The Minnesota Wild need more from their defensive depth

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 2:06 am by Pat Keogh

The Minnesota Wild had an uneven 2015-16 season. Starting
things off by going 20-10-6 before New Year’s Day, they eventually faltered
and wound up firing their head coach Mike Yeo over Valentine’s Day weekend.
They fared poorly from the new year on, putting up a dismal record of 3-12-4
until Yeo’s departure, but began to settle things down a bit under interim head
coach John Torchetti, who saw the team go 15-11-1 during his time, although it
is worth noting that the team lost its last five games right before the
start of the playoffs.

From there they faced a tough postseason opponent in the
Dallas Stars, who led the Central Division with a record of 50-23-9, good for
109 points, and a goal differential of +37. It was certainly a lopsided
matchup, with the Wild’s ill fortunes compounded by injuries to key players
Zach Parise and Thomas Vanek. Still, the Wild managed to surprise at times, and
although the series ended 4-2 in favour of the Stars, Minnesota managed to keep things
interesting, demonstrating the potential found within the team’s lineup, for a team that had high
hopes at the start of the season, with a nice mixture of veteran leadership and
young talent ready to blossom. General Manager Chuck Fletcher ended up making
some serious changes in the offseason, buying out Thomas Vanek, bringing in
Eric Staal and Chris Stewart, and most notably hiring Bruce Boudreau as head
coach, with Scott Stevens joining his coaching staff as an assistant.

Boudreau’s pedigree is among the finest in the NHL, as he went 201-88-40 with
the Washington Capitals and 208-104-40 with the Anaheim Ducks, and Stevens’
reputation as a hard hitting (although still offensively gifted) defenseman
precedes him. With the two of them behind the bench fans in the State of Hockey
hope the Wild’s lineup can finally fulfill its potential and bring home some
consistently positive results.

The Wild have what many teams crave: a mobile,
puck-moving blueline capable of making the first pass, and with the exceptions
of Ryan Suter and Nate Prosser, all of the Wild’s defensemen are under 30. A good chunk of those defensemen came into the league with
high expectations —Matt Dumba was selected 7th overall, Jonas
Brodin was taken 10th overall, and newcomer Mike Reilly was one of
the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers’ star players and a coveted free agent. Even so, a look at the
underlying numbers paints a less than ideal picture of the Minnesota defensive
corps; outside of the top pairing of Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon, Minnesota’s
defensemen seem to be underperforming.

It’s worth noting before diving into any of these numbers
that Minnesota struggled with possession this past season – their shot attempts for percentage
for the season, at even strength, was 47.86%, meaning their opponents had the
puck more often than they did. This was largely due to their inability to get
shots off, as their rate of shot attempts against per 60 minutes comes in right
in the middle of the league at 16th out of 30, while their ability
to drive shots for per 60 minutes was 6th worst in the league. These
numbers will hopefully improve under Boudreau, but in any event it’s important
to consider the performance of players in context.

This all helps to understand why, although Ryan Suter’s CF%
was 50.25 and Jared Spurgeon’s was 49.80, the rest of the Minnesota defensemen
didn’t fare quite as well. In descending order Matt Dumba, Marco Scandella,
Nate Prosser, and Jonas Brodin’s CF%s were 47.65, 47.10, 45.35, and 45.10
respectively. The relative numbers paint the same picture, with Suter logging a
relCF% of 4.34, Spurgeon a relCF% of 4.01, and the rest of the Minnesota
defense coming all in negative figures. Matt Dumba’s relCF% is not so terrible,
at just -0.34 (almost perfectly average relative to his teammates) but
Scandella, Prosser, and Brodin come in at -2.59, -3.83 and -3.93 respectively.
Not exactly a great season for the latter three, and Dumba could do to improve
as well, given the promise he shows when he’s at his best.

