Approaching the halfway point of the National Hockey League season, the Minnesota Wild find themselves in a precarious position:
- 11th place in the Western Conference
- 7 points out of the final playoff position
- 9 points behind St. Louis for third place (and a guaranteed playoff berth) in the Central Division
- Have not won consecutive games since a three-game winning streak in mid-November
Instead of capitalizing on and growing from last season’s playoff run, the Wild find themselves — like the team they vanquished in round one last year, the Colorado Avalanche — on the brink of moving to “let’s think about next year” territory should their lackluster play continue much longer.
All the usual caveats apply here. Yes, there’s a lot of games remaining. Yes, seven points are not insurmountable. Last year’s team was in a similar position, stumbling through December before turning it around with a 23-10-7 finish that earned the squad the #7 seed in the playoffs.
However, as the 2011 Minnesota Twins have taught us, even teams that have found that new gear in the past don’t always find it in the future. So let’s talk about which guys bear the blame for the Wild’s current predicament.
Honorable mention: Ryan Suter, defense
It’s hard to be critical of Suter. He plays 29 minutes a game, and even at his worst, is still a solid contributor. But Suter didn’t get a 13-year, $98 million deal to be a solid contributor. The expectations are that Suter should be one of the top defensemen in the league.
There have been too many defensive breakdowns with Suter on the ice (as evidenced by his 0 +/- figure for the season), and his leadership is sorely needed to shore up a flagging Wild defense. Head coach Mike Yeo seems to recognize it as well, as he and Suter had a long conversation at the end of yesterday’s practice.
5.Thomas Vanek, forward
For years, Minnesota hockey fans have pined for the return of former University of Minnesota star Thomas Vanek. And after a turbulent 2013-14 season which saw Vanek shipped from the Buffalo Sabres to the New York Islanders to the Montreal Canadiens, the Wild snapped him up when he hit the free agent market on July 1, with a three-year deal worth $19.5 million.
Vanek has been caught up in the federal investigation of an upstate New York gambling ring, and his play has left much to be desired, with many folks in the media questioning his effort and commitment. As reference, Vanek has never scored fewer than 25 goals in his previous nine seasons, but tallied only once in his first 21 games with the Wild.
Vanek has shown signs of life recently, recording four goals (and seven points) in the last eight games. A full return to form will be required if the Wild is serious about making the playoffs.
4. Mikael Granlund, forward
When the Wild signed Suter and Zach Parise in 2012, the franchise heralded the arrival of Finnish phenom Granlund on the same level. But Granlund wasn’t ready to be that level of player, splitting the season between the Wild and the minor leagues, delivering a disappointing eight points in 27 NHL games. 2013-14 was different, though. Granlund emerged in the second half of the season, including strong play on the bronze medalist Finnish team at Sochi and leading the Wild with four playoff goals (tied with Parise and Erik Haula).
This season, though, has seen Granlund regress again, totaling just 15 points in 32 games thus far. A player advertised as a dyamic offensive creator has looked more like a younger, less physical version of Mikko Koivu. While some of the Wild’s young players (Nino Niedereiter, Jason Zucker, and Charlie Coyle) have largely lived up to their expectations, Granlund’s failure to even maintain his previous level of play has severely hurt the team.
3. Mike Yeo, head coach
Just like one year ago at this time, there are rumblings about Yeo’s job being in jeopardy. Last year, Yeo found a way to push all of the right buttons and push the squad into the playoffs. Whether or not he’s capable of doing that this year may determine whether he’s still behind the bench next season.
Yeo certainly isn’t the primary cause of the problem here, although there are some very real flaws that can be pointed to. The Wild’s power play was an utter disaster early in the season. Defensively, the Wild have struggled due to breakdowns and shaky goaltending. Some have also suggested that Yeo should give more rope to young players like Niederreiter who are producing.
2. Darcy Kumeper, goaltender
Last season’s goaltending situation was a mess. Kuemper was one of four goaltenders (Niklas Backstrom, Josh Harding, and Ilya Bryzgalov being the others) to receive significant amounts of playing time. Coming into this season, with Bryzgalov being allowed to depart, Kuemper quickly had (and took) the opportunity to seize the #1 goaltender position when Harding went down with a broken foot, as the 36-year-old Backstrom has moved past his prime and has become more injury-prone in recent years.
And Kuemper got off to a solid start, going 6-2-0 in his first eight starts. But as the season has progressed, Kuemper’s play has become increasingly erratic. In four of his last 11 starts, Kuemper has been pulled mid-game in favor of Backstrom. For the season, his below-league-average 90.4% save percentage means that he’s given up six goals more than a league-average goalie so far this season. (Incidentally, Backstrom — in a little over half of the playing time — is also about six goals below league average.) Barring a trade, Kuemper is going to have to find his early-season form consistently for this team to make the climb.
1. Chuck Fletcher, general manager
Like Yeo, Fletcher did a masterful job last season tweaking the Wild’s roster to get the team to a point where it could be truly competitive in the playoffs. But Fletcher’s magic touch from last year has eluded him this year. Let’s look at the key decisions Fletcher has made:
- Goaltending: Fletcher rolled the dice that the combination of Kuemper, Harding, and Backstrom would be good enough to get the club through. Harding, who was healthy and confident entering training camp, broke his foot in locker room horseplay before training camp and then suffered another multiple sclerosis setback last month while playing with the Wild’s Iowa minor league team. And, as detailed above, Kuemper and Backstrom have been unable to give the club the stability and performance required in the net. All of which has cranked up the rumor mill again that the Wild are looking to make a midseason trade for a goaltender.
- Vanek: Fletcher ignored the warning signs that emerged during Montreal’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals last year. Vanek’s uninspired play had him demoted to the fourth line at times and his average ice time took a precipitous dip.
- Defense: The Wild’s third defensive pairing has been a mess for most of the season. The loss of Keith Ballard to a concussion has hurt, but what the Wild really needs from its fifth and sixth defensemen are physical, defense-first presences to help shore up a shaky back-end.
If the Wild’s slide reaches the point that it is apparent that Yeo needs to go, owner Craig Leipold will have to ask himself a hard question about whether or not Fletcher is the guy who should get to hire Yeo’s replacement.