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Thoughts about our team at the All-Star break

Wednesday, 01.21.2009 / 12:00 PM / Blogs
Minnesota Wild
By Doug Risebrough
President and General Manager

For the players the NHL calendar is an unbending thing -- 186 days, with no "weekends," one holiday (Christmas and the day before) and one highly anticipated vacation (except for Niklas Backstrom and some others): the All-Star break. Our players do not skate again until Monday at 2 p.m., allowing the rarest of recesses: five days without skates, sticks, pucks or Jacques' whistle.
 
In Hockey Operations we set aside the day-to-day details and step back to ask questions of ourselves: What has worked as we planned? What has not? And, to both questions, a follow-up: Why?
 
We begin by comparing our 46 games played to the same segment last season.

  2007-08 2008-09
Record 26-17-3 23-20-3
Points 55 pts 49 pts
Western Conference 3rd 9th
Goals For 127 117
Goals Against 124 107
Goal Differential +3 +10
Goals For Rank 16th 24th
Goals Against 15th 2nd
Power Play 5th 8th
Penalty Kill 11th 2nd
5-on-5 Scoring 15th T-28th

We have just three fewer wins and an equal number of OT losses, but we sit six spots lower in the standings, which is predominantly a function of extreme parity in the Western Conference (as of Wednesday morning three wins separated fifth place and 11th place).
 
We are scoring less but playing sounder team defense. A year ago, we had scored 127 goals but allowed 124. We were middle of the road in both categories (16th in goals for, 15th in goals against). With 117 goals for and 107 against this year, we rank 24th in goals for and second in goals against. We also rank second in goaltenders' save percentage. We are playing to our identity. As we must, we are taking fewer penalties than all but two teams and killing the ones we take at the second-best rate in the league.
 
What we are not doing is scoring 5-on-5. We've scored 62 goals in 5-on-5 situations, tied with the Islanders and Kings for fewest in the league. The Bruins lead the NHL with 104.
 
Why are we lacking goals?

We can begin looking for the answer to this question by comparing the players who are no longer members of the team to those who replaced them:

2007-08 G A PTS 2008-09 G A PTS
Rolston 14 18 32 Miettinen 10 20 30
Demitra 9 17 26 Brunette 11 16 27
Parrish 13 9 22 Zidlicky 9 16 25
Voros 7 6 13 Nolan 11 8 19
Radivojevic 3 6 9 Bergeron 4 13 17
Foy 4 4 8 Pouliot/Kolanos 8 9 17
Nummelin 1 5 6 Clutterbuck 7 3 10
Carney 0 3 3 Gillies 1 3 4
Fedoruk 1 1 2 Weller 1 1 2
Hill 0 2 2 Reitz 1 1 2
46 games 52 71 123 46 games 63 90 153

The 10 roster spots turned over to new players do not appear to be the root of the scoring issue. The new group has scored more goals (63 to 52) and totaled more assists (90 to 71) than the departed.
 
The forwards new to our team are scoring less than the players they replaced (97 points, compared to 104). But through 46 games the defense is generating far more. We expected this, as we made a strategic decision last summer to generate more offense at the blue line. Zidlicky/Bergeron/Reitz have accounted for 12 goals among 42 points, whereas Nummelin/Carney/Hill scored just one goal among 11 points.
 
As we have discussed in this space before, no factor drove the decisions we made on those forwards last summer more than the league salary cap. After accounting for returning players' salaries, 1-2 roster spots for prospects and raises due to some players (Schultz, Burns, Bouchard, etc.), we had about $12 million to spend in an effort to fill about 5-6 roster spots. Had we signed Brian Rolston and Pavol Demitra at the salaries they commanded and retained Mark Parrish, those three would have consumed that money themselves and eliminated room for the new acquisitions.
 
Rolston signed for $5.0625 million per year, Demitra for $4 million. Parrish was making $2.65. For that $11.7 million they have combined to score 27 goals and 22 assists for 49 points. 

2007-08 Team Cap Number G A PTS
Demitra VAN $4,000,000 13 12 25
Rolston NJD $5,062,500 8 6 14
Parrish DAL $2,650,000 6 4 10
Sum  ... $11.7 million 27 22 49

We spread that money and about $1 million more among five players who have combined to score 43 goals and 71 assists among 114 points.

