Minnesota Wild buying in on defense, among the NHL's best so far

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 28, 2013 - 11:30 AM

Former defensive stalwart Wes Walz sees a team that is much more aggressive in its own zone.

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Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom had plenty of help from Jared Spurgeon (46) and Clayton Stoner (4) as Calgary’s Matt Stajan went for a shot in Minnesota’s victory Tuesday at the Xcel Energy Center.

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GLENDALE, ARIZ. - The adage is that defense wins championships. That should be considered good news for Wild fans.

Overshadowed by the Wild's scoring woes this season is the fact that the Wild has been one of the NHL's stingiest teams on the defense.

The Wild, ranked 30th offensively (2.06 goals per game), ranks eighth in goals against (2.33 a game) and second-lowest, after Chicago, in the Western Conference since Feb. 9 (1.75). It has allowed 27.5 shots per game, tied for sixth in the NHL and four shots a game fewer than last year.

Its penalty kill ranks sixth (85 percent).

"You look at the Stanley Cup winners every year, they're teams that are very good defensively," coach Mike Yeo said. "And that has to be a staple for us and who we are."

Wes Walz, the former Wild heart-and-soul checking forward, has seen a team that is much more aggressive in its own zone and improved at breaking the puck out.

Teams will get pinned in their own zone no matter how good they are. Walz said it has been during those occasions when he's noticed how good the Wild is defensively.

"In Edmonton the other night, they were basically all over [Mikko Koivu's] line and we were hemmed in our zone for 45 seconds," said Walz, an analyst for Fox Sports North. "But the Oilers were not able to get the puck into a scoring area.

"I just love the way [the Wild] defend in their own end of the rink, especially when they're playing extended zone time. There's always a tendency when you've been in your zone 20 or 30 seconds to over-pursue almost in a sense of anxiety. That's when breakdowns happen.

"But they always stay in perfect position. There's just not a lot of panic and guys getting caught out of position."

Walz said big credit should go to newcomer Ryan Suter, who leads the NHL in ice time per game (27 minutes, 39 seconds). Not only is he terrific in his own zone, Walz said, but Suter constantly gets the puck moving north.

"He has such a calm demeanor in his own end of the rink," Walz said. "He doesn't come off as a guy that gets overly excited when things aren't going good, and Niklas Backstrom's like that. Mikko's like that."

Walz throws rookie Jonas Brodin, Suter's defense partner, into the same realm: "That's two guys that's not in our lineup last year, and those two guys are guys we're leaning on to play huge minutes. Honestly, I don't know what to say about Jonas Brodin. I marvel at how good this kid is as a 19-year-old. I'm not easily impressed, but this guy's been like off the charts.

"When his game starts to develop offensively, I don't throw around Norris Trophy talk too often, but he's got the potential to be that kind of guy."

Backstrom, who has given up only one goal in four of his past six starts and has a 2.17 goals-against average this season, couldn't agree more.

"It's fun to watch them. They play close to 30 minutes a night and do the right things shift after shift," Backstrom said. "They're good examples to all of us. Defense has to be our foundation."

Walz is most impressed how the Wild bought into Yeo's defensive system. It sure helps when you have leaders like Koivu and Zach Parise, who preach to teammates constantly not to "cheat" defensively.

"Whatever Mike and his staff are doing to get these guys to buy in defensively has been nothing short of remarkable," Walz said. "This team has much more talent than we used to have, and when you have that, it's hard to keep guys dialed in. They want to cheat, especially when they're struggling to score. But Mike's got them buying in.

"Defense wins. If it's not your No. 1 priority, I don't believe you have a chance to win even if you're scoring five goals a game. If this team can figure out the offensive side of things and continue to defend, we're not Chicago or Anaheim, but we can be the top of the next set."

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