After another loss Tuesday night — their fifth in the first six games of the season — the Minnesota Wild sit at the bottom of the Central Division with a minus-11 goal differential that is better than only the New Jersey Devils across the NHL.
It’s not that they have been entirely awful. In fact, the Wild have the league’s fourth-best high danger chances for percentage at 5-on-5, per Natural Stat Trick, and are top 10 in overall shot difference at even strength. They had a lead on Nashville in the season-opening loss, and were tied in the third period against both Winnipeg and Colorado. The problem is the Wild seem to have a penchant for having at least one bad stretch per game that results in way too many goals against.
Versus Nashville, the Preds converted four times in the third. The Jets pulled away with three in the third. Pittsburgh smashed through with four goals in the second and another two in the third. On Tuesday, the Leafs won on the strength of their four goals in the second period. A clear problem for the Wild is they aren’t fast enough to keep pace with some of the NHL’s top teams and are forced to try and be a more grind-it-out defensive team.
But so far the only success they’ve found through that was a 2-0 win against the lowly Ottawa Senators.
When asked about his team’s lack of speed, Boudreau didn’t have an idea for a quick fix.
“I don’t have the answer for that. That’s what we have,” he said following the loss in Toronto. “They have to play. I wish I had a magic potion to make everybody faster, but I don’t.
“That’s why you gotta grind it out and you gotta play maybe a boring hockey game. But you can’t get into an end-to-end game with these speedy teams.”
This isn’t the first time Boudreau has seemed frustrated with his team, caught between a win-now approach the team was constructed to be under ex-GM Paul Fenton, and a needed rebuild despite a roster full of veteran players. Coming out of last year’s all-star weekend with four-straight losses when they were in the middle of a playoff race, Boudreau was equally frustrated with his roster.
“There’s some guys there that are just a shell of the players I’ve known for two-and-a-half years,” he said at the time.
But while the Wild continue to be a cautionary tale for teams that push to go all-in, when perhaps their best opportunity has already passed by, the new GM may not be in a rush to make wholesale changes.
It will be tough to make any major in-season changes to the roster. Four of their highest-paid forwards and two of their three highest-paid defencemen have either full no-move clauses or partial trade protection. Victor Rask at $4 million seems destined to be an overpay for the last two years. One-time hyped prospect Kevin Fiala, still just 23, was a healthy scratch on Tuesday. Eric Staal is struggling early and Matt Dumba is scoring at the rate he was prior to his injury last season, but they likely aren’t trade candidates anyway.
Devan Dubnyk, 33, has an .867 save percentage through five games and doesn’t make much against the cap ($4.33 million for this year and next). But the goalie trade market isn’t very strong anyway.
If you’re looking for something the Wild could do just to kick start something, the most common fallback is to blame the coach and fire him. Boudreau was certainly believed to be on the hot seat last season when the Wild ended up missing the playoffs for the first time since 2012, but new GM Bill Guerin doesn’t seem in any rush to make that call.
Perhaps some things will naturally improve for the Wild. Dubnyk’s numbers should rise and their bottom-10 shooting percentage could rise — though it’s worth remembering they ranked 30th in that stat last season. But at the very least, it’s near impossible to compete in the NHL when you lack speed — the Wild just seem to be a team still trying to find its direction under new leadership.