In the midst of their third straight midseason swoon, the Minnesota Wild are searching for answers.
Last year, the slump’s raison d’etre was goaltending, solved by a January trade for Devan Dubnyk. This year, the problem isn’t as easy to solve. More pointedly, the problem is multifarious, despite the finger regularly being pointed at the “bounces.”
The narrative being sold is that goal scoring has been tough to come by and that the Wild just can’t get any of those darned “bounces.” That’s true, or it’s part of the truth. Their 5.1% even strength shooting percentage since the first of the year is the worst mark in the NHL.
Mike Yeo said as much talking to press before a match against the Islanders on Tuesday:
If you look at, statistically, aside from goals, many things are very much the same [as early in the year]. Whether that’s shots, shot attempts, zone time. In fact, our goals against was a little bit better in this last little stretch. Scoring chances, all these things are very similar.
The one ingredient that has been a big difference in the early part of the year is that our shooting percentage has been significantly worse. Some of that could be potentially luck, some of that could be mental. Whether that’s gripping the stick too tight, hanging onto the puck a little too long…
It’s not incorrect to say that their shooting percentage is quite low, and that means it should rebound toward the mean. However, pinning the slump on shooting percentage ignores that their underlying numbers have fallen across the board, indicating that things weren’t that great to start with.
In this series, we’ll go through the Wild’s underlying numbers to see if there’s anything there that helps explain the team’s struggles. In part one we look at even strength, where everything is terrible.
The dominant narrative suggesting that there are problems on offense and that bounces aren’t going their way also suggests that the Wild’s defense has been strong, or at least has been consistent with what they were doing earlier in the season when they were having more success in the standings.
That’s not true.
The Wild were having some nice luck earlier in the season. At even strength, they were allowing the 16th most shot attempts against per 60 minutes of even strength play (CA60), but managed to be tied for the second fewest goals against per 60 minutes (GA60) and had the ninth best scoring chances against rate (SCA60).
Those marks suggest that they were riding some strong goaltending — the team’s .935 even strength save percentage was fifth best in the league — and that they were doing a decent job of limiting shot quality. But they were giving up quite a few shot attempts, more than their reputation as a strong defensive team would suggest.
Yet, they were getting results and winning games. Meanwhile their underlying numbers suggested that they may not be able to keep up goal suppression at this rate. They were limiting shot quality, at least in terms of the number of scoring chance they were allowing, but there wasn’t a ton of evidence that this was systematic. Even if it was, that’s a dangerous game to play. With opponents taking that many shot attempts, it doesn’t take much for the scoring chances to rise after a collapse or an errant rebound. Even a dip in goaltender performance where they begin to allow a few more low-danger shots into the net will generate some losses, particularly when there isn’t any offensive support.
Those underlying numbers have gotten worse in 2016. Their 16th ranked in CA60 moved to 27th, ninth ranked SCA60 became 26th, and, importantly, their second ranked 1.8 goals against per 60 minutes (GA60) became a 15th-ranked 2.1.
The slump is not strictly a goal-scoring issue, but includes slipping defense where there were already questions about how well they were performing as a sub-50% CF% team.
|Total Until 1/1/16||Rank||Total Since 1/2/16||Rank|
|GA60||1.8||T-2nd||2.1||T-15th (4 teams)|
On the other end of the ice it’s been a horror show.
They’ve slid from their fourth-ranked +15 goal differential in 2015 to a 28th-ranked minus-9 in 2016. The defense has been bad, but Yeo is right, the goals aren’t there and it’s the biggest problem.
The shooting percentage does matter. If it’s closer to their average maybe they’re just playing bad and we aren’t writing Chicken Little articles about their tumble down the standings.
To some extent, they can point the finger at shooting percentage, but there wasn’t a lot of room for error. At the start of the season they were were only generating 50.9 shot attempts per 60 minutes (CF60). Since the start of 2016, it’s dropped to 47.7. That’s not a massive drop, but they’re basically down three shot attempts and a shot every game on average when they were already in the bottom third of the league in both categories.
Their scoring chances didn’t improve either. They were putting up 24.6 scoring chances per 60 minutes (SCF60) and now they’re putting up 23.1. That also represents a reduction in shot quality. Previously, about 48.3% of their shot attempts were scoring chances. That figure has dropped to 47.1% of shot attempts resulting in scoring chances.
The thing to note here is that while the drops are relatively small, they’re drops from levels that weren’t that good to start with. Yeo isn’t wrong when he notes that the levels are similar to earlier in the season. But the underlying numbers have dropped some across the board and they were low to start with. Inside that drop, there’s been a quality drop as well.
When the shooting percentage drops in a big way, generating fewer opportunities — and lower quality opportunities — exacerbates the problem. If the Wild’s shooting percentage from October through December had been maintained, in 2016 they’d be averaging 2.2 goals per 60 minutes at evens (GF60) instead of their league-worst 1.4 GF60.
Their 5% even strength shooting percentage won’t hold for the season’s second half. Not with the talent on the team. But getting their shooting percentage and save percentage back up isn’t going to solve everything.
A rise in their PDO won’t erase the fact that things weren’t as great as they seemed in the beginning of the season and even at that point the Wild were just a wild card team. Furthermore, they should have never expected that PDO to hold for the season. It was higher than any team in the NHL finished last season.
There should not have been an expectation that those numbers would hold or that maintaining their underlying numbers would necessarily continue to produce the same results.
What’s Wrong With the Minnesota Wild?
The defense simply isn’t as good as it was early in the season. They’re allowing significantly more shot attempts and scoring chances against. In addition, a larger percentage of those shot attempts are resulting in scoring chances. Prior to January 2, 45.9% of shot attempts against were scoring chances. In 2016 that percentage has risen to 48.5%.
The offense isn’t strong either. Shooting percentage is certainly a part of it, but they were over-performing early in the year, so unless their underlying numbers improve they shouldn’t expect to hit that pace again.
The problem is multifarious and isn’t necessarily solved by scoring a few goals.
All advanced stats via War on Ice. All Corsi numbers score-adjusted.
Dustin Nelson writes about news and the Minnesota Wild for The Hockey Writers.