Wild Coach Mike Yeo at the beginning of the season said (and yes, I’m lifting it from the Star Tribune, so what?) ““We’re trying to create a new culture; we’re trying to bring in a new system. … [Pittsburgh Penguins coach] Dan Bylsma told me … ‘Just so you know, it’s probably going to take you 30 games.’ I hope it doesn’t take that long.”
30 games later, (Well, 21 after that game, a 3-2 loss in Anaheim), the Wild find themselves behind the wheel of a large automobile. At first place in the standings, we fans may say to ourselves “This is not my beautiful record!” We may tell ourselves “This is not my beautiful team!”.
But it is. And the only question we can really ask is “How did we get here?”
Let’s take a look back and see what Yeo’s team has been doing after 30 games.
What’s Been Working:
Goaltending. What else can I say? Nik Backstrom and Josh Harding have identical .932 SV%s with more than ten games apiece, and Matt Hackett has sparkled in his two-game sample with a .974 SV% of his own. So it’s not surprising that they’re first in the league in SV%. The Wild are loaded in net, and all three options are playing the best hockey of their careers.
The Blue Line. While many pundits see the goalie’s numbers and cry “Unsustainable!”, it seems odd that three different goalies would play behind this team and each do well. To me, those lofty stats say, in part (the other being that the goalies are awesome), that this team does a great job of limiting prime scoring chances to the opposition, in spite of the high shot totals allowed. They might not be world-beaters offensively, but this no-name group is doing their job, and blocking rubber like mad (First in the NHL in Blocked Shots).
Second and Third Lines. They do different things, but the second and third lines have been staples of the teams success. The second line has worked best with (Setoguchi/Wellman)-Cullen-Bouchard, and gives the Wild a fast, skilled line that causes problems for the opposition. And then there’s the third line, with Powe-Brodziak-Johnson, checking the shit out of the opposition, and chipping in offensively (especially Brodziak). Those kind of secondary contributions are huge for any team.
Interchangeable Parts. This rings particularly true on the blueline, but with only 7 players (Koivu, Heatley, Cullen, Brodziak, Powe, Spurgeon, and Schultz) who have played all thirty games, many other people at every position have had to step up. Whether it’s been for a long stretch (Nate Prosser), a small, but growing smattering of games (Casey Wellman), or small, but impressive bursts (Matt Hackett, Jeff Taffe), the Wild have been able to plug in guys when injuries strike without missing a beat.
The Captain Heating Up. Mikko Koivu started the season slow, but now has 26 points, which puts him just outside of the top 25 in scoring. And don’t make the same mistake as Luke Fox of SportsNet by calling him a “second assist kind of guy”, as 16 of his 19 assists have been the first assist. He’s making plays happen, and playing awesome defense. (Quick! Someone make a @KoivusSelkeTrophy Twitter account!)
The Style of Play. Wild fans are being treated to, courtesy of GM Chuck Fletcher and Yeo, a fast and physical hockey team. It’s a team that’s tough as hell to play against, a team that’s always pressuring and forcing mistakes, and a team that’s fun to watch when they system is running to perfection, and even sometimes when it’s not.
What Needs Improvement:
Shot Differential. It’s not a popular topic around the Wild blogosphere, with Twitter accounts such as @ChurchOfYeo (a fine account, BTW) and whatnot, but even though the Wild are winning games, the fact remains that it’s not great to be outshot by ten, which has happened to the Wild 13 times (with an 8-5 record in those games). Yeo has been trying from the get-go to get the Wild to shoot the puck more often, and it’s coming along, with the Wild’s Shots Per Game average going from 22.9 in October to 27.2 in November. But the Wild are going to have to keep building on that if they want to stay at the top of the standings.
First Line Chemistry. Perhaps the biggest work-in-progress that Yeo is left with after the first 30 games, the only thing that doesn’t quite seem to be clicking yet, is that pesky first line chemistry. Koivu and Dany Heatley have played all 30 games together, at 20+ minutes a night, and have a respectable-not-not-as-expected 26 and 20 points, respectively. A lot of this was due to a slow start by both of them, and with Koivu and Heater having 13 and 8 points in the last 10 games, respectively (but not necessarily assisting on each other’s goals), this concern might soon be moot, but as of now, I’m looking to see this duo connecting more than they’ve been.
The Power Play. While the team isn’t in the cellar in this category, they’re still in the bottom half, and improvement on the man advantage would be welcome, if for nothing else, to make teams pay for getting penalties.
So that’s where we’re at after 30 games. If Bylsma is right, the Wild should be hitting their stride, system-wise, right now. The kinks should be worked out at this point. The system should become second-nature to the Wild from here on out. And hey, maybe it already is. But if comfort in the system improves the areas of weaknesses this team has, imagine how much more dangerous they could be. I mean, they’re already in first place after their adjusting phase. Wow.
In the meantime, you might want to get started on that #YeoForJackAdams campaign, @ChurchOfYeo.