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Super 16: Wild on rise as elite puck possession team

by Corey Masisak / NHL.com

The Minnesota Wild began the 2013-14 season with a spike in their possession statistics, as a team long considered one of the most passive in the NHL tried to change its identity.

As the season wore on, the Wild slipped back to the middle of the pack in puck possession, but a dominating performance against the Colorado Avalanche and a strong showing against the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs was a nice way to finish with the arrow pointing upward.

The Wild appear to have consolidated those postseason gains and built from the success. Minnesota has arguably been the most impressive team of the 2014-15 season, and are a late goal at Honda Center and a crazy third-period collapse at Madison Square Garden from probably being considered the best team in the League to this point.

"Right now we're reading off each other better [than last year] and making decisions quicker," defenseman Marco Scandella said. "It is allowing us to come out of our zone clean with control [of the puck]. Our defensemen are jumping up and our forwards are doing a good job of backing us up. Right now we're looking really fast."

Minnesota has been shooting the puck more this season leading to increased puck possession success. (Photo: Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI)

Minnesota is second to Chicago in Corsi-for percentage and tops in the NHL in Fenwick-for percentage at even strength. The Wild were ninth in the Western Conference standings after games played Wednesday, but lead the NHL in goal differential (and were tied for the fewest games played in the West).

The main reason for the increased puck possession success is the Wild are shooting more. Minnesota and the New Jersey Devils have been known as the teams most likely to play "low-event" hockey, which means few shot attempts by either side. The Wild have been great at suppressing shot attempts in recent years, but have also been below average at putting the puck in the direction of the opposing goaltender.

That has changed in 2014-15.

The Wild remain elite at shot suppression. They are second behind the Washington Capitals in shot attempts against per 60 minutes at even strength (Corsi-against/60, or CA/60 for short) at 45.76, and first in all situations at 46.14. Their CA/60 in all situations is nearly the same as even strength because they have easily been the best team at preventing shot attempts while shorthanded (Minnesota's 65.31 CA/60 shorthanded is more than five less than the closest team).

Where the Wild have improved is at the other end. Minnesota is fifth in the NHL in Corsi-for/60 at 57.86, trailing only Chicago, the Montreal Canadiens, St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings. Last season the Wild were 29th in this category, ahead of only the Buffalo Sabres.

"We're just playing with the puck a lot more," Wild forward Zach Parise said. "Our D are really mobile. They make a lot of turnovers in the neutral zone and they jump in the play a lot more. I think that's been the biggest thing. For a while we were playing defensively well as a five-man unit, but now we're starting to play on the other side with five guys and that really helps.

There are a few reasons for this improvement. One is general manager Chuck Fletcher has assembled an enviable collection of talent. The Wild have drafted well (more on that shortly) and added several marquee veterans like Parise, Ryan Suter, Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville.

Having all that talent is one thing, but the Wild have committed to playing their kids and letting them grow and develop in key roles. Mikael Granlund is centering Parise's line. Jonas Brodin has been Suter's go-to partner since his rookie season. Darcy Kuemper has been a revelation so far in net.

Even better, the Wild have eschewed traditional philosophy on how lineups are constructed. The third line, typically filled with veteran checkers in years past, is centered by Erik Haula and often has three guys under the age of 24. Jason Zucker is 23 and is on the fourth line. In another organization he'd be in the American Hockey League to get more ice time. Zucker has five goals for the Wild, taking advantage of fortuitous matchups while other teams focus on the top lines.

"One thing we've proven here is we're willing to give our young guys good opportunity to get in the lineup and prove what they can do," coach Mike Yeo said. "You have to be able to live with some of the mistakes for them to really grow and improve. We take pride in developing these young kids."

The accompanying graphs show the contributions every team in the West is getting from players who are 25 years old or younger. Minnesota has 10 such players who have played in at least six of the eight games. The Wild are among the leaders in each category despite having played fewer games.