Picking apart these numbers shows the relative strengths and
weaknesses of the Minnesota defense, areas where assistant coach Scott Stevens
will hopefully do his most meaningful work. Suter and Spurgeon once again lead
the pack when looking at shot attempts against per 60, at 53.85 and 54.50
respectively, but from there things are a little different than when we looked
at overall CF%. The third, fourth, fifth, and six best Wild defensemen are Scandella,
Brodin, Prosser, and Dumba at 56.09, 56.32, 56.64, and 57.64 respectively. On
the other side of things when looking at shot attempts for per 60 minutes Suter
and Spurgeon lead expectedly (54.40 and 54.07 respectively) but the order then
goes Dumba, Scandella, Prosser, and Brodin with CF/60 rates of 52.46, 49.94,
47.00, and 46.26. This indicates what a lot of fans can see with their own
eyes: Matt Dumba is skilled offensively, with an excellent shot and a feel for
jumping into the play, but could do to tighten things up in his own end. Jonas
Brodin meanwhile, is actually somewhat more responsible defensively but might
want to consider involving himself more in the offensive zone.

Screenshot 2016-08-07 at 5.01.11 PM

To couch all of this in a some more context however, I’ve attached the above chart via, which shows some variables germane to the Minnesota blueline’s deployment. On the x-axis is the ratio of zone starts, with the y-axis being the quality of competition measured in time on ice of opposing players. The size of each bubble indicates each individual’s time on ice, and the color of each bubble represents relCF%, with blue being better and red being worse. As we can see, Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon and Matt Dumba all got predominantly offensive zone starts, while Marco Scandella, Nate Prosser, and Jonas Brodin all received mostly defensive zone starts, meaning it makes some sense that the former three players all have higher relCF%s and the latter three players’ are lower. What’s perhaps not so good news is that Scandella, Prosser, and Brodin all play against lesser competition and still maintain low relCF%s. It may be incumbent then on Bruce Boudreau and Scott Stevens to reconsider how each defensive pairing is deployed in order to maximize the collective performance of this defensive corps, in addition to working on them with their individual skills and group chemistry All of this isn’t to say that the Minnesota Wild defense is
in complete turmoil, just that they need to see better play from their depth guys
because outside of the top pair things aren’t great. As a group, they still
possess a skill set that many NHL teams would envy for their blueline and when
taking a look at both their goals for percentage and relative goals for
percentage everyone except Prosser and Brodin comes in with positive numbers.
Marco Scandella, Ryan Suter, Matt Dumba, and Jared Spurgeon are all on ice for
Wild goals more often than they’re on ice for their opponents’ goals, with GF%s
of 56.10, 54.47, 54.44, and 52.38, while their GF%s relative to teammates are
5.76, 5.54, 2.59, and 0.58. Obviously Prosser and Brodin don’t fair as well,
with Brodin and Prosser both having GF%s of 46.15 and relative GF%s of -7.90
and -6.33 respectively, but it’s important to note that Prosser sees much less
time on ice and Matt Dumba may very well overtake Jonas Brodin in terms of
ice time as he develops further. Dumba put up 10 goals and 16 assists last season, so if he tightens things up defensively (an area where Stevens is sure to help) he could be poised to have a real breakout year.

For a closer look at the juxtaposition of the Minnesota defensive group’s Corsi differential and goal differential rates, we have the following chart from Sean Tierney. This demonstrates essentially what’s discussed above: that although the Wild defensemen do alright on goal differential they really struggled this past season in the possession department. Given that the pair of Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon is only just about even on by both measures, it stands to reason that Minny could use a little bit more out of its depth defensemen as well.

Dashboard 1 (3)

(Chart via Sean Tierney, data via Corsica.Hockey. 5v5 data is zone, venue, and score adjusted, sample is defenders w/ 200+ 5v5 minutes)

Fans in Minnesota know the potential this team holds, which
certainly makes watching their ups and downs all the more frustrating. The
youngsters on Minnesota’s blueline are no exception, and chief among new coach
Bruce Boudreau’s concerns will be getting them to play up to the height of
their collective ability. Thankfully he’s got one of the best defensemen of the
contemporary era by his side in Scott Stevens, but the fact remains that
outside of Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon, the Minnesota Wild’s defense could
use some work.