The Minnesota Wild, now three points back from a wild card spot, enter yet another must-win game Saturday when they face the Carolina Hurricanes. They’ll be doing it without the services of Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville or Darcy Kuemper.
The latter two are injured, but Vanek will be a healthy scratch for the second time this season, reports The Star Tribune’s Michael Russo. He was scratched by former coach Mike Yeo shortly before Yeo was fired. This will be his first scratch under John Torchetti.
Playing to His Strength
A healthy scratch for a guy like Vanek is almost always about sending a message. It’s not an indictment stating that they’re worse than everyone other forward on the team, but that they aren’t playing to their potential and their role on the team.
That’s been the case with Vanek to some extent. At his best, Vanek is an effortless playmaker. While he’s known a former 40-goal scorer, his real asset at age 32 is that he reads the offensive zone almost as well as anyone in the league. He’s a playmaker with the ability to find guys who have broken free of coverage.
But when Vanek enters scoring slumps he doesn’t grip his stick too tight and start shooting from everywhere, he looks to make the perfect pass. He passes up shots and tries to force one extra pass, hoping to get that pretty no-looker perfectly onto the tape of an open teammate.
Over the last two seasons Vanek has 0.87 primary assist per 60 minutes of even-strength play rate. That’s the best on the team. His 1.78 points per hour rate ranks behind only Zach Parise and Justin Fontaine. He’s a great playmaker, and adds a lot to the team.
But the extra pass taking away scoring chances has issue since he arrived in Minnesota. He’s managed to produce at a reasonable rate for his age and talent, but the slumps can be long and contentious.
Yes, to some extent slumps are a percentage thing. Since Torchetti’s arrival Vanek is shooting just 4.8% at even-strength, while posting a 50.8% CF% (the team is generating a better shot attempt differential than opponents when Vanek is on the ice). He has a relative Corsi For of 4.2%, while posting a relative goals for of -11.1%. There is certainly a component of looking at results over process here, but that’s not the whole story for Vanek.
The problems aren’t just about valuing results over process, but seeing that Vanek isn’t playing at his potential when he’s playing that way.
The Need to Shoot
How much he is deferring to the pass is clear with a 6.18 shots per hour rate in his two seasons with the Wild. Prior to that he’d never been below a 7.51 rate. That includes a 8.66 rate the season before he joined the Wild, the second highest rate of his career.
His defensive zone struggles are well-documented, but again, getting scratched is about playing to potential. Neither Torchetti or Yeo could have been terribly surprised but what they saw from Vanek in the defensive zone. It’s the extra pass and the lack of shots that should be concerning.
While Vanek should start being seen more as a playmaker than a goal-scorer, the need for more shots is particularly dire because Vanek is a good shooter. Over the last two seasons he has the second highest even-strength shooting percentage among team regulars.
It could be argued that if his shooting so well, he may be due for a regression downward, but that shooting percentage is actually below his career shooting percentage average. He is a better shooter than most of the forwards on the goal-starved Wild.
Outside the playoff picture with only a handful of games to go, roster chaos is starting to define the end of their season.
Top six winger Jason Zucker has seen two healthy scratches since Torchetti arrived — and one before that under Yeo — Jason Pominville’s iron man streak has ended in injury, goaltender Steve Michalek is on his second recall due to injuries to Dubnyk and Kuemper, and Parise has struggled at times.
It’s a situation that has been utter chaos. While they don’t have the injuries that a team like Montreal has, it’s all been ill-timed. Top players aren’t meeting expectations, resulting in scratches. The players who are playing well — the Pominville-Haula-Niederreiter — are suffering injuries that breaking up lines that are working. The roster chaos has had a way of railroading anything working well for the team. They’ll need these healthy scratches to be a wake-up call or it’ll be the Wild’s first playoff miss in four seasons.
Advanced stats via Hockey Analysis.
Dustin Nelson writes about news and the Minnesota Wild for The Hockey Writers.