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Tanking Isn't On the Horizon For the Wild

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

Even before a coronavirus outbreak put the Minnesota Wild out of commission, the team suffered a laundry list of absences. Kevin Fiala, suspended for three crucial games. Matt Dumba, knocked out of a game after taking an awkward fall. Mystery injuries (or, perhaps, COVID protocols) removing Marcus Johansson and Jared Spurgeon from action.

Then, of course, there’s Alex Stalock, Marco Rossi, and Mats Zuccarello, all of whom have yet to play a game this year. Once Marcus Foligno became the first Minnesota player officially placed on the COVID protocol list, the short-handed Wild resorted to playing the likes of Victor Rask and Kyle Rau in crunch time.

Now Minnesota has nine players sidelined due to the pandemic. It’s not the largest outbreak the NHL has seen — the Dallas Stars had 17 players on the list — and the Stars’ 5-2-1 record shows that an outbreak doesn’t automatically kill your season.

But while the Wild got off to a fairly strong start in spite of injuries and a mess of a power play, they’re perhaps a fragile team. The Rossi situation also looms as a frightening reminder of the worst-case scenario of coronavirus. What happens if key players like Joel Eriksson Ek, Dumba, and Spurgeon are out long-term, with few ready replacements?

Such a situation would be a disaster for the Wild, who are trying to remain competitive during a transition year. Fortunately, unlike their basketball counterparts in the Timberwolves, they have a failsafe. Two, actually. They own their first-round pick in next year’s draft, as well as the Pittsburgh Penguins’ unprotected pick.

This fact, combined with the Colorado Avalanche exposing the Wild’s lack of punch before the shutdown, has led many fans to conclude that it might be best for Minnesota to free-fall down the standings. Get a crack at the lottery, and maybe get a second ticket from the Penguins.

There’s no question that beefing up the Wild’s already high-end prospect pool would only benefit them. Before you dust off the old draft lottery simulator, though, it might be wise to temper your tanking expectations a bit.

Minnesota’s had some pretty bad teams before. Around the turn of last decade, they were one of the very worst teams in the analytics era. More recently, an aging Wild team collided with the haphazard rebuilding style of Paul Fenton. They still didn’t bottom out.

They never have. Minnesota is celebrating its 20th season as a franchise. The worst they’ve finished in the standings is 25th out of 30. Not once have they even been in the league’s bottom five teams, let alone last place.

It’s hardwired into their DNA. The Wild were molded by the mind of Jacques “Neutral Zone Trap” Lemaire. They’ve always relied on a commitment to defense to, if not win games, accumulate ties and loser points. Lemaire is long gone, but the Wild never strayed from his vision. It’s a recipe that keeps bad teams from sinking to the bottom of the standings.

Then you get to the fact that the Wild aren’t a bad team, at least not in this West Division.

True to their roots, Minnesota’s fantastic at suppressing quality chances. Only the Boston Bruins surrender fewer expected goals per hour. In terms of generating offense, the Wild sit around the middle of the pack. They control 56.1% of expected goals at 5-on-5 play, ranked fourth in the NHL.

Even their weaknesses from recent years are shored up. Their void of star talent is finally filled with Fiala and Kirill Kaprizov in the mix. Their shaky goaltending now has some stability in Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen. Some weaknesses remain — center depth and the power play come to mind — but not nearly enough for them to tank.

Certainly not bad enough, compared to others in the division. The Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks, and Los Angeles Kings rank 23rd, 25th, and 31st in controlling expected goals at 5-on-5, and all have glaring weaknesses. The Arizona Coyotes are better off than those teams but have more trouble scoring than Minnesota.

Being restricted to West Division play will continue to help a decent but not great Wild team. They’ve still got eight games to play against Arizona, six against Anaheim and San Jose, and four against Los Angeles. Even if they can’t match up well with a team like Colorado, they’ll still be reliable favorites in over half their remaining games.

For these reasons, Micah McCurdy’s simulations put Minnesota’s playoff odds at 60% entering this weekend. With 20% of the season already in the books, there’s not a lot of time to make up ground on tanking teams like the Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings.

As for the Pittsburgh pick? Initially, that appears more promising with the Penguins’ goaltending looking awful and key players like Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang off to a slow start.

Even with all that going against them, though, they’ve still got 11 points in 11 games and hold on to a playoff spot. There’s more competition in the East than there is in the West, but Pittsburgh is above water in expected goals, and you can never count out Malkin and Sidney Crosby. McCurdy has their playoff odds even higher than Minnesota’s at 69%. Unless that goaltending continues to collapse, the odds of getting a nice pick here are low.

All this might suit Minnesota just fine. The 2021 Draft seems to have few players solidified in the top tier to begin with. With fewer games to scout, it’s going to be harder than ever for the scouting community to develop a consensus ranking. When top talent slips through the cracks, Minnesota head scout Judd Brackett has a history of finding it.

In the meantime, Minnesota has 80% of their season remaining and exciting young talent coming, headlined by Kaprizov. It’s nice to know those picks are in their back pocket, but until then, it’s perhaps best to focus on the here-and-now, not a draft that’s still many months away.

All stats are from Evolving-Hockey unless otherwise noted.

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