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On-Ice Review: Assessing The Wild's Possession

by Evan Sporer / Minnesota Wild

Over the next few months, Wild.com will take a closer look at some of the areas of the Minnesota Wild's 2015-16 season, from players, to systems, and everything between.

The concept of puck possession in hockey is nothing new, even if it's being defined in new ways, as more information is made available.

In years past, it wouldn't be uncommon for a player or coach to say, "We didn't have enough of the puck tonight"; now there are possession proxies like shot-attempts, also known as Corsi, which attempt to paint the clearest picture of how often each team had the puck.

And those statistics also go hand-in-hand with winning: Teams that take more shots and shot-attempts generally score more than the opposition.

After having a stellar possession year in 2014-15, the Wild took a step back this past season, with its possession numbers dropping, though there were certainly some very bright spots.

The Wild finished with an overall shot-attempts percentage of 47.9, 23rd in the NHL, and the lowest mark of the 16 teams that qualified for the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

Juxtapose that two years ago, when the Wild came in at 51.0 percent, good for 17th in the league, and that's an appreciable drop.

Taking that a step further, the Wild finished with a 51.4 score-adjusted shot attempts percentage in 2014-15. What that accounts for is, when games are not close, teams can change the way they play, often skewing puck possession because teams are more content to sit back and protect a lead.

"Score-close" situations are when games are within a goal during the first two periods, or tied in the third. This season, Minnesota's score-adjusted possession number sat at 48 percent, so again, the Wild took a step back there.

What accounted for that decline is much more layered. General Manager Chuck Fletcher said in his season-closing remarks that Minnesota got away from its team game and core identity, and wasn't a hard team to play against.

To that end, there were times during the regular season the Wild lamented an ability to be effective through the neutral zone, an area of the ice so critical to generating puck possession.

But this also isn’t to say there weren't players or lines that consistently out-possessed the opposition for the Wild.

The raw numbers had Nino Niederreiter, Jason Pominville, and Mikko Koivu as the Wild's top three possession players. Probably not coincidentally, Pominville's numbers spiked when skating with Niederreiter; Pominville's shot-attempt percentage was at 55.3 percent in his shifts with Niederreiter, and 50.2 without Niederreiter. Both are good marks.

Pominville, who had a snake-bitten goal scoring start to the season, was a good driver of possession nonetheless. He played at least 100 minutes with 10 different skaters, and, nine of the 10 had better possession numbers when playing with Pominville versus playing without him. The 10th, Thomas Vanek, had identical numbers.

There were also lines that seemed to click. Pominville, Niederreiter, and Erik Haula were consistently possession drivers after being put on a line together in mid-February. The line controlled possession to the tune of a 52.1 shot-attempt percentage in nearly 200 minutes skating together.

Early in the season, the line of Niederreiter, Jason Zucker, and Koivu were able to generate more possession than any other line or defensive pairing for the Wild this season. In over 320 minutes together, the trio had a shot-attempt percentage of 57.2.

According to Corsica.hockey, the line was 7th in the NHL of lines that played at least 320 minutes together in terms of possession.

Part of what made that line so effective was how well it limited shots against; the 43.02 shot-attempts per 60 minutes it allowed was the third-fewest in the NHL.

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