When the Wild resumes its season this week with a difficult three-game trip starting in Brooklyn and Manhattan, it’ll be trying to recover from losing grasp of a playoff spot for the first time this season.
At least the Wild’s month of January should halt the oft-used mantra, “We’re still in a good spot.”
Remember all those recently used gaudy stats, like how the Wild had its best first half in history (52 points in 41 games) or how in the 82-game Devan Dubnyk era (what would amount to a full season), the Wild’s 111 points were third-best in the NHL over that span (one point fewer than the Rangers and Capitals)?
The Wild ruined all of that with one lousy stretch. The Colorado Avalanche and Nashville Predators, unlike the Wild, took care of business heading into the All-Star break.
The Avalanche won six of its final eight games. The Predators won five of their final six, including a road sweep of the West’s cellar-dwelling four Canadian teams.
The Wild lost 10 of 13 games (3-7-3) in January. It went 0-3-2 at home and 1-6-1 overall after an impressive win Jan. 9 in Dallas. Sure, the Wild has a game or three in hand on Nashville and Colorado, but games in hand are meaningless if you keep losing at home to teams like New Jersey, Buffalo, Philadelphia and Winnipeg.
The Wild, which hasn’t won more than three consecutive games this season, needs to get on a run. The good news is the Wild was seven points out of a playoff spot after last year’s break and went on a 24-5-1 run starting with a western Canadian sweep en route to a six-game winning streak and nine-game point streak.
Add in the 23-10-7 second half of two years ago, there is precedent that the Wild’s DNA is simply that of a team that needs to hit rock bottom to trigger a rapid ascent.
As tiresome as winter swoons are, this one seems more concerning and much more complicated to fix than the others.
The past two years, injuries and goaltending woes caused the Wild’s stumble. General Manager Chuck Fletcher reacted with back-to-back goaltender acquisitions of Ilya Bryzgalov and Dubnyk.
This season, the Wild’s healthy and goaltending has not been an issue. The problem is with the exception of recently heated-up Charlie Coyle, the Wild’s in a team-wide goal-scoring slump.
How do you fix that with one trade?
The pressure is on Fletcher to find a solution. But since 2013, the Wild has traded a first-round pick, four second-round picks and two third-round picks in deals preceding trade deadlines. The Wild doesn’t own a second- or third-round pick this June or a 2018 second-rounder.
This is why Fletcher says he prefers to make a “good hockey deal” for a player who can contribute long-term, not short-term (i.e. a rental like Matt Moulson or Chris Stewart). This is also why Fletcher says the solution still has to be in the room.
“We’ve got guys who have scored before,” coach Mike Yeo said. “It’s in our control. … Every game that we’ve lost during this whole stretch has been a winnable hockey game.”
There is no doubt there’s tension in the locker room. Some may even be questioning Yeo’s defense-first system. That comes when you’re not scoring and losses are mounting.
But the Wild dominated Arizona for two periods last Monday. The scoring chance advantage was off the charts. Was that the system or were players simply not scoring?
So, it’s incumbent on everybody here to show some accountability. Coaches must figure out a way to put players in the best position to score even if it means hurting some feelings. And players need to stop passing up shots, need to start burying some odd-man rushes, be stronger on pucks, start getting to the dirty areas again and stop blaming everybody but themselves.
The Wild has had miraculous second halves the past two years. Eventually though, the Wild won’t recover from continually doing this to itself.
Everybody involved better hope this isn’t the year.
The co-founders of war-on-ice.com, hockey’s premier analytics site and Wild consultants since last summer, were officially hired full-time by the team this week.
Andrew Thomas received a Ph.D. in statistics from Harvard in 2009 and a bachelor’s degree in physics from MIT in 2004. Alexandra Mandrycky graduated from Georgia Tech with a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering in 2013.
They’ll work with Ben Resnick, who got his master’s in economics at Penn in 2007 and has been the Wild’s advanced stats guru the past four years.
“A lot of brain power there,” assistant GM Brent Flahr said, laughing. “You go into the office and walk in the boardroom, and they’ve got secret codes and it’s like they’re splitting the atom in there sometimes.”
NHL Short Takes
The Wild has reportedly inquired about pending Boston Bruins free agent Loui Eriksson, but unless the Wild can significantly unload money, this would almost have to be a rental-type trade for Eriksson, rumored to be seeking in the $6 million range annually.
The Wild likely couldn’t afford that. Also, with the Bruins currently occupying the top wild-card spot in the East, it’s hard to believe they’d trade their second-leading scorer this soon before the Feb. 29 trade deadline.
Let’s do it!
In the potential rental forward market, here’s my top five: 1. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay; 2. Eriksson; 3. Mikkel Boedker, Arizona; 4. Andrew Ladd, Winnipeg; 5. Eric Staal, Carolina.
WILD’S WEEK AHEAD
Tuesday: 6 p.m. at N.Y. Islanders
Thursday: 6 p.m. at N.Y. Rangers
Saturday: 7 p.m. at St. Louis
FSN all three nights
Player to watch: Kyle Okposo, Islanders
As the Wild plays its first game in Brooklyn, it’ll have to contend with this pending free agent, former Gopher and Isles leading scorer (35 points in 45 games).
“You don’t play bad teams, you don’t have easy points, it doesn’t exist. So when you have a chance to win games, you’ve got to win games.”
— Coach Mike Yeo on three crushing losses in the past four games.