Sunday’s game was a tough one for the Minnesota Wild on so many levels. Firstly, it was a match-up against a team battling for its playoff life, a battle that the Wild would love to be taking part in. Secondly, it was very much a game that summed up Minnesota’s season. The problems that have plagued this team all season long were back in full force to haunt them once again on Sunday night. It feels like every article since about January has mentioned how Minnesota led the league in early December and now finds itself likely to end up with a top five pick. However, the fact is that their slide is one of the biggest story-lines of the 2011-12 season.
The Wild’s offensive troubles are as well documented as their second half slide. It was in full view on Sunday night even with Mikko Koivu back in the line-up after a prolonged offense. Washington play a negative, stifling style, but the Wild didn’t look like a particularly threatening team during most of the game. It hasn’t been getting better either. Sunday’s game was the fourth time that Mike Yeo’s team have been shutout in March. They were shutout twice in February, once in January and just once in the previous three months. There are really two major issues with the offense. One is simply a lack of talent. Injuries have left the forward group thin, you can try as hard as you like, but you will have a hard time convincing anyone that Darroll Powe or Chad Rau are top nine forwards, let alone top six. Dany Heatley’s career slide has continued with his move to Minnesota, while Devin Setoguchi hasn’t taken another step forward. Koivu playing in just 48 games out of 75 has been a big problem for the offense as a whole. Minnesota’s season has suffered because of a lack of offense and it’s a problem that GM Chuck Fletcher will have to consider next season.
Where’s Niklas Backstrom
Matt Hackett patrolled the crease against Washington and he did a solid job. The rookie is considered an excellent NHL prospect and for good reason. He was backed up by Josh Harding, who has enjoyed one of the best seasons of his NHL career. The name you don’t hear in that goaltender discussion is Niklas Backstrom, and that is certainly significant. Backstrom has been limited to 41 starts this season and his play has been hampered by being in and out of the line-up. Harding has received plaudits for his performance this season, but his play was only really exceptional in October/November. Hackett clearly still needs time to develop. Backstrom has quietly been one of the league’s more consistent goaltenders over the last few seasons and his injuries have hampered Minnesota’s season in 2011-12.
Injuries have already been mentioned a lot in this article, but they deserve one more mention. Guillame Latendresse, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Koivu have been missing from the team’s top six for most of the season, and Yeo didn’t have a particularly deep offense to work with anyway. The blue-line has been hard hit as well, Minnesota have used 11 defensemen in total, that is nearly two whole blue-lines. Strong teams cope with injuries, but after enjoying such a strong start, the Wild will feel that injuries have played a role in bringing this team down and rightly so. Minnesota’s season has been injury plagued to say the least.
Who Are The Minnesota Wild?
The big dilemma with Minnesota’s season and every season since Jacques Lemaire stepped down is ‘who are the Minnesota Wild?’ What is their identity? What is their playing style? Yeo appears to be a coach who preaches a strong defensive style in a similar vein to Lemaire. However, the identity hasn’t been instilled up and down this line-up. The character of the team is still nondescript. It was a problem that inevitably led to Todd Richards dismissal, and it is a problem that Yeo will need to solve as a matter of urgency.
Seb has been writing about the NHL and ice hockey online for over a decade. A long-time passionate Bruins fan, it’s a dream of his to be writing about this team, but don’t expect him to hold back from telling some hard truths when necessary. Follow him on twitter @seberead