Is Winning the Division Worth It For the Wild?

Photo Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Those banners in the Xcel Energy Center look a little lonely. The Minnesota Wild only have three things to celebrate throughout their near-quarter century of existence, or at least, enough to justify the massive fabric and embroidery cost. There are, of course, two banners honoring the best players in Wild history: No. 9 for Mikko Koivu and No. 1 for Wild Fans.

And then there’s the third: A 2007-08 Northwest Division Champions banner. They earned that one from finishing with 98 points that year, technically fourth in the Western Conference, but crucially, three points ahead of the Colorado Avalanche. Please do not ask what happened next!

Oh, fine. This banner year ended in the first round, when that same Avalanche team dispatched the Wild, who blew a 2-1 series lead, in six games. That’s it. That’s the only accomplishment hanging in Minnesota’s rafters.

Until, maybe, this season. The Wild enter Saturday’s action one point behind the Central Division-leading Dallas Stars with a game in hand. If Minnesota wins, and Dallas loses to the Calgary Flames tonight, they’ll leap-frog the Stars and capture possession of first place for the first time this year, 69 games into the season.

That sounds nice, but it sets up a tough battle for the Division title down the stretch. Not only would they have to fend off the Stars, but the Avalanche are just two points behind Minnesota with a game in hand on the Wild.

Minnesota’s playoff spot is all but secure. Their odds rose to 98.8% last night, according to Evolving Hockey. If all they had to worry about were the playoffs, maybe they’d take their foot off the gas a bit before the playoffs start.

That sort of rest could be valuable going into a big slugfest of a postseason. Maybe key players like Kirill Kaprizov, Jonas Brodin, and Marcus Foligno could get back whenever they’re at 100%. After all, what’s the rush? They could rest minute-munchers like Jared Spurgeon and Matt Dumba, or even forwards like Joel Eriksson Ek and Mats Zuccarello.

Instead, expect the Wild to make a push for a Division title. It’s going to be four weeks of playoffs before the playoffs start, but is it worth it? What do the Wild actually get from winning the division, other than another flag to hang up in St. Paul?

Statistically, not as much as you’d think. As Division winners, the Wild would get the benefit of playing a Wild Card team, rather than a match-up with the second-or-third-best team in the Division. Theoretically, that’s an easier time for the Division Winners, but in practice, it doesn’t play out so well.

Hockey’s low scoring makes it more susceptible to random chance in a seven-game series than baseball or (especially) basketball. Last season, the Division Winners did go 4-0 against the Wild Card teams in the playoffs. It was just the second time since the NHL installed the Divisional Playoff format in 2014 when that happened.

In fact, in 2019, all four Wild Card teams upset Division Winners. It’s just very unpredictable. Even for the Wild, as both of their series wins came as a Wild Card team.

So is it worth it? Maybe not so much normally, but in a weakened Western Conference, it might be worth going all-out to win a Division title.

The quality of Wild Card teams can vary… well, wildly, from year to year, especially for the team that draws the strongest Wild Card squad (as the Central is on track to do).

Take last year, for instance. It behooved the Avalanche to win the Central Division (and Western Conference), as the difference between first and second place was facing the 109-point St. Louis Blues or the 97-point Nashville Predators. The Avalanche dispatched those Predators in four games en route to the Stanley Cup. Those Blues had a first-round upset in them, against the 113-point Wild.

As for Calgary who won the Pacific? Their reward for finishing first in their Division was taking on the 97-point Stars instead of the 99-point Los Angeles Kings. Not much of a reward, we’re afraid to say. Dallas took Calgary all the way to overtime in Game 7.

Thems the breaks. Some years, you might play a cupcake Wild Card opponent. In others, they may be no different than third place in your Division. And if you’re the Division-winning Montreal Canadiens in 2017, they might not be any different from you. They had 103 points in the regular season and faced the New York Rangers, who punched a Wild Card ticket with 102 points.

Courtesy of @IneffectiveMath (Micah Blake McCurdy of Hockey Viz).

At first, it doesn’t seem like a huge advantage for the Wild to finish tops in the Central. Unless they win the West, they’re playing the Seattle Kraken (on track for 98.2 points) or quite possibly the Edmonton Oilers (98.8 points) in Round 1 instead of the Winnipeg Jets (94.1) or Predators/Flames (93.0 and 91.2, respectively).

The difference between 98 points and 102, which the Stars and Avalanche are headed for, isn’t that much. But the quality of the teams? Looking at them on paper and with the eye test? Who would you rather roll against? The Stars or Avalanche or the Kraken?

If healthy, the Avs are the same frightening core of players as the ones that won the Cup last year, minus some secondary scoring. Even if more of a one-line team, Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog are a hell of a line. Combine that with a loaded defense with Cale Makar, Devon Toews, and Bowen Byram? It’s hard to want any part of them in Round 1.

Same with the Stars. Sum up their games into wins and losses, and they have a 37-32 record to Minnesota’s 39-29. But they’re a top-10 team in scoring and allowing goals at 5-on-5. Their expected goals numbers back that up, and their top line of Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz, and Joe Pavelski is as scary as any in the league. Including the Avs.

Who in their right mind wants to face those players over Seattle? Jared McCann is sneakily one of the best players in hockey, yes. Vince Dunn and rookie Matty Beniers are having breakout seasons, too. But this is a team that lacks sheer star power. Can they even expect someone like McCann to take over a series the way Kaprizov did last year?

It’s too hard to say “Yeah, I’m buying this” from Seattle’s season, as great and unexpected as it’s been. They’re this year’s PDO team, riding a 10.3% shooting percentage at 5-on-5 this season, to go with a .909 save percentage. The latter ranks just 23rd in the league, but getting that performance out of Martin Jones and Philipp Grubauer still feels unsustainable.

Maybe this thinking will blow up in Minnesota’s face — it certainly wouldn’t be the first time they’ve stumbled as a favorite in the first round. But it’s hard to see anyone disagreeing with the idea that having Dallas and Colorado beat up on each other while taking your chances with the Kraken (or Flames, or Jets, or Predators, or maybe even the Oilers) is the optimal play for the Wild.

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