2008-09 Team Cap Number G A PTS
Miettinen MIN $2,333,300 10 20 30
Brunette MIN $2,333,300 11 16 27
Zidlicky MIN $3,350,000 9 16 25
Nolan MIN $2,750,000 11 8 19
Bergeron MIN $1,254,000 4 13 17
Parrish buyout ... $727,700      
Sum ... $12.7 million 45 73 118

We don't point this out to say we are intelligent, or to say we gambled and won. We point this out because this is another example of two prevailing realities of our cap system. 1) Teams must make hard decisions on good, popular players. 2) Players have greater choice as to where they play, and teams must react to their players’ choices.
 
As you can see, the cap system rewards spreading risk. If a $3 million player is injured, that's something a team can overcome. If one or two $5 million-plus players go down, that's a major problem. Similarly, the system places a high value on durability and reliability. Andrew Brunette is a good example of this point. He has the NHL's longest consecutive games played streak. He is durable. When he did get injured Saturday, he chose to skate Sunday and play Monday through something that many players would not. He is reliable.
 
So, if our scoring among the new players is up, why are we 28th in 5-on-5 scoring? And why have we scored 10 fewer goals this year than last?
 
One answer is Marian Gaborik. Every team deals with injuries, but Marian’s absence is most significant because his greatest area of contribution is our greatest area of need (5-on-5 scoring). In the previous three seasons (2005-06 through 2007-08), no player in the league scored at a greater rate at even strength than Marian. He'd scored 1.61 goals per 60 even-strength minutes. Alexander Ovechkin was second at 1.58. Only health held Marian back. In that three-year span, Ovechkin played 245 games, Marian 190. Again, that is the issue this season.
 
Marian has played in only six games, scoring three goals and two assists. Through 46 games last year, he'd scored 25 goals and assisted on 24 more. Our place in the standings would be considerably different with the goals he would have created (probably about 20 he would have scored himself and some number more he’d have created for others). His absence is the foremost reason for our goal-scoring dip, and his return in March stands to add balance to our team.
 
He isn't the only returning player contributing less offense. Outside of Mikko Koivu, Stephane Veilleux and Derek Boogaard, all of our returning players are scoring less than at this point last year.

    2007-08     2008-09    
Name G A PTS G A PTS Change
Koivu 5 12 17 13 33 46 + 29
Veilleux 4 4 8 6 5 11 + 3
Boogaard 0 0 0 0 3 3 + 3
Schultz 0 6 6 1 4 5 - 1
Skoula 2 5 7 0 4 4 - 3
Sheppard 3 11 14 3 7 10 - 4
Johnsson 2 14 16 1 11 12 - 4
Burns 9 18 27 7 12 19 - 8
Belanger 12 20 32 9 12 21 - 11
Bouchard 8 30 38 8 15 23 - 15
Gaborik 25 24 49 3 2 5 - 44
Totals 70 144 214 51 108 159 - 55

Gaborik's production is down the most (44 fewer points). Of the healthy players, Pierre-Marc Bouchard is next, with 15 fewer points. It could be that he misses Brian Rolston. If that is accurate, though, it is by an immeasurable factor because Bouchard recorded the primary assist on just six of Rolston's goals all of last season. Eric Belanger's production is down, though that is just as likely to be related to Bouchard's dip as it is to Rolston's relocation to New Jersey.
 
James Sheppard is about where he was last season. Did we expect more scoring? Yes. But, we recognize that the development of a young player is rarely linear. There are ups and downs tied to numerous factors. Still, we believe James’s best days lie ahead, based on his past performance at the amateur level and the development we see in him, on and off the ice.
 
The name not on this list is Cal Clutterbuck, one of the most impactful rookies of this NHL season. We anticipated Cal helping us in some capacity. He has instead helped us in a number of capacities, with physical play (he's third in the NHL in hits), some timely goals and the ability to play either wing on any line. His rapid assimilation into our team is one of our unanticipated developments.
 
There will be more unanticipated developments the second half of this season, good and bad. If we are to be better, though, the improvement will have to come in one of two areas: young players developing, and top core players playing to the best of their abilities. For us, this will mean Marian's return. This will mean Brent Burns playing as he did at the World Championships last spring, when he was Canada's best defenseman. This will mean Pierre-Marc Bouchard creating goals. This will mean Josh Harding sharing the goaltending workload.
 
And, for all but three to four teams in our conference, it will be a fight to the end.



Previous editions ...

Jan. 2, 2009: On ... Marian Gaborik's surgery





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