Another big reason for Minnesota's newfound puck-hoarding ability is the defensive pairing of Scandella and Jared Spurgeon. Suter and Brodin have been the Wild's top pair for three years, and Suter plays almost half the game.

Last season Scandella and Spurgeon started to earn praise for their work (they had better possession numbers than Suter and Brodin) and now this season the idea that they belong in the same conversation as the other top second tandems in the League is gaining traction.

"I thought those two guys finished the season really well last year, had a great playoff, and that's carried over," Parise said. "Everybody knows about our top two guys, but I love playing with [Spurgeon and Scandella]. They're so good offensively and so good in our zone at getting the puck out and helping us transition."

Spurgeon is tiny (listed at 5-foot-9 and 176 pounds) but a gifted skater and puckhandler, while Scandella was considered a stay-at-home type who has shown he might have a little more to his game than that. They've played together at the AHL level and now in the NHL.

Everyone focused on the goaltending as the Minnesota's potential problem this offseason, but Kuemper has been solid and it has allowed people to see just how deep and talented the Wild are.

Chicago and Los Angeles are still the teams to beat in the West. St. Louis and Anaheim are going to be great as well. The chic offseason pick to join that quartet of elite teams was the Dallas Stars, and they may yet get there.

The Wild, provided they can avoid a drop in performance midway through like last season, look like they are ready to be an elite team as well.

DISCLAIMER: While the Super 16 is NHL.com's weekly power rankings, it focuses more on the "power" than the "rankings" when determining the order. It's not always going to look like the League standings and likely will take more of a long view than a short one. If two teams are close the tiebreaker almost always is this: If the two teams started a seven-game series right now, who would prevail? Stop by to see where your favorite team ranks, but stay for the information.

1. Chicago Blackhawks (5-3-1)

The puck is not going in for the Blackhawks. This is rarely a problem, so an abnormality can lead to hastily-drawn conclusions. Chicago is fine. The Blackhawks are pumping shots at goaltenders better than anyone in the League, and the team is clearly still loaded with talent.

This chart, from war-on-ice.com can't explain what a "temporary slump" looks like any better. This isn't a seven-game series where a hot goaltender can wipe out dominant possession work. The Blackhawks will shoot a better percentage and the goals will flow and people will find something else to worry about.

MUST READ: Jennifer Lute Costella writes about moving beyond old notions of line construction for The Committed Indian.

2. Minnesota Wild (5-3-0)

The Wild are really good. We've covered that in some detail already.

MUST READ: The Wild's management team experienced a harrowing and nearly tragic event, Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune writes.

3. Los Angeles Kings (6-1-2)

Jeff Carter is the MVP of the season to this point, right? How could he not be? Carter has been on the ice for 17 goals by Los Angeles and one by an opponent. That needs no context, but he's also at 12 for and one against at even strength.

Is his line, with Tanner Pearson (the leading contender for the Calder Trophy) and Tyler Toffoli, benefiting from the Kings' depth and matchups and usage optimization? Sure, but the numbers to this point would be incredible in any set of circumstances.

The Kings next-best line at even strength has combined for three points, and Carter is part of that one as well. Los Angeles has scored 23 goals, and Carter has been on the ice for more than 70 percent of them.

MUST READ: Spencer from Puck Buddys writes about his connection to Anze Kopitar and his fight against colon cancer.

4. Anaheim Ducks (8-2-0)

Teams don't often claim the No. 1 seed in the conference, come within a victory of the conference final and then drastically alter the depth chart at the center position, but that is what the Ducks did. Ryan Kesler was added in a trade to match up against the other veteran star centers in the West. Nate Thompson was a value-priced free agent. Coach Bruce Boudreau also turned to rookie William Karlsson.

Gone are Nick Bonino (Kesler trade), Saku Koivu (retirement) and Mathieu Perreault (free agency). The Ducks are clearly younger and bigger at the position. Rickard Rakell, who was the No. 5 center on the depth chart at the end of last season, is also around and has split time between center and the wing.

