The Wild have the reputation as a boring team. This isn't news. Why are they boring? Probably because they can't score. How long has this been an issue? Forever.
This isn't hyperbole. They've literally had a terrible offense nearly every year in existence. Their average goals per game has been about 24th in the league. It's not just bad luck either. Wild players have always been reluctant to shoot. Their average shots per game has been 29th in the league. Second to last. They've been 29th or 30th NINE seasons. Dead last FOR THE LAST FOUR YEARS RUNNING.
Thirteen years, three head coaches, and 183 different players. Complete, systematic incompetence offensively. Well, except the two seasons under Jacques Lemaire where he was given a good roster where the Wild averaged 18th in scoring and 19th in shooting.
A common criticism among Wild fans is the team's reliance on the dump-and-chase strategy. The puck carrier crosses the center red line and shoots the puck along the boards deep into the other team's zone and chases after it.
Dump-and-chase was developed as a counter-attack to the neutral-zone-trap (NZT). In the NZT, the defending team crowds their blue line and neutral zone with players, forcing puck carriers to the outside and preventing rushes. In theory, teams can dump the puck past those defenders and grab it on the other side. In theory.
|Assistant Coach Ackbar|
Wild beater writer Mike Russo wrote about the dump-and-chase strategy late last month, defending the Wild's implementation. In the story, Zach Parise is quoted as saying "Everybody dumps the puck. The difference, though, is they dump it and forecheck the right way to get it back."
Are the Wild built for puck retrieval? Not quite. If the Wild are to dump the puck and retrieve it consistently, they need aggressive, speedy forwards who can hit defensemen or absorb a hit, then set up in the offensive zone with a cycle. That describes Parise perfectly, but practically nobody else on the team.
|The prototypical forechecker|
Zucker and Cullen are close in terms of skills, both showing speed and tenacity. But Koivu, Granlund, Bouchard, and Heatley lack the speed to retrieve pucks (little wonder that the latter three were on for three goals against last night). Setoguchi, Brodziak, and Clutterbuck lack the puck skills.
The Russo story got picked up by Grantland writer Katie Baker, who linked a recent research paper studying dump-and-chase versus carrying the puck across the blue line.
The study was done by a team of researchers out of Berkely, California, who analyzed over 300 games from the 2011-12 NHL season. Fortunately for us Wild fans, Minnesota was one of the teams analyzed, along with the Philadelphia Flyers, Buffalo Sabres, and Washington Capitals.
According to the researchers, "The team’s shot differential – which has been shown to be a strong predictor of wins – is determined almost entirely in the much less-heralded neutral zone. Neutral zone success involves more than getting extra zone entries; since carrying the puck across the blue line generates more than twice as many shots, scoring chances, and goals as dumping the puck in, gaining the zone with possession is a major driver of success."
Specifically with the Wild, there are a few damning observations:
- The Wild frequently dumped the puck when they could have carried it across the blue line, which "exacerbated their deficit of talent with an inefficient system."
- "The Flyers forwards were much better than the Wild at keeping possession of the puck as they entered the offensive zone."
- "The Wild were giving the most playing time to the defensemen who play the worst in the defensive zone" (although the researchers thought this didn't make sense and questioned the data).
From what I can gather from the paper, it seems that talent on the ice will result in higher quality shots, but the strategy to carry vs dump-and-chase will result in higher quantity of shots. Even with the lowly Wild, carries resulted in over twice as many shots and nearly twice as many goals.
In addition to these findings, I've observed a couple games this season tracking dump vs carry zone entries.
The first game was Minnesota vs Calgary on Feb 26th:
Wild dumped the puck 47/96 times = 49%
Flames dumped the puck 28/58 times = 48%
Wild outshot the Flames 30-21
Wild won 2-1 in overtime
The second was Minnesota vs Chicago on March 5th:
Wild dumped the puck 38/74 times = 51%
Hawks dumped the puck 34/85 times = 40%
Hawks outshot the Wild 32-23
Hawks won 5-3 in regulation
Two games is a small sample size. But we see a tight, low-scoring game when two teams dump the puck about half the time. And we see a near blowout high-scoring game when one team is carrying the puck quite a bit more than the other (even as the Hawks dumped the puck more in the third and gave up two goals).
|Who's got the best zone entries? I do!|
My observation is this:
Yes, the Wild are not doing a great job retrieving the puck. But they are too comfortable dumping the puck in the first place. They also put themselves in an unfavorable situation by being slow up the ice, allowing the other teams to set up in the neutral zone. I believe a big part of this is playing too deep in their own zone, delaying the breakout. And on the power play, the drop passes in the neutral zone delay movement as well.
The common line is that the Wild are still adapting to head coach Mike Yeo's system. But is Yeo's system a good one to follow? Or should Yeo adapt his system to fit the players? Will the Wild be able to make the playoffs and prove the critics wrong? Or will their be changes made to the coaching staff and front office soon?