only improve by bringing in different talent?
Overall, the Wild’s problems are fairly familiar. The Wild simply aren’t generating enough high-quality chances from the prime real estate of the ice. This Hockey Viz chart captures the dilemma succinctly:
Big-picture-wise, their plan isn’t totally out of touch. The Wild’s top two players in power play shots (Kevin Fiala – 22; Kirill Kaprizov – 21) are the players you’d want to pull the trigger. This isn’t a team deferring to defensemen shooting to an extreme.
So, the problem isn’t who is shooting, but from where they shoot. That’s where it’s tricky.
How do you get the Wild’s obvious offense creators into prime real estate areas more often? At Zone Coverage, the advice is to create more plays from behind the net, and maybe call up Matt Boldy to open up more of those opportunities.
Indeed, those might be the best areas where the Wild may experiment to create more offense from the power play. Consider personnel, in general. With all due respect to Marcus Foligno (an underrated defensive forward), it’s not ideal that he’s a top six Wild player in power play ice time (two minutes per game).
Why this trade deadline might be the time for the Wild to strike
Speaking of personnel, the Wild should already be cooking up schemes for the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline.
Looking back at that previous section, would it make sense to “rent” an upgrade for that power play? It would be especially appealing if the Wild fear rushing Boldy.
Maybe more importantly, the Wild may seek a goalie upgrade. The Wild’s 90.30 team save percentage at even-strength ranks seventh-worst in the NHL.
Now, the Wild’s defensive structure is sturdy enough to keep Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen upright. However, if the Wild’s shooting luck cools off, they might need more saves.
Besides, the Zach Parise – Ryan Suter buyouts only make it more enticing to chase some rentals now. Consider the jump in dead money after this season, via Cap Friendly.
2021-22: $4,743,588 million
2022-23: $12,743,588 million
2023-24: $14,743,588 million
2024-25: $14,743,588 million
By the end of the season, the Avalanche and Golden Knights could easily solidify themselves as juggernauts again. And it’s possible that the Flames and Oilers may also look like contenders.
Still, this might be the best chance for the Wild to go on about as good of a run as they’ve ever enjoyed — even if that offense slows down.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.