Wild

The Wild Have A Fiala-Sized Hole In Their Lineup

Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Through six games, the spotlight on the Minnesota Wild has been their defense and goaltending. Allowing 20 goals in their first three games will do that, as will comments from team leadership that they play defense like a junior team. Are those problems? Sure are. But look a bit deeper, and you might ask yourself, “Hey, where’s the offense?”

The answer is “On the power play.” Eight of their 22 goals have come with the man advantage, which is much improved from last year. There’s no downside to it, but it is covering up the fact that this offense would be sputtering without the power play. Just ten of their goals have come at 5-on-5.

On Monday, Bill Guerin publicly commented on the Wild’s slow start. In addition to saying they “just need to play harder, a little smarter” and imploring the team to “work themselves out of it,” there was a pretty eye-opening quote in there.

“We’re just not a pretty team,” Guerin told The Athletic. “We have some skill — maybe not as much as some other teams — so when we don’t play hard, heavy, physical… we struggle.” The Wild ground out a win against the (on paper, at least) inferior Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday to improve to 2-3-1, but it shouldn’t have been that hard.

It used not to be. Last year, the Wild were fifth in the NHL in scoring goals in all situations. They were third at 5-on-5. It was, by far, the most skilled team Minnesota ever put on the ice. How did it go from that to where Guerin is acknowledging a skill gap between them and the top teams five games into the season?

I’ll give you 22 guesses.

Trading Kevin Fiala to the Los Angeles Kings was the only move Minnesota made to truly disturb the DNA of last season’s squad. Fiala’s presence gave Minnesota a massive threat on what was, essentially, their third line. Between Fiala, Kirill Kaprizov‘s line, and Joel Eriksson Ek‘s two-way powerhouse of a line, teams couldn’t stop all three from scoring.

Minnesota doesn’t have that anymore. The Wild relied on a crew of prospects and former first-rounders from other teams to make up that difference. Matt Boldy, to his credit, is taking a step. Marco Rossi is getting his legs underneath him, and the Wild have out-shot opponents 14-5 with him on the ice at 5-on-5 these last two games. Sam Steel and Tyson Jost have been disappointing at times and have combined for two goals and three points.

However, none of the newcomers are Fiala-caliber yet, either individually or collectively.

Goal prevention is the Wild’s biggest fault, right? Then why do they need Fiala’s offense-heavy help? Because while Fiala’s not a great defensive player, there’s no doubt he could help this team turn the tide at 5-on-5.

Right now, the Wild are scoring 2.19 goals per hour at 5-on-5, 23rd in the NHL. Yes, we’re talking about a small sample size. The Colorado Avalanche, Edmonton Oilers, and Toronto Maple Leafs are all worse than Minnesota, and we probably can’t expect that to last. But unlike those higher-powered teams, Minnesota is atrocious at generating offense so far.

They’re 27th in the NHL in generating 2.22 expected goals per hour at 5-on-5. The Wild aren’t getting unlucky at even strength. They’re getting what they deserve. Relative to the NHL, Minnesota’s worse at pressuring opposing goalies than they are at protecting their own. Say what you will about the Wild’s defense, but their 2.75 expected goals allowed per hour is tied for 16th in the NHL.

On its face, it would seem Minnesota’s offense could use more of a boost than the defense. But it’s very possible improved offense could even be helping their defense, even if Fiala’s far from a defensive stalwart.

Defense isn’t just about how stout you are in your own zone. It’s much more holistic than that. If you can transition the puck through the neutral zone, that helps the defense. Spending lots of time in the offensive zone is also good for the defense. In both cases, the puck isn’t in your own zone, and your opponents don’t have it. That’s why puck possession, the foundation of hockey analytics, matters.

Make no mistake, Fiala had the puck a ton last year. The Wild controlled 56.6% of the expected goal share with him on the ice at 5-on-5 last season. That was third on the team among forwards, behind Marcus Foligno and Boldy.

While some jaded Wild fans dismiss Fiala’s breakout as only a product of Boldy, that’s not entirely fair. Natural Stat Tricks’ line data shows that Boldy made Fiala better, as they controlled 58.6% of expected goals at 5-on-5. But Fiala was still pretty good when he was apart from Boldy, coming in at 54.0%. That’d still have been ahead of Kaprizov, Mats Zuccarello, Freddy Gaudreau, and Ryan Hartman, among others. Not that the hypothetical split means anything, as they’d still have Boldy.

Instead of lamenting a skill gap to the media, Guerin could have simply kept one of the most skilled players in the NHL. Kaprizov, Fiala, Zuccarello, Boldy, and Rossi would have probably been enough firepower to keep up with the rest of the league.

The tragedy of this how pointless this loss is. It was apparent that Minnesota had no interest in signing Fiala. True, Brock Faber and Liam Öhgren, the prospects the Wild got in the trade, could swing things their way eventually. But in the meantime, Guerin left a hole in a Cup contender, and it looks like they’re feeling it. And for what?

“We don’t have cap space,” Guerin scoffed at the time. “Honestly, to keep him, we’d have to trade three guys or two guys, and deplete your team even more. … It just didn’t fit.” Given the Wild’s dead money, that sounds like a reasonable point of view. But then look at the roster and ask, how many of these guys are pulling their own weight?

Specifically, how many of the players Minnesota signed and acquired since spurning Fiala on a long-term deal two summers ago are doing that? Jost is making $2 million, which might be fair market value, but his role is redundant unless he can take a step forward. Alex Goligoski is making $2 million to be a third-pairing/seventh defenseman. When the Washington Capitals didn’t qualify Ilya Samsonov, would saving $1-1.5 million in picking him up have left Minnesota any worse off than with Marc-Andre Fleury‘s late-30s? Might they even be in a better spot on the ice?

Then you have Matt Dumba‘s expiring contract. Once again, he’s in the rumor mill as a trade candidate. His departure feels inevitable even if he sticks on the team this year. Because they have $3 million in cap room, moving him alone would have solved their cap space problem with Fiala this year. And that’s not even considering that Fiala’s price tag was surely lower in Summer 2021, before he tore up the NHL for 85 points.

There were other factors, of course. It’s an open secret that Evason and Fiala had a contentious relationship during their time together. Evason may not have liked Fiala’s defense, but the results on the ice were undeniable. And what does it say when the scapegoat is gone, yet the team still plays worse defensively? What does it say for the GM when they trade offense to double- and triple-down on signing defensive players and wind up with neither offense nor defense?

Losing Fiala wasn’t an inevitability. A lot of little moves and purposeful decisions put these events into motion. It was a choice, and those choices aren’t working out anywhere near where Minnesota hoped in the early goings.

There’s still time to turn it around. The defense could get its act together, and Rossi is still a strong candidate to emerge as a Fiala-type replacement. But in the meantime, whether the Wild want to admit it or not, it’s clear that there’s a void in the lineup where a Swiss game-breaker used to reside.

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Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

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