Here's a quick look at how Bruce Boudreau is deploying his group of centers and how they are doing compared to last season:

PLAYER GP ES TOI/G CF/60 CA/60 ZS%
2013-14
Saku Koivu 65 12:48 52.16 60.48 45.25
Nick Bonino 77 11:40 55.91 56.61 50.78
Mathieu Perreault 69 11:40 57.03 53.57 53.12
Rickard Rakell 18 11:15 60.2 47.98 51.54
2014-15
Ryan Kesler 10 14:17 61.61 58.24 51.33
Nate Thompson 10 10:36 39.25   62.18 42.72
Rickard Rackell 7 9:30 47.05  47.05 56.41
William Karlsson 8 9:07 68.09 37.36 79.37

Thompson has assumed the role of go-to guy in the defensive zone, though Kesler sees some key assignments start there as well. Boudreau has been very careful with Karlsson to this point, but he could earn more trust in the coming weeks.

MUST READ: Matt Eaken of Anaheim Calling takes a detailed look at how the Ducks can get really get it rolling on the power play.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins (5-2-1)

James Neal is a great scorer, but Patric Hornqvist has added a different element for the Penguins. In soccer parlance, Neal is more of a false nine type (a center forward who likes to move around and drop back into the buildup play) while Hornqvist is a target man. He clearly likes to go to the net and he likes to shoot, and each of those qualities has seemed to help him find instant chemistry with Sidney Crosby (someone who has earned a reputation where teammates need time to figure out how to play with him).

Using the heat map tool at Sporting Charts, a pattern of movement and where Neal and Hornqvist differ in their approach to shooting the puck is pretty evident already this season …

(Click image to enlarge)

(Click image to enlarge)

… and especially noticeable with 2013-14 data.

MUST READ: Chris Johnston of Sportsnet writes about Pittsburgh's gesture of support on a terrible day in Ottawa.

6. St. Louis Blues (4-3-1)

The Blues are keeping pace with the Blackhawks and Wild among the League's best puck possession teams, even without Paul Stastny. Having a backup option who was the No. 1 center the past two seasons in David Backes was helpful, but his availability is now in question.

MUST READ: Clare Austin of Puckology looks at Corsi and preventing shot attempts from a different perspective.

7. Nashville Predators (6-1-2)

Pekka Rinne doesn't just look healthy so far this season; he looks like he might be ready to return to the land of the elite goaltenders. Sure, Rinne was hurt for a big chunk of last season, but he also posted a .902 save percentage. The Predators haven't started a goalie who finished the season with a save percentage above .910 since 2011-12, when Rinne ended up at .923 and his backup, Anders Lindback, was at .912.

MUST READ: The Predators are proving they can play with the elite teams in the League, writes Kristopher Martel of The Predatorial.

8. Montreal Canadiens (8-2-0)

The Canadiens are yielding too many shot attempts, particularly shorthanded. They're generating possession fine enough, but more than 107 shot attempts per 60 minutes while shorthanded is too many. Montreal is doing alright suppressing shot attempts at even strength, but the Canadiens have allowed fewer overall than Buffalo, Colorado, Toronto, Dallas and Philadelphia. That's not a group to be associated with, and Montreal's 121.1 PDO while shorthanded isn't going to last.

MUST READ: Tom Gilbert isn't overly physical on the ice, but that doesn't matter, writes Laura Saba of Eyes On The Prize.

9. San Jose Sharks (5-4-1)

This isn't all about losing to the Buffalo Sabres, but part of it is. The other part is the Sharks typical dominance of the puck has slipped a little at the start of this season. Rookie defenseman Mirco Mueller might provide the most hope if he can improve over the course of the season. Or the Sharks could be shopping for a defenseman near the deadline.

