After an ugly loss to the Dallas Stars in a game that saw the Minnesota Wild fall 5-3, Head Coach Mike Yeo will likely be making some changes to his defensive pairings before tonight’s matchup with the defending Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings.
Will Brett Clark, signed earlier this month, be making his debut in the Red, White and Green tonight? Many Wild fans are hoping so and, if he does, expect to see Justin Falk as the healthy scratch. Minnesota’s defense has struggled the past few games, allowing four or more goals in each of the past three games, going 2-1 in that span. Granted, the first two were with a tired Niklas Backstrom, and last night’s matchup was with a rookie goaltender that had played just one game in three weeks. However, the struggles of Minnesota’s bottom four defensemen have been quite evident lately.
While the Jared Spurgeon/Clayton Stoner pairing was a plus-5 rating and notched four assists in Monday’s 7-4 victory, that’s been the highlight of that pairing nearly all season. Tom Gilbert, Falk and Stoner have all seemed to struggle lately, and Minnesota does have Clark and Nate Prosser waiting in the wings. Fans have been calling for a bottom-4 shakeup all week but, logically, what coach changes his lineup while on a seven game win streak? Last night’s loss gives the coaching staff the perfect excuse to mix things up a bit.
The top pairing of Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin is likely the only pairing they won’t mess with—don’t fix it if it isn’t broken. The pairing of Spurgeon and Stoner is decent, but only one of these two is a legitimate top-4 defenseman—and it isn’t Stoner. That’s not to say Stoner couldn’t be a legitimate second pairing blue liner, it’s just that his game—the way he plays—is more suited for a gritty bottom-pairing role. However, Wild fans should be encouraged by his normally consistent defensive play; Minnesota’s 2004 3rd round pick is a plus-6 rating in 33 games this season, is a career plus-15 and has never had a season with a negative rating in the NHL. Paired with the offensive-minded Spurgeon, this is a pairing that Minnesota should be careful not to tamper with too much.
Justin Falk, on the other hand, seems to be playing his way out of a job in Minnesota. While the 6’5” 215-pound left-shot defenseman brings a much needed physical presence on the blue line, he can be a little too aggressive at times, leading to chances for the opposition in the defensive zone. Falk chips in very little offense, and has given more than a few near-heart attacks to fans with terrible play in his own end of the ice. Bumping Spurgeon to the second pairing and Gilbert to the third pairing was likely done to improve the defensive depth of the team, but it hasn’t been working. Both Falk and Gilbert seem to be out on the ice for nearly every goal against lately, and something needs to be done about that immediately.
With that said, it’s looking more and more likely that veteran NHL defenseman Brett Clark makes his Minnesota Wild debut tonight. Inserting him in Falk’s spot instantly improves the depth and experience of what is essentially, aside from Suter and Gilbert, a very young defensive corps. It also provides a bit of a secret weapon on the back end, as he does a wield a considerably heavy slap shot.
Is Clark Minnesota’s key to making a deep playoff run? Not necessarily; with the trade deadline set for Wednesday afternoon—and two games to go between now and then—Minnesota still has a little bit of time to address their defensive needs going into the home stretch of the season. With plenty of depth up front, don’t be surprised to see Wild GM Chuck Fletcher make a “hockey trade” involving a forward for some defensive help. Minnesota doesn’t need another Ryan Suter, but another Nick Schultz might be nice.