The Minnesota Wild entered the 2008 NHL draft with one goal in mind: to find a top-four caliber defensemen. With that in mind they selected a defensemen in the first and second round of the draft. With the 23rd overall pick they selected Ottawa 67’s (OHL) defenseman Tyler Cuma, a smooth skating offensive-defensemen that excelled at moving the puck. With the 55th overall pick they took Val-d’Or Foreurs’ (QMJHL) defenseman Marco Scandella, a big bodied stay at home blueliner. In six years one of the blueliners would be playing top-four minutes in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The other would be stuck in the AHL with no promotion in sight.
If you’ve followed any part of the Minnesota Wild’s postseason run then you know how this story played out. Tyler Cuma’s career has been spoiled by injuries, limiting him to just 146 games in three AHL seasons and one game in the NHL. Marco Scandella on the other hand has blossomed into one of the best defensemen on a Wild team that is going head-to-head with the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Chicago Blackhawks, but the road to success hasn’t been without its bumps and bruises for Scandella.
Early struggles raise doubt
There was a point in the 2012-13 lockout shortened season where Marco Scandella’s place within the organization was in question. The Montreal native had spent the entire 2011-12 season with the NHL squad, playing in 63 games and averaging 21:46 minutes of ice time. Those numbers didn’t reflect his quality of play though. His -22 rating was a team low, he led defensemen in giveaways with 35 and his 46 hits was alarmingly low for a stay-at-home defenseman who’s main purpose was to play physical. The result was a poor rookie season in which Scandella appeared to be lacking in confidence and consistency but remained with the Wild due to a lack of depth at the position.
Things didn’t get any better when the 2012-13 season finally rolled around. After spending the lockout with the Houston Aeros he was called-up to join the Wild at the start of the NHL season. That stint lasted all of six games as the same problems that hindered his rookie season arose once again. But this time Minnesota had the bodies to push Scandella back to the AHL. But it wouldn’t be the last time that Scandella would see the NHL that year.
Putting it all together
Despite spending nearly the entire season with the Houston Aeros, Scandella received the nod to join the NHL team for their first postseason appearance in four years. It was apparent very early on that something had changed in his demeanor. He skated with confidence and conviction, playing a more physical and opportunistic style. Those changes manifested on the stat sheet as well. He led Wild defensemen in postseason points with two (one goal, one assist) despite averaging the fourth most ice time with 18:01 minutes per game.
His success in the postseason (and promising skill set) lead to a two-year, one-way contract that meant that Scandella would be spending the entire 2013-14 season with the NHL club. At 24 years-old he had finally reached the benchmark fora defenseman to be fairly graded, meaning that his second full season with the Wild would be a key one if he had any future with the organization.
His response to such a challenge was to leave little doubt as to whether he belonged in the NHL. In 76 games he averaged 18:48 minutes of ice time, 1:55 minutes of PK time, had 17 points (three goals, 14 assists) and posted a +10 rating. Although he did continue to be prone to giveaways, accumulating 35 on the season, he did increase his physicality (70 hits) while limiting the amount of time he spent in the penalty box (just 20 minutes all season).
While all of those numbers are impressive in their own right, they get a boost when you take into account how unsheltered his playing time was. With defensemen such as Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin and Jared Spurgeon joining him on the blueline, Scandella actually received the least flattering zone starts amongst them. 36.4% of his zone starts came in the defensive zone, the lowest percentage amongst d-man who played at least 50 games for the Wild. Meanwhile, his corsi relative competition was 1.280, just a hair shy of Ryan Suter’s d-man leading 1.285.
Despite receiving some of the roughest competition and poor zone starts Scandella was one of the better possession defensemen on the team. His 50.3 fenwick for percentage was 2nd best to his defensive partner (for part of the year) Jared Spurgeon, his goal for percentage was 58.7 and corsi for percentage was 49.5. These were not only respectable numbers for a second year defenseman, they were impressive for any 2nd pairing defenseman throughout the league.
The 2013-14 playoffs and beyond
Things haven’t really changed during the postseason either. He has continued to be deployed in the defensive zone, getting 33.5% of his starts in his own zone, and playing 21:15 minutes of ice time per game. His +4 rating is tied for the lead amongst defenseman, he has only been on the ice for one goal during the Chicago Blackhawks series and he has become the go-to PK guy on the blueline, leading the group with 28:18 minutes of total ice time on the man disadvantage.
It’s been a long and winding road to success for Scandella and it doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon. With the prototypical build of a shutdown defenseman and a new found confidence there are fresh expectations laid out before him. As he continues to progress along with an improving Minnesota Wild squad there is no telling where he might end up. But if this season serves as an indication, he’s already the top-four defenseman the Wild hoped he would be when they drafted him in 2008.