The Minnesota Wild currently sits second in the Honda West Division. There is no doubt this comes as a surprise to many who had them as a bubble and fringe playoff team at the beginning of the season. Likewise, their 8.4% conversion rate on the power play would only reinforce this narrative. Knowing all of this, it would be shocking to hear that the Wild are currently 11th in the NHL.
The single biggest reason the Wild are sitting where they are is due to their excellent play at 5-on-5 this season. They rank at the top of the league offensively, defensively, and goaltending-wise, which is essential for a team that is struggling beyond recognition on the man advantage.
Top Team At 5-on-5
One of the distinct changes from last season to this season is the Wild’s ability to generate high-danger shots and scoring chances. Their 2.58 expected goals for per hour rank 3rd league-wide. The biggest drivers behind their ability to manufacture offense are forwards Joel Eriksson Ek and Kevin Fiala, plus defenseman Matt Dumba. Those three players lead the Wild in RAPM xGF/60. While they are on the ice, the team is able to generate a large volume of quality scoring chances.
The Wild’s 3.05 goals per game at 5-on-5 ranks second which is very surprising given their lack of offensive firepower aside from highly-touted prospect Kirill Kaprizov and game-breaker Fiala. The team is scoring at a higher rate than expected, which hints at their ability to finish on shots despite some of the shots not expected to go in the net. The Wild’s shooting percentage is just over 10 percent at 5-on-5, which further supports the assertion of above-average finishing. In this regard, they rank third league-wide behind only the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals.
Eriksson Ek has been dominant at 5-on-5, as his 10 goals are tied for second in the NHL. Likewise, his 6.83 individual expected goals rank seventh league-wide. While all the spotlight has been on Kaprizov and Fiala, Eriksson Ek has been dominant at 5-on-5 and has yet to get the recognition he deserves.
Furthermore, Mats Zuccarello and Jordan Greenway have both been huge forces behind the Wild’s dominance at 5-on-5. Greenway and Zuccarello are second and fourth, respectively, in points at 5-on-5 on the team. The most surprising player so far this season has been Marcus Foligno – a career bottom-six forward – who is playing exceptionally well. The 29-year-old has registered six goals and seven assists at 5-on-5 in 23 games.
The Wild are one of the best offensive teams in the league, which speaks volumes. An integral reason behind this is their extensive depth and ability to roll any line in any situation and their ability to be this strong offensively while still maintaining their reputation as a defensive stalwart.
At 5-on-5, the Wild’s 2.04 goals against per hour rank sixth league-wide. While this is strong, there is an issue with using goals-against as a way to measure defense alone because goaltending can impact this. On the other side of things, goals-against average isn’t a fair representation of how strong a goalie is because a team’s defense has a major impact on it too. It is a decent stat when using context and intertwining both facets, including defense and goaltending.
Looking at expected goals against per hour, which isolates goaltending in order to be a fair way to evaluate how strong a team is defensively, their 1.95 ranks 4th league-wide. A big reason why the Wild have been so strong defensively is because they allow fewer higher-danger chances than almost the entire league. They have allowed 144 high-danger chances, which rank second behind only the Dallas Stars.
While Jared Spurgeon has had a respectable start to the season, Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba have been the Wild’s two best defensemen. Brodin has emerged as a two-way force this season and is having a career year offensively in terms of point production and underlying numbers.
The 27-year-old has five goals and 14 points in 24 games. His career-high 28 points in 2019-20 is destined to be broken this season. Likewise, he has maintained his status as a defensive stalwart. He ranks 13th in expected goals against per hour among all NHL defenseman. He’s been defensively sound and allows few high-danger chances while he’s on the ice.
Dumba, 26, is looking his best since his injury that occurred back in 2018. He has five goals and 11 points this season, which puts him on a pace for nearly 16 goals and 35 points over an 82-game season. He’s second in the league among defensemen in xGF/60. Only Adam Pelech is more efficient at increasing his team’s expected rate of scoring based on the volume and quality of shots being taken while he is on the ice. Dumba has also been above-average defensively league-wide. This two-way game the Wild have witnessed this season from him is something new.
The small margin between the Wild’s GA/60 and xGA/60 displays their goaltending has been average. Likewise, their .926 save percentage at 5-on-5 ranks eighth league-wide. This is exactly what they needed from Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen after parting ways with Devan Dubnyk. Dubnyk was one of the worst goaltenders in the NHL the past several seasons and was holding them back. Both Talbot and Kahkonen have been calm and collective between the pipes and have brought the Wild stability.
The Wild are one of the best teams at even-strength and have excelled because they have been getting contributions from everyone from top to bottom.
One of the biggest reasons the Wild have excelled at 5-on-5 is because of their depth and youngsters stepping up. If Zach Parise can find his game and have a major turnaround after a rough start to the season, it will make the Wild an even more dangerous club.
The biggest element to monitor is their power play that is broken and needs fixing. It remains the biggest weakness for the team. If they can repair it and flourish under a new system or somehow catch a spark, it will exponentially benefit their game.
The most important aspect right now for the Wild is to continue being dominant at even-strength as they depend on it.
(All Data As Of March 16; Via Evolving-Hockey & Natural Stat Trick)
Aaron Heckmann covers the Wild for The Hockey Writers & Zone Coverage. His data-driven articles are focused on solving problems, telling stories, and discovering unique storylines. Find him on Twitter @aaron_heckmann.