Despite the Minnesota Wild getting off to a solid 10-3-2 start this season, defensive consistency never really materialized even when the team was winning, forcing the offense to carry the load. Most of the games the Wild won early in the year were high scoring affairs but now, Minnesota’s injury troubles have slowed the scoring.
The team’s best scorer and emotional leader Zach Parise missed 8 games with a sprained MCL after a hit from Nashville’s James Neal. Promising rookie Tyler Graovac was injured in the Wild’s season opener in Colorado and has yet to return while versatile forward Justin Fontaine missed 12 games. Both Parise and Fontaine returned recently but neither player has scored yet. Most recently, Marco Scandella was placed on injured reserve and several players have missed time dealing with a virus that has bounced around the locker room. Add to defensive struggles and injury trouble the fact that Devan Dubnyk has been inconsistent at times and it all equals out to a season nearly void of consistency with the potential to take a turn for the worst at any moment if not properly sorted out; something Minnesota is familiar with. Something it cannot let happen again.
Mid-season slumps are all too familiar for the Minnesota Wild. In 2013-14, the Wild started 17-8-5 before a .250 winning percentage in December forced them to finish the year 23-9-7 just to make the playoffs. Last year, more December struggles led to a 18-19-5 through early January record thanks in large part to some meager goaltending. Following a trade for Dubnyk, the Wild went on a tear and again salvaged what once looked like a lost season.
But despite strong finishes in both seasons, Minnesota was bounced by Chicago each year. Last season especially, the Wild looked tired and slow in the series against Chicago, a series that the Blackhawks swept. The fact that the Wild has had to pour so much emotion and energy into simply winning enough games at the end to make the playoffs has likely contributed to the under achievement in the playoffs.
Devan Dubnyk played in 39 of the Wild’s final 40 games last season and then was asked to start every playoff game as well. Dubnyk was perhaps the one player that showed the most fatigue. He let in uncharacteristically soft goals in several playoff games and didn’t look as strong as he had through most of the regular season. Ryan Suter also seemed to tire in the Chicago series as his consistent 30+ minute games seemed to catch up to him.
With the level of parody in the league, even the top teams go through occasional stretches where winning comes slow. But the Wild seems to always carry these losing streaks for longer than most teams. Where many teams will struggle for 6 or 7 games, the Wild’s tendency is to struggle for a month or more; a trend that has set Minnesota up for failure when it matters.
With that in mind, one would think Minnesota would be guarding against another such collapse this year, but despite having endured through these stretches repeatedly the past several years, the Wild has found itself yet again entering into a trap of losing it shows no signs of breaking free from.
The latest collapse
Injuries have no doubt tested the Wild’s depth this season, a test they passed in terms of wins and losses until a couple of weeks ago. In Minnesota’s last 7 games, the team is 1-4-2 with the latest loss coming at home against Dallas. The Wild led 3-0 going into the third period and subsequently gave up 3 goals in the third and the winner in overtime to cap an improbable 4-3 loss to the rival Stars. The loss, the second in as many nights on home ice to a division opponent, was egregious enough. The big picture is of more concern however.
Yeo basically said #mnwild hasn't diagnosed why this happens year after year, but he said team needs to decide if it wants to be elite
— Michael Russo (@RussoHockey) November 29, 2015
The normally defensively stingy Wild is currently giving up 2.77 goals per game and Devan Dubnyk has a .909 save percentage and a 2.55 goals against average. The Wild has looked disjointed defensively all year and it has yet to show real signs of improving.
Offensively, Minnesota has scored 63 goals in 22 games this year, a 2.86 goals per game clip good for 8th overall in the league. However, the past four losses have seen the Wild score just 8 goals and the offense has begun to stagnate at times.
More importantly, the Wild are not passing the all important “eye test” right now. They look lost at times on defense and the forecheck has not been there for a team that prides itself on puck possession.
If Minnesota cannot figure out what’s going on and fix the deficiencies, it may again find itself in a situation in mid-January where it needs to go on a crazy run just to sneak into the playoffs. If that happens, one has to wonder if Mike Yeo will find himself on the hot seat, especially if the Wild misses the playoffs. That’s why they must end this mini-slump now before it becomes a big collapse yet again.
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.