Commenter Rocket writes a weekly feature on hockey so we don't have to. As usual, the opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of RandBall or the Star Tribune. Or the Wild. We look forward to a vigorous debate in the comments. Rocket?



Hocku of the week

We wanted a change and said,
“Get rid of the trap”
Be careful what you wish for
The more things change…
The local mood concerning the Minnesota Wild seems to be slowly changing for the better. There are some easily identifiable reasons why this is so. The Wild is both the closest facsimile to a winner that anybody in Minnesota is going manufacture this winter and they are the closest thing a professional team in a major league sport is going to get to being the stereotypical protagonists in one of those hokey, Disneyesque sports movies. This rag-tag collection of lovable misfit millionaire professional hockey players has managed to stay in the playoff hunt despite having what might be generously called “balanced scoring.” Yet, this is also why they seem to be more enjoyable then they have been in the past. Every night somebody new is the hero, the old cliché goes. They also have the best looking uniforms in the league when they sport their green ensembles.
So, they seem like a good bunch of guys without a Sean Avery or Jarko Ruutu among them who look good out there in the green. I admit that I have also felt a growing sense of excitement concerning the team and have gone out of my way to follow them more closely than in the past. The anecdotal evidence might have one believe that the team is now more “watchable” as they have gained a greater grasp of coach Todd Richards’ system. Things are looking up for the franchise. Or are they?
Well, not exactly.
I really want to like this team, I really do. And I am appreciative that the squad is providing the only real excitement in the professional Minnesota sports scene (despite what RandBall’s disturbingly obsessive fixation on Kevin Love’s double-double streak would have you believe). But the Wild is not in a better place now then they were two years ago and the numbers suggest that it isn’t going to get any better any time soon.
Let me be clear about one point: I am not advocating that the Wild let go of Todd Richards. He seems capable and the team is obviously having a (slowly) growing measure of success under him. I also think that sports fans are an impatient lot who often refuse to let a coach get his feet wet before they call for his head, particularly in hockey where head coaches have about the same level of job security as a Middle Eastern dictator.
However, I do think that swapping out Jacques Lemaire for Richards was a bad idea, and that those of us who love hockey are deluding ourselves if we think that the new system is somehow more “watchable” than the old system. In the interest of full disclosure, when Lemaire left I begrudgingly agreed that it was probably time for him to go. But I’m not sure how one doesn’t regret the decision now.
[Editor's note: For the sake of factual correctness, it should be pointed out that Lemaire was not fired by the Wild].
Disagree? Are you one of those who thinks that the Wild is more watchable without Lemaire’s trap? Well, then how do you explain the fact that Lemaire’s post-lockout teams scored more goals per game (2.70) than Richards’ teams (2.60). The obvious answer is Marian Gaborik, but as I wrote about before, Gaborik is one of those players whose immense talent far outpaces his worth and he is proving it again. More importantly, Lemaire’s post-lockout teams gave up fewer goals per game (2.45) to Richards’ (2.74). Thus, Lemaire posted a positive goals for to goals against ratio with both numbers outshining his successor, whose own ratio is in the negative. Wins are better than losses and you get more wins when you score more goals than the other team. Lemaire’s teams did this and Richards’ haven’t.
Still not convinced? I will concede, for the sake of argument, that last year was going to be a painful year for the franchise no matter what, so let’s just stick with this year’s numbers. The Wild are basically scoring the same number of goals per game this year (2.59) that they are giving up (2.56). However, they are dead last in the league in shots per game at 26.1 (San Jose leads the league at 34.0) and are in the bottom third of the NHL in shots given up per game at 31.9. Not surprisingly, the New Jersey Devils, who are making an improbable run at the playoffs with Jacques Lemaire taking over behind the bench at midseason after a truly atrocious start, lead the league in this category at 27.0. While watching your team give up more shots and chances might generously be described as exciting I doubt it’s the type of excitement we were clamoring for when we were all convinced that the neutral zone trap was boring.
Again, I don’t think Richards should be fired. If management gives him more talent he seems like the kind of coach that could make a few things happen. But I do think that we’ve gotten a little too excited about this team because the rest of the Minnesota sports landscape is so bleak. This really isn’t a more watchable team than it has been in the past. Perhaps more disturbingly, given the current makeup of the roster, doesn’t it feel like the kind of team that Jacques Lemaire could have made some magic with? There is enough unselfish talent for this squad to be scary in the playoffs under Lemaire’s system. There might be enough pluck for this team to sneak into the playoffs and get drilled by Vancouver or Detroit under Richards’ system.

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