Sunday, September 20, 2009

Season Preview: Minnesota Wild

I've been preparing some previews for the upcoming NHL season over the past several days. While I don't anticipate that I'll cover every team, or perhaps even most of them, I figured that I'd post what I've generated thus far between now and the start of the season.

The Wild had an overall goal differential of +15 last season and probably deserved to make the playoffs on that basis – the Blues, the Jackets and the Ducks were all worse than Minnesota in terms of goal differential.

The Wild’s success last season was based almost entirely around their penalty kill. Not only did they limit the opposition to very few powerplay opportunities, but they allowed very few goals while shorthanded – in fact, they led the league in both categories.

As displayed in the above chart, the Wild were merely average last season in terms of preventing shots on the penalty kill. Their secret to goal prevention was their excellent – nay, absolutely ridiculous – PK save percentage of 0.92. That’s over 10% better than Toronto, and better than about how half of the league's teams fared in terms of EV save percentage.

While it’s true that PK save percentage is characterized by a high degree of randomness, the Wild have consistently been among the league leaders in PK save percentage in every post-lockout season. Their PK save percentage was 0.894 in 0708, 0.898 in 0607, and 0.886 in 0506. In other words, they're well above the league average during that time period and, interestingly, much better than what one would predict on the basis of their team EV save percentage (as discussed by the Contrarian Goaltender in a recent post of his).

I’m not sure to what extent this is reflective of the ability of Minnesota’s goaltenders and to what extent it reflects team factors, although both are likely operative to some degree. If team factors are involved, it’ll be interesting to see what effect the departure of Lemaire will have.

In any event, a PK save percentage of 0.92 is clearly unsustainable in the long run and it’s reasonable to anticipate some regression. I suspect that they’ll end up a near the 0.89 mark next year – that is, at or around their post-lockout average.

Any deficits that the Wild experience on special teams may be offset, at least partially, by an improvement at even strength. The Wild were a below average team at even strength last season in terms of their results and underlying numbers. However, they were without Gaborik, who was arguably their best forward, for almost the entire season. Had Gaborik been healty, I suspect that the Wild would have done somewhat better at even strength, particularly in terms of goal scoring.

The Wild have effectively replaced Gaborik with Martin Havlat. Quite frankly, I love the Havlat acquisition and I think that the Wild will be an improved even strength team because of him. While he’s not quite the goalscorer that Gaborik is, he’s probably the better all-around player. The Havlat – Bolland – Ladd line played tough minutes at even strength for the Hawks last year and posted some impressive results in doing so. I tend to attribute a great deal of that to Havlat, who, unlike his linemates, has a history in the league as an even strength outscorer.

In looking through the standings predictions that have been issued thus far, few have Minnesota as making the postseason and many appear to be discounting their playoff chances altogether. I think that’s a mistake. I expect that the Wild will at least compete for a playoff spot. There are about seven teams in the West that are all pretty similar to one another in terms of ability and I suspect that only three or four of those teams will make the postseason. As I happen to include the Wild in that group, I think that their playoff chances are somewhere around 50%. As always, luck and injuries are bound to determine a whole lot.

EDIT: For whatever reason, I thought Laviolette was now coaching the Wild. As it appears that they hired Todd Richards instead, the sentence referring to Laviolette and the Hurricanes has been removed.

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