Captain Kirk once learned that one Tribble is cute, but too many Tribbles are trouble. The same goes for rookies on an NHL team.
In a topsy-turvy season, the Minnesota Wild has been forced to go against gospel, playing an unusually large number of rookie skaters in high-leverage game situations. Freshmen Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker, and Johan Larsson have auditioned for top-nine forward roles, while defenseman Jonas Brodin has been pushed into the top-four.
With this many rookies playing important minutes, the Wild isn’t likely to make the playoffs.
A team that uses more inexperienced skaters in high-pressure situations invariably has less quality veteran depth. And that’s the predicament that Minnesota faces with only seven reliable forwards (Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley, Matt Cullen, Kyle Brodziak, Cal Clutterbuck, and Devin Setoguchi) among their top-nine and just two solid defensemen (Ryan Suter and Tom Gilbert) fortifying their top-four.
Barring injuries, that’s two top-nine forward spots and at least one top-four defender job to fill. But since 2005-06, only two teams have made the playoffs with three or more rookie skaters among their top-nine ATOI (Average Time on Ice) forwards and top-four ATOI defensemen: The 2009-10 Colorado Avalanche (with an unbelievable four first-year forwards) and the 2006-07 San Jose Sharks (two forwards and one d-man). That’s two teams in 112 playoff squads over the last seven years, which includes a 2005-06 season stacked with talented newcomers.
Once again, playing rookies isn’t the problem; it’s playing too many of them. Brodin, like Marc-Edouard Vlasic in 2006-07, may have already earned top-four stripes. However, the onus is on veterans that the Wild counted on, like Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Torrey Mitchell, Clayton Stoner, and Jared Spurgeon to step up, then on Chuck Fletcher to cut some deals if they don’t. Otherwise, Minnesota is in tribble.
A self-compiled list of rookie skaters who played top-nine forward ATOI or top-four defenseman ATOI on playoff teams since 2005-06 can be found at my blog, Sean Penn’s Ego. ATOI may not tell the complete story and is used as a general approach to assess how skaters are valued by their teams. Corrections are welcome.