11-24-11: Not Buying In Just Yet

Hello again everybody...

I know. You're surprised, right?

Can't say as I blame you. I told you many moons ago that while I wanted to get back to writing, it was going to be more about “when the spirit moved me” than “on a regular schedule”.

Sadly, plenty of other things grabbed my attention and I found myself with neither the time, nor the inclination to do much writing in recent days... weeks... aw hell, it's been 4 months. Who am I kidding?!

But that's changed... at least for today.

So on this day when we take a moment to give thanks, I'll say thank you to the sports muse for moving me once again. Who knows when I'll write next, but let's just enjoy this moment for what it is, shall we?

What moved me to pen this particular missive? I'm glad you asked. And I'll tell you...

Right after the quote!

“Most of the change we think we see in life is due to truths being in and out of favor.”
Robert Frost (1874-1963), American Poet

We want a winner so badly here in Minnesota that we're willing to lose perspective (i.e. sight of the truth) to get one.

That's why you can say...

I'm Not Buying In Just Yet...

Fact: The Minnesota Wild are 13-5-3, which is good for 29 points.

Fact: That's the highest point total of any team in the NHL. More than Sidney Crosby's Penguins, more than the defending champion Bruins, more than the hated Chicago Blackhawks*, and even more than the Hammer's precious Detroit Red Wings.

(*- Can we all agree that their new name should be “The Hated Chicago Blackhawks”? I gave up “whom I hate” as relates to the Red Sox. I need something!)

Not A Fact: The Wild are the best team in the NHL

Yes, I said it. Even though they have more points than any other club, even though they're on their second 5-game winning streak of the season, even though they've won eight of their last 10 and 10 of their last 12, the Wild are not, I repeat not the best team in the league.

In fact, to me, their ceiling is maybe a 5th or 6th seed in the Western Conference.

Blasphemy, you say? How dare I besmirch one of the few winning teams we've had in Minnesota over the last two years?

That's just it, I'm not.

Trust me, I'm enjoying this run as much as any Wild fan is. I'm just doing so cautiously.

There can be no question that the team has bought in to what first-year head coach Mike Yeo is saying. I wouldn't dream of saying that they don't deserve the success they've had to this point in the season. They've worked hard and played well. No doubt.

I simply don't believe they can sustain the pace they've set, and I'm truly interested to see what happens to the confidence they've built when the bounces don't go their way for a week or two and adversity sets in.

Does the room stay together, stay cohesive, stay on-message? Or do tempers flare up, nerves get frayed and fingers get pointed?

We shall see.

And that's an important point, we SHALL see.

We're 21 games into an 82 game schedule, folks. There's a lot of hockey yet to be played. And a telling chunk of that hockey will be played against tough competition.

Consider this: in the Wild's current run of 10 wins in their last 12 games, the opponents whom they've beaten have a combined points percentage* of .531. The two teams they've lost two have a combined points percentage of .711.

(*- As Wild Media Relations Coordinator, Ryan Stanzel, pointed out to me just the other day, you can't use straight winning percentage in the NHL. If you get points for overtime losses, you've got to include those too.)

That's not an accident.

My go-to hockey guy, the Hammer (see previous link for his blog), likes to say the Wild are “beating the teams they need to beat”. He's 100% right. If you want to make the playoffs you need to take advantage of games against teams below you in the standings, and hope you win enough against the teams above you to stay in the race.

That's what the Wild are doing right now: beating the bad clubs, and stealing one here or there from the good clubs.

That should make them a playoff team, and give them an outside shot at home-ice in the first round... assuming they keep it up.

So why am I uncertain that they'll be able to do that?

Baseball's not the only game that deals with numbers, ladies and germs. Hockey may not embrace them the same way baseball has, but they're still out there, and they still mean something.

Let's look at the good numbers first. The Wild are #1 in the NHL in Goals-Against-Average (1.95). That starts with the goalies. Nicklas Backstrom and Josh Harding have been sensational between the pipes. I'd love it if they stayed at that pace, but history says they won't.

