When you have been around hockey as long as Bruce Boudreau has, you tend to get nostalgic on occasion. Like last week, when the Wild coach was discussing the development of defenseman Nick Seeler, who has found success thanks to his physical style of play in this speed-and-skill age of hockey.
“Every team needs at least one [player like that],” Boudreau said. “I think every team could use two of them at least, but it’s something that’s slowly going out of the game that you wish wasn’t going out of the game as an old player.
“It used to be a badge of courage to go to the front of the net and be able to, if you wanted to score goals, to pay a little bit of a price. That seems to have gone away.”
Nobody is about to mistake the Wild for the Kings and Ducks, two of the renowned heavy hitters in the NHL, but the Wild may possess a deceptive physicality which is helping it reclaim top ground in one key advanced statistic: 5-on-5 high-danger Corsi percentage. Improvement here has powered team success since the calendar turned to 2018.
High-danger Corsi percentage measures the amount of shot attempts a team generates from the “high danger” areas on the ice (immediately around the net and the low slot) compared to the amount they allow. Coaches and players talk about needing to limit an opponents’ quality shot attempts and generate their own; high-danger Corsi percentage is one way teams can measure that.
The Wild has had success the last few seasons in this statistic, ranking first last season and second in 2014-15. This is the reputation the Wild has around the league. It may allow opponents to shoot a lot of shots, but its packed-in defense won’t allow many opportunities from the best spots on the ice to shoot.
Or as goaltender Devan Dubnyk dubbed it: “The story line that runs through Minnesota every single year.”
But for the first three months of the season, the Wild wasn’t among the elite in the league. It was 11th in high-danger Corsi percentage (.522), according to naturalstattrick.com, barely allowing the Wild to stay afloat while dealing with multiple injuries.
Then the Wild got healthy and became who it usually is. Its ability to prevent opponent scoring chances — and generate a significant amount of its own — reached another level. Since Jan. 1, the Wild is the top team in the NHL in high-danger Corsi percentage — and it isn’t even close. Their 57.9 percent is 2.8 percent better than the No. 2 team over that span, Calgary.
In terms of raw numbers, the Wild have generated 379 high-danger chances, the fifth most in the league, while allowing 276, fourth fewest, over the past 37 games. Mark this down as one reason why the team is 22-8-7 since Jan. 1.
The Wild’s proficiency could be a result of their physical play. Seeler leads the Wild in this statistic since joining the roster from Iowa — 70.8 percent in 19 games (meaning the Wild generates that many high-danger chances compared to opponents, 51 vs. 21, when he’s on the ice). Seeler usually doesn’t see other teams’ top scorers — that’s Ryan Suter and whoever Suter is paired with — but the numbers are noticeable.
“Defensemen in general try to keep guys to the outside,” Seeler said. “Having good gaps is something coaches preach, and so I’ve just been trying to play my game that way: keep guys to the outside, have a good stick when I can, block shots when I can. I didn’t know [about his impressive statistic], but it’s good to try and keep that going.”
Predators winger Ryan Hartman, who previously played for the Blackhawks, said the Wild is sneaky about how physical it is. The Wild won’t hit you as hard as other teams, but it will do enough to disrupt you if you try to enter the danger areas.
“It’s definitely a war playing against this team — those little nudges that knock you off the puck. There’s no wasted energy,” Hartman said. “Some teams are going all out [to hit you] and blowing themselves up at the same time. [The Wild is] smart about it. They’ll give you a bump, but just enough to get you off the puck and then they have possession going the other way.”
High-danger Corsi percentage does have its skeptics, with Dubnyk being chief among them.
“I don’t think that’s a really accurate thing. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve been playing great. I’m just talking about the actual — I would like to see how it’s calculated because so many things happen in a play,” Dubnyk said. “Did it hit his shin pad and go 3 feet to the left outside of the high-danger area?”
But consider the save percentages of goalies from the different areas on the ice. Across all goaltenders, low-danger save percentage, or shots coming from the point areas and sections from the wall to the faceoff dots, is 97.5 percent during 5-on-5 play, according to the website Corsica.hockey. Medium- danger save percentage on shots coming from the high slot and quadrants surrounding the high-danger area is 91.8 percent, while high-danger save percentage is only 80 percent.
Dubnyk’s splits are 96.5 percent for low-danger, 91.8 for medium and 80.4 for high-danger. For every 10 high-danger shots, Dubnyk and most NHL goaltenders allow at least one more goal compared to other areas of the ice.
There’s significant value in preventing those attempts from occurring, and the Wild is doing just that at the right time. Of course, it was also successful at this in other years, and it didn’t pay off in the playoffs.