The Wild Are Running Back What Didn't Work Before

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Technically, there is still time for the Minnesota Wild to get aggressive before Friday’s Trade Deadline. As long as Brock Boeser or Jakob Chychrun haven’t moved, there are paths to getting impact players on a budget for the next two years, which are the worst of the Zach Parise/Ryan Suter buyout penalties.

But until we see evidence of Bill Guerin‘s front office being willing to do what it takes to bring in an impact player, what we saw Tuesday is going to be what the State of Hockey gets.

And that is — regardless of whether or not they make another marginal move — more or less the same team they brought to the postseason the past two years. The same team that got bounced from the first round twice. Exactly the same construction as the Wild teams that scored only 29 goals in those 13 games (2.23/game).

The Wild liked what they saw for the last two years, and they’re going to run it back. They even went out of their way to ensure maximum levels of continuity.

There’s no way to sugarcoat the Wild trading for Marcus Johansson. Guerin got something he didn’t need to try an idea that didn’t work two years ago.

You might have already forgotten Johansson, who played with the Wild in 2020-21. While Kirill Kaprizov, Mats Zuccarello, and Joel Eriksson Ek all enjoyed enormous, surprising success, Johansson was no more than a footnote in that season. Guerin acquired him in the Eric Staal trade, hoping Johansson could be a factor in the Top-6. They desperately wanted him to thrive as part of their Center By Committee plan or as a winger. He did neither.

Again, it’s impossible to be anything but blunt about it. Johansson was Minnesota’s worst forward two years ago. He cost the Wild nearly a full point in the standings, hardly the expectation for a steady veteran.

Johansson was the worst scorer on the team in all situations and 5-on-5. Since he’s not going to play top power play minutes, let’s just focus on his 5-on-5 production. He scored only 0.42 goals per hour, ranking 12th out of 13 forwards, followed by being dead last in points, scoring just 0.97 per hour.

That’s bad! But maybe he rebounded in the two years since?

Unfortunately, he hasn’t. Last year, he had almost 900 5-on-5 minutes with the Seattle Kraken and Washington Capitals, and he only scored 1.22 points per hour. This year, he’s been even worse at 5-on-5 than he was with the Wild. There are 307 forwards in the NHL with 500 or more 5-on-5 minutes. Johansson ranks 297th with 0.92 points per hour.

Granted, the Wild are 31st in 5-on-5 scoring and have three of the bottom-10 in 5-on-5 points per hour on their roster. If you squint, you can technically call that an upgrade.

But the Wild almost drowned this year because of their lack of 5-on-5 scoring. If not for Filip Gustavsson going Sicko Mode in February, stopping nearly 95% of shots against, and stealing about 10 points for Minnesota (not an exaggeration, by the way — his last seven games were all one-goal games, with a 5-0-2 record), they’d have already sunk below the playoff bubble.

So instead of trying to grab a life raft who can score at 5-on-5, the solution is… putting another rock in their pocket?

“These two players [Johansson and Gustav Nyquist, also acquired Tuesday] are what we were missing, what we needed,” Guerin told the media Tuesday. “They’re both highly skilled guys, they’re excellent skaters, and I think they’re going to provide us with some of that natural ability out there. Both players have a history of playing with elite guys, and they have the ability to do that.”

The facts are stacked up pretty heavily against Johansson, but it needs to be said that there are redeeming parts to his game. He’s had a season in Washington where he’s driven expected goals. In theory, expected goals are expected to become actual goals on a long enough timeline. For almost any other player, it’d be worth a shot.

But two things make betting on Johansson’s underlying numbers a bad one. The first is first-hand experience, Minnesota’s seen a Johansson season play out before. The second is this: Johansson’s expected goals don’t turn into actual goals, not just for himself, but for his teammates on the ice. They haven’t this year, they didn’t with the Wild, and it’s been a very consistent trend with him for over a half-decade.

Here’s how his expected goals have lined up with his actual goals at 5-on-5 since the 2017-18 season:

Data courtesy of Evolving Hockey

It’s very rare that Johansson’s teams score more goals with him on the ice than they “should” have. And for each of the past six years, they’ve underperformed their share of the expected goals. There was only one year it was even close, the year before Minnesota traded for him.

How can a player who consistently ranks as one of the worst individual scorers at 5-on-5 boost Minnesota’s 5-on-5 scoring. When a player has shown over six years can’t positively influence scoring, what makes him the candidate to help a struggling Matt Boldy? In what world does Minnesota look at a player who gets outscored compared to his expected goals like clockwork and pinpoint them as essential?

Forget the price to acquire Johansson. A third-round pick is nothing to sweat over if it makes the team better. The problem is that if they had an opportunity to snag Johansson for free, this would be a bad move. The Wild have plenty of players who can’t score or create for their teammates despite nice underlying numbers. He offers nothing that Minnesota didn’t already have, and brought nothing to help them succeed before.

However, the Wild managed to get a player who might be able to help them score on Tuesday, acquiring Nyquist for a fifth-round pick. He’s perhaps not a great scorer, but he at least represents a credible Top-6 option… if he’s healthy by the playoffs. For a fifth-rounder, that’s dice worth rolling.

But if Minnesota doesn’t have something that moves the needle more up their sleeve, this is it. Did you wonder what last year’s Wild would have done if they’d only swapped Fiala for Johansson and (maybe) Nyquist? We’re going to get the answer soon, and it’s probably going to be a similar outcome. How could it not be?

The tragedy is that they’re leaving so much more potential on the table. Guerin could have made a big swing to bring in an impact player like Boeser or Chychrun. He still can, but time is running out and the will to do it seems nonexistent.

Marco Rossi, their 2021 first-rounder with 32 points in 35 AHL games, is at Minnesota’s disposal. Instead, they’re disposing of an opportunity to see what a high-upside center can do with his new-and-improved game. For what? So that a 32-year-old who already showed the Wild he couldn’t get them over the hump can block him. Guerin’s spent weeks insisting there’s no room in the lineup for Rossi, but now there is for one of the league’s worst scorers?

It’s more of the same, and it’s unrealistic to expect anything but the status quo. Guerin has said he won’t spend assets to acquire impact players, and he’s proven trustworthy so far. He refused to let Boldy play in the playoffs two years ago, and Rossi down the stretch last year. He’s not going to suddenly turn to a prospect in a playoff race, he’s proven that.

There’s still time for the Wild to correct course, but sadly, there’s no indication they will.

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