Backstrom has a career GAA of 2.40, and finished last year with a 2.66 in his 51 games. Harding's a career 2.58 and finished last year a 3.05 in his 25 games. Sure they could both have career years, but to finish half-a-goal and a full goal respectively better than their career averages? Eh, I don't think so.

The Wild are 12th in the NHL in Penalty Kill Percentage (83.8%). Goals are difficult to come by when you play Minnesota, so it's no surprise that even down a man, they're in the top half of the league in scoring defense.

PK is about goaltending and hard work. We know they goalies are good, and anyone who watches the club regularly knows that guys are willing to sacrifice their bodies and block shots. Just as important, the Wild have been playing smart when killing penalties. They rarely over-pursue the puck and don't generally let opposing forwards get loose in front of the net.

I'm far more optimistic that this can continue than I am about the hot streak by Backstrom and Harding. Systems generally don't slump the way individual players can.

Finally, the Wild are 5th in the league in 5-on-5 Goals For/Against Ratio (1.25). That sounds far more complicated than it is. Take the total number of goals you score when you're 5-on-5 (eliminating power play, short-handed, overtime and shootout goals) and divide that by the number of goals you give up when you're 5-on-5 and there's your ratio.

Why is that an important number? Because you spend more time in a hockey game 5-on-5 than you do in any other type of configuration. The bigger that ratio is, the more likely it is that you'll consistently win hockey games.

Why is that number something of an illusion for the Wild? I'll get to that in just one second...

First, we have to examine the bad numbers.

The Wild are 28th out of 30 teams in Goals Per Game (2.24). Not one of the other division leaders is outside of the top 10 in scoring. In fact, when you throw in the second place teams in each division only Edmonton (17th) and Dallas (19th) are outside of the top 10 in scoring. For heavens sake, even Columbus (the team with the fewest points in the league - 13) has a better scoring average (2.29) than the Wild!

The Wild are 24th in the league in Power Play % (13.8%). Even with the man advantage, the Wild aren't scoring many goals. Although they've at least managed to tie the woeful Blue Jackets in this statistical category... score!

And finally, the Wild are 28th in Shots Per Game (26.2). As Chelcie Ross's character in “Hoosiers” said, you can't score if you don't shoot! Okay, that line was a negative in that movie, but here, it's definitely applicable!

To put it simply, the Wild are winning despite their lackluster offense. And even with the additions of Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi, there's no real reason to think their offense is suddenly going to blossom.

Remember, last season the Wild managed a G/G Average of just 2.48, a PP% of 18.2% and a S/G Average of 26.2. Those numbers look familiar? They should.

So let's go back to that 5-on-5 ratio I mentioned earlier. Sure the Wild are carrying a 5th-best 1.25 number right now. But that's because the denominator (Goals Against) is so ridiculously low. If the offense remains static, and that denominator starts creeping up to its historical average, then that ratio goes down in a hurry. Witness last-season's 26th-ranked number of 0.85.

Look folks, I want to believe in this club. I want to buy in. I respect Strib beat writer Michael Russo's opinion on hockey as much as anybody's and in his latest blog he flat-out said he's bought in. And lord knows it'd be nice to follow a winner around here for a change!

(I'm looking at you, rebuilding-whether-you-want-to-believe-it-or-not Minnesota Twins!)

But I can't just yet.

I like the aggressive style they're playing. I like the fact that the coach and players keep saying, “we're not there yet... we can get better”. And I honestly hope they do.

But I believe the goaltending's going to come back to earth. I believe the youth on the blue line is going to have their share of rocky games. And I'm not convinced this team's going to threaten any scoring records any time soon.

Combine that together, and I firmly believe there will be some troubling times ahead.

If the Wild can weather those stretches and keep the losing streaks to a minimum, then they can certainly make the playoffs and be a threat to make the second round.

If not? Well, let's break that scenario down if and when they get there.

(I have to try and maintain some form of optimism, right?!)

That's going to do it for today. Hope you enjoyed the return of the column (and here's to hoping it won't disappear for 4 months again!).

Oh, and one last hope... I hope you all have a happy, safe and enjoyable Thanksgiving!

(Insert Hammer's, "Or as they call it in Canada, 'Thursday'." joke here... oof.)

Until next time, thanks for reading!

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