Since its inception, the Minnesota Wild organization has long been known as a club keenly interested in playing a strong defensive game first and foremost. Dating all the way back to the early 2000s, Jacques Lemaire installed a defense-first culture within the team that stuck and continues today under current bench boss Mike Yeo. It is that same type of defensive structure that has been largely responsible for the Wild enjoying three straight playoff berths dating back to the 2012-13 season. Through five games this season, however, a new and slightly disturbing trend has emerged.
A normally sound defensive team, the Wild have struggled to keep the puck out of their own net thus far this season. In five games, Minnesota has allowed 15 goals for a 3.00 goals-against per game (GA/PG) average, a far cry from the 2.41 GA/PG that the Wild ended last season with. Devan Dubnyk has been inconsistent in four games this year while allowing 12 goals.
But it’s not all on Dubnyk; the defense in front of him has been borderline atrocious at times with players, as Yeo put it following a one-goal win against the St. Louis Blues, ‘forgetting to take their smart pills.’
#mnwild coach Mike Yeo: "In the third period a number of times it looked like we forgot to take our smart pills."
— Chad Graff (@ChadGraff) October 11, 2015
Players have simply been careless with the puck in their own end, have failed to clear the zone efficiently, and have not helped Dubnyk see many pucks like they did last year. New defensive partnerships this season could be partially to blame for that.
The Matt Dumba/Jonas Brodin defensive pairing has yielded very little beyond frustration for the Wild. Brodin has not been as inconsistent as he has been this season since his rookie year and Dumba has been plain brutal at times in the defensive zone. The Ryan Suter/Jared Spurgeon has been the most solid tandem with the Marco Scandella/Christian Folin pair also looking unstable at times.
Some fans have been calling for the Wild to reunite Suter with Brodin and Scandella with Spurgeon, but the Star Tribune’s Michael Russo has reported that Yeo doesn’t want to leave a third pair of Dumba and Folin due to the lack of experience the two young defenseman have. It makes sense too; if Yeo doesn’t trust a duo of Dumba and Folin to be defensively strong, then he would have to roll out the other two tandems more often. And since the Wild coaches have been making a deliberate effort to lower Suter’s gaudy time-on-ice numbers and to have a more balanced defense, Yeo will likely give the current pairings a slightly longer leash.It isn’t all on the defense, however.
The forwards need to do a better job of backchecking and helping out in the defensive zone. Dubnyk too, needs to be better. He hasn’t appeared to have the same combination of focus and steadiness that helped to propel him to a stellar season last year.
Regardless, the recent defensive struggles are foreign to the Wild and need to be put in the past quickly if Minnesota is going to contend this season.
The good news is that while Minnesota hasn’t been great to start the season, they have still managed to go 3-1-1 in the five games they’ve played.
The other good news is that it’s not a question of whether or not the Wild are capable of playing better, we already know they have it in them because we’ve seen it consistently in recent years.
On the recent road trip, the Wild surrendered wins to the L.A. Kings and Anaheim Ducks; the first wins of the season for both teams. On Thursday, the Columbus Blue Jackets come to town to take on the Wild. Following a recent 4-0 loss to the New York Islanders on home ice, the Jackets are also without a win. The last thing that Minnesota wants to do is lose a third consecutive game to a team without a win. The 0-7-0 Blue Jackets have allowed an astonishing 34 goals against while scoring just 13 in the seven games. It should fully be expected that the Wild have a great game against a team that appears to be in shambles right now and play strong defensively.
Still, at the end of the day it’s only been five games, and the problems facing the team are fixable. It’s nowhere near time to be hitting any panic buttons. But the Wild can and should play better; and soon because the Western Conference is a virtual gauntlet and wins are going to be at a premium. Minnesota can’t afford to get too far behind to start the year.
Bottom line? Get back to the strong defensive structure that has been the Wild’s calling card for years and everything else should fall into place.
Nate has been a Minnesota Wild contributor at The Hockey Writers since 2014 and previously spent time covering the University of Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey team. For everything Minnesota Wild related, follow him on Twitter @natebauer.