3 Reasons Why the Wild Could Win the West Division

The Minnesota Wild have had a surprisingly strong start to this 56-game, shortened season. At the midway point of 2020-21, the team sits second in the west and seventh in overall points percentage. These are extremely impressive results, especially when you consider all the uncertainty heading into this season’s campaign. It wasn’t easy, either — the Wild overcame an extended layoff and a few nagging injuries, but ultimately this team has persevered by playing at a high level on a consistent basis.

Having Minnesota play in the Honda West Division is unfamiliar territory and is looking like a short-term solution for the NHL. Traditionally the Wild have played in the Central Division and are likely to go back there once this season ends. Still, this team appears rather comfortable playing a bulk of their road games in the Pacific time zone. If this level of dominance continues, the thought of this team winning the division isn’t all that far-fetched.

There are a number of components that could ultimately play into the Wild’s push for the division crown. You can easily highlight things like the emergence of their strong rookie class or the Selke-level performance of Joel Eriksson Ek. However, there are three major factors that will make a huge difference when it comes to them possibly winning their second divisional title in franchise history.

Strength of Schedule

Luckily for Minnesota, they have one of the easiest roads to the postseason in the entire NHL. Out of all 31 teams, the Wild rank in the top three in terms of easiest strength of schedule according to power rankings guru. During the remaining two months, this team gets to play 69% of their games against opposition who are sporting a negative goal differential. And while they are staring down a daunting April itinerary with 17 total games and four separate back-to-backs on the books, things could be worse. Their tandem of goaltenders combine for one of the NHL’s best team save percentages, and their overall depth should help carry them through.

Ryan Hartman Minnesota Wild
Ryan Hartman of the Minnesota Wild (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Now, a lot can change over the next few weeks, with things like potential injuries and postponements shaking up the remainder of the schedule. Still, the Wild appear to be heading down the home stretch prepared to face-off against the bulk of the weaker teams in the division. With the Vegas Golden Knights and the Colorado Avalanche facing similar circumstances, whoever does best at beating up on the bottom-feeders could be the difference between the first and second seed at season’s end.

Struggling Rivals

The Wild weren’t the only team from their former division that got forced to play out west. Historical rivals like the St. Louis Blues and Avalanche joined in on the action against the California teams and franchises that reside in the desert. Heading into the season, both of these teams were favored above Minnesota in many predictive models, but judging by their early-season results, things aren’t going as smoothly as people thought for the two organizations.

At the beginning of this season, Colorado was a trendy Stanley Cup pick by some and remains one of the more dominant teams in the west. However, a few injuries and lack of consistent goaltending behind Philipp Grubauer have exposed some potentially fatal flaws that could cost them games down the stretch. In the five games their backup Hunter Miska has played in, he’s surrendered 18 goals and recorded a .838 save percentage (SV%). Grubauer is a talented player, but the Avs can’t expect him to maintain this type of workload, especially when you consider his history with injuries. They’ll need to address this at the trade deadline or risk overexerting their starter during the regular season. Even though this sounds easy in theory, finding the right fit could prove difficult in practice.

Nick Bonino Minnesota Wild Philipp Grubauer Colorado Avalanche
Nick Bonino, Minnesota Wild and Philipp Grubauer, Colorado Avalanche (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

When it comes to the Blues, things are a little more complicated. First off, they are getting below-average goaltending regardless of who’s in the net. Neither Jordan Binnington nor backup Ville Husso has shown much promise with their combined .892 SV%. Secondly, St. Louis has struggled mightily at controlling possession and quality scoring chances. They rank in the bottom half of the league in expected goals for percentage (xGF%) at both 5v5 and all strengths. And lastly, their above-average shooting percentage, specifically off of scoring chances off the rush or near the crease, seems unsustainable and isn’t something to bet on in a playoff series.

They have a talented roster, but expecting your team to convert almost a fourth of their highly dangerous shots into goals, is tough especially in a condensed, playoff-like format. Unless some big adjustments to the roster or coaching strategy happen, the Blues will get outpaced by the elite teams in the division.

Elite 5v5 Play

Throughout the early goings of this shortened campaign, the Wild have established themselves as one of the most productive teams at 5v5. Currently, Minnesota sits among the NHL’s best in a number of goal-scoring and quality shot generation categories at this pace of play. To start, the Wild are among the best teams in terms of goals for per 60 (GF/60) and expected goals per 60 (xGF/60). Essentially this means that they are doing an incredible job at consistently creating scoring chances and having little trouble converting them into points on the scoreboard.

In addition to the top-tier production on offense, the Wild continue to uphold their above-average reputation on defense. They slot in the top 10 in key defensive metrics like goals against per 60 (GA/60), shots against per 60 (SA/60), and xGF%. These stats help illustrate how effective a team is at limiting both the quantity and quality of scoring opportunities generated by their opponents.

The major storyline surrounding the team this season is their lack of success on the power play. And while this is something they need to address, the Wild can at least take solace in the fact that they are fully capable of dictating terms when no one has an advantage. This should serve them well in the postseason when refs seem to let the skaters get away with more on the ice. But for now, Minnesota will need to rely on this heavily if they are hoping to keep up with teams like the Golden Knights.

At the halfway point of this condensed schedule, things have gone better than expected for the State of Hockey. Still, a lot can change in the coming months, and nothing is guaranteed for the Wild and their divisional foes. Minnesota entered this season with a ton of uncertainty but now posses a massive opportunity to possibly capture their second-ever division crown and potentially home-ice advantage for what looks to be an unprecedented postseason.

The data in this article was presented by Natural Stat Trick, power rankings guru, and the NHL.

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