Don't Look Now, But the Wild Are In Good Shape On Defense

Photo Credit: Isaiah J. Downing (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Wild have almost always been known as a defense-first team.

As the first head coach in franchise history, Jacques Lemaire introduced the neutral zone trap after having success with it in New Jersey, and the team lived and died by stifling offensive opportunities. His tenure coincided almost entirely with the team’s most explosive offensive player, Marian Gaborik, and the Wild have been mired in the struggle of finding an adequate Gaborik replacement. But even during years when they had trouble scoring, they maintained a team structure centered on defense.

This season it finally looks like Minnesota has found a dynamic scorer to rival Gaborik’s impact on the franchise. But lost in the shuffle of Kirill Kaprizov’s electrifying rookie season is how well the Wild are playing defensively.

Minnesota’s defensive corps is a mix of players that is largely a decade in the making. There’s one spot each for free-agent signings, trades, and drafted players. But the way the team’s back end shakes out this season took many years of work and experimentation before they could thrive in 2021.

Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon, the usual top defensive pairing this season, were both free-agent signings. Suter was one of the top defensemen in the NHL and in the middle of his prime when the Wild signed him nine years ago. Spurgeon, on the other hand, was discarded by the New York Islanders after they drafted him and turned himself into one of the league’s best defensemen.

Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba were both Wild first-round draft picks in consecutive years. Brodin went 10th overall in 2011, and Dumba was taken seventh overall in 2012. The second line pairs two homegrown players who have been mainstays in the group for years and provide immense value in their own ways. Brodin is arguably the best skater and breakout passer, and Dumba could be the team’s best offensive weapon on the back end.

Beyond the top four, Minnesota has good options for the third pair. Right now, they can shuffle in Carson Soucy, Ian Cole, or Brad Hunt. After Cole’s trade to the Wild earlier this season, he has become an integral shutdown player alongside Soucy in the regular lineup.

So what if the Wild defense is skilled. What difference does it really make?

The team’s gross goals against are 81, the fourth-fewest in the NHL. Obviously, that stat doesn’t measure the defense alone. The team’s excellent goaltending play this season deserves some credit too. But cutting the opposition’s offensive chances leads to fewer goals. Additionally, the Wild have the third-best penalty kill in the league this season, killing off the man-advantage nearly 86% of the time.

This defensive group was just as good last season, keeping Minnesota in the playoff hunt despite the goaltending having the third-worst save percentage in the NHL. They managed to have the lowest-expected goals against (xGA) in the NHL in 2019-20, a stark contrast to the goaltending that supported them. This season, the team is eighth in xGA now with the league’s best save percentage.

For years the Wild have had some of the most dominant defensemen in the NHL; it was just a matter of having the right support and competent play around them to make their impact matter. With the team’s vastly improved goaltending unit, if Minnesota can keep this core together, it will continue to do what it has done over the course of the past few seasons — minimize chances against and lead this franchise to a new era of success.

With expansion looming and forwards on expiring contracts who will demand raises, this expensive d-group might take a hit to move some salary off the team to fill other needs. For now, though, this unit is strong and does what it’s paid to do every night.

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Photo Credit: Isaiah J. Downing (USA TODAY Sports)

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