MUST READ: Jared Sexton breaks down Fenwick success in the regular season and postseason outcomes with more data available.

10. Dallas Stars (4-2-3)

Seven players have at least 90 points since the start of last season. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn are two of them. Getzlaf and Corey Perry are also two of them, and that could be an interesting personal rivalry to watch develop (best duo in the West). Each tandem has combined for 86 goals since the start of 2013-14, though the Ducks duo has four more assists.

MUST READ: Nick Cotsonika of Yahoo writes about Stars general manager Jim Nill, who knows a thing or two about patience.

11. Detroit Red Wings (5-2-2)

Trying to place Pavel Datsyuk among the best players born in his home country would be an interesting exercise. He's back from a preseason injury and has looked great. He's about to pass Ilya Kovalchuk for seventh in NHL scoring among Russian players and Vyacheslav Kozlov is reachable by the end of the season. Beyond that, health more than his ability will determine if he can reach 1,000 points and then pass Alex Kovalev and Alexander Mogilny. In the post-Soviet Union era, his competition would Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Fedorov.

MUST READ: Football has Ohio as the "cradle of coaches" and hockey has Alberta as "the incubator of coaches," writes Eric Duhatschek of the Globe and Mail.

12. Tampa Bay Lightning (6-3-1)

Nikita Kucherov was not one of the Lightning rookies who became frontline players in 2013-14. He appeared in 52 games and played well at times, but finished with nine goals and 18 points. He has nine points already this season and leads the team with 3.38 points per 60 minutes at even strength, even though his average time on ice has dipped (though only by 42 seconds/game). More young impact players maturing for the Lightning is bad news for other teams in the East.

MUST READ: Erik Erlendsson of the Tampa Tribune has a pretty interesting idea for how teams could customize goal celebrations.

13. Boston Bruins (5-6-0)

The Bruins were already without one of the best defensemen on the planet (Zdeno Chara), but Torey Krug has been a key component of the offense, particularly on the power play. Dennis Seidenberg played nearly 26 minutes in the first game A.Z. (After Zdeno) without Chara but Dougie Hamilton logged more than 28 in 2 A.Z. Getting handled by Minnesota (the Wild had a 64-44 advantage in shot attempts), which was in the second of a back-to-back and coming off a crazy loss the night before, was not a confidence booster.

MUST READ: Chris Boyle of Sportsnet writes about the best goaltenders of all-time, but from a less-team driven statistical perspective (hint: Devils and Islanders fans might disagree with this).

14. New York Islanders (6-3-0)

The Islanders are going to be able to score with anyone. The new goaltending tandem received plenty of preseason plaudits, but Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson have posted numbers that look a little too familiar to the fans on Long Island to this point. Let’s see if there is some improvement once the full allotment of defensemen are available at the same time.

MUST READ: The Islanders "kid line" found some instant chemistry, writes Arthur Staple of Newsday.

15. Vancouver Canucks (6-3-0)

Speaking of Bonino, he's off to a nice start with the Canucks. The big story is the Swedes. Analytics-friendly folks said Alexander Edler's plus-minus rating last season was a mirage (if they weren't talking about the lack of value in that stat under any circumstance) and the Sedin twins would bounce back. Well, Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin are dominating again and Edler has been the team's best possession player on the defense corps.

MUST READ: Sean McIndoe of Grantland writes about an alternate reality in the NHL where the Toronto Maple Leafs did not trade the pick that became Scott Niedermayer.

16. Washington Capitals (4-3-2)

Barry Trotz has joined the list of coaches who have broken up Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom at even strength, and he'll likely soon join the list of ones that put them back together again. Like the Islanders and Wild, the Capitals are one of the most-improved puck possession teams in the League. This is the best defense corps of the Ovechkin era. They're still on track for a tangible improvement from last season.

MUST READ: The Capitals did some curling as a team-bonding exercise during an off day in Calgary, writes Alex Prewitt of the Washington Post.

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