With the Stanley Cup Finals and the Draft out of the way, I’ll be taking a look at some moves I think the Wild should make during this off-season, and analysing the moves they do make.
During the 2013 NHL season, the Wild suffered from a lack of depth in their forward-corps. The only players who finished the year with a positive Corsi Rel +/- were Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Charlie Coyle, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Jason Pominville and Jake Dowell. Pominville played most of the year with Buffalo, and Dowell only played 2 games, so that leaves 1 forward outside of the top line who posted a positive score. That player just so happens to, almost certainly, be walking away in free agency as the Wild’s lack of desire to keep him has been well documented.
The top line carried they team all year and the 2nd line showed up in scoring burts (though Jason Zucker and Devin Setoguchi normally looked lost whenever Matt Cullen wasn’t their pivot). The 3rd line saw a lot of personnel changes. Two of the regulars on that line, Cal Clutterbuck and Kyle Brodziak did quite well defensively, in that they managed to maintain a positive Corsi right up until the last couple of games, playing tough minutes, but failed to put up many points. A period towards the end of the year where Bouchard and Pominville flanked Brodziak saw great success before Pominville was elbowed onto IR by Dustin Brown. The 4th line was prone to a lot of change, but the most common configuration was Mike Rupp and Torrey Mitchell, centred by Zenon Konopka. This line greatly struggled both offensively and defensively. While it was lauded by many for providing the Wild with “size & grit”, what it mostly provided was a soft spot in the Wild’s armor for other team’s to attack and find favourable match-ups. Torrey Mitchell is a good player, and thrived when given chances in the top-9, but Rupp, who started-out as being quite effective, became extremely slow and ineffective down the stretch, while Konopka was awful all year and really made me wonder why Chuck Fletcher gave him a 2-year contract.
To be successful, a team needs to have a bottom-6 that the coach can trust with tough assignments, and that features players who can contribute on special teams so that some pressure is taken off the top line to carry the team on it’s back at all times, as they are allowed more freedom to find favourable match-ups and time to rest. The Chicago Blackhawks are a great example of this. Their depth meant that excellent defensive forwards Michael Frolik, Marcus Kruger and Dave Bolland usually made-up the 4th line and also played heavy shorthanded minutes. That 4th line could give other teams fits as they were fast, energetic and aggressive. For me, this is much more useful than using the 4th line as a mish-mash home for face-punchers and forwards who can’t crack the top-9, that is just there to eat-up 8 minutes a night.
Look at how evenly-distributed ice time is among the Blackhawks’ centres:
|WILD CENTRE||TOI/G||HAWKS CENTRE||TOI/G|
As I previously mentioned, Pierre-Marc Bouchard is unlikely to be back, ditto Matt Cullen. To add another dimension to the Wild’s depth issues, Cal Clutterbuck was traded away during the draft for Nino Niederreiter. For now, I will treat Nino as a prospect and assume he starts the year in Iowa, as there is no way to tell what the organisation’s plans for him are just yet.
As I see it, the current Wild depth-chart is as follows:
Having Dany Heatley healthy and back in the fold is will be very helpful, as it means Yeo can spread his best players out more-evenly through the team and create a less “top-heavy” line-up. Making Heatley, Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle and Devin Setoguchi engage in some healthy competition for a place in the top-6 will benefit the team as a whole. Zucker and Coyle both have a strong defensive aspect to their game and would both be able to fill the void left by Clutterbuck on the 3rd line if they were left-out of the top-6.
Obviously, a lot hinges on whether or not Granlund can grab that 2C position with both hands and lessen the damage done by Cullen’s probable departure. If he is not able to and ends up back in the AHL, then the team could possibly move Coyle to center.
From this depth chart, it looks highly likely that the 4th line will remain the same as it was last year. If the Wild want to get better, they will need this to change, by finding a better replacement for Konopka and maybe Rupp too. The options within the organisation are thin; Veilleux brings good energy as a 13th forward but isn’t a huge upgrade, Dowell is an AHLer and doesn’t make the team better, Fontaine and Nino are best suited as injury call-ups in a top-9 role and McMillan is a fairly run-of-the-mill grinder.
Brett Bulmer has had a rocky time since his impressive 9 games with the Wild in 2011/2012. He has palyed in the WHL and AHL, dealing with a suspension, injuries and a loss of form. Regardless, he should be given every opportunity to win that LW spot on the 4th line. The scouting reports on Bulmer have always said that he is similar to Cal Clutterbuck, with more offensive upside. If he can grab his chance and win a spot on the 4th line, his gritty, but skillful play will definitely help fill the Clutterbuck-void and improve the team’s forward depth.
The team currently had $4,951,132 in cap room, but once Jared Spurgeon is re-signed, that will be looking a lot slimmer. I estimate the Wild will have roughly 2 million in cap room to try and fix their depth problems. More space will probably be cleared by offloading Konopka, and they would be wise to dump either Prosser or Stoner and maybe Dowell or Rupp too to clear more. There is enough quality back-up in Iowa to negate the loss of those players, and the extra cap room allows Chuck Fletcher to acquire a quality depth forward and possibly another defenceman without trading away any assets.
Here’s a table of some important statistics for 6 UFA forwards who I think the Wild should consider pursuing to fill the 4C position:
*=Performed Best in Category/Highest Score
**=Performed Worst in Category/Lowest Score
|PLAYER||BOYD GORDON||KYLE CHIPCHURA||DAVID STECKEL||MAXIM LAPIERRE||MARTY REASONER||KEITH AUCOIN|
|TEAM||PHOENIX COYOTES||PHOENIX COYOTES||ANAHEIM DUCKS||VANCOUVER CANUCKS||NEW YORK ISLANDERS||NEW YORK ISLANDERS|
|CAP HIT 2013||1,325,000||675,000||1,000,000||1,000,000||1,350,000||650,000*|
|CAREER NHL GP||486||262||419||463||798*||143**|
|NO. OF TEAMS||2**||3||4||3||6*||3|
|OZONE STRT %||32.6||57.6**||39.9||26.4*||36.4||48|
|ON ICE SV%||93.26*||92||92.56||91.87||90.40**||92.09|
|ON ICE SH%||6.52||8*||6.50||6.04||5.63**||7.51|
Here’s the Player Usage Chart for the 6 players for 2013:(It is a good visual representation of some of the statistics above and gives an idea of how the players were deployed by their coaches. The size of the circle indicates TOI, the colour is Corsi [deep blue is very good, deep red is very bad], the X-Axis is Offensive Zone Start % and the Y-Axis is Quality of Competition).
Now, with these numbers in mind, here’s my analysis of each player:
Gordon had a great year and really excelled as 3C in Phoenix. He is a beast at the dot, plays heavy PK minutes, plays the toughest 5v5 minutes and posts a positive Corsi. He can contribute a small number of points and blocks a lot of shots. Gordon’s positive Corsi shows that his shot blocking is very much a skill and not just the product of poor puck possession from his team. He is still only 29 and is just hitting his prime.
He averaged around 15 minutes a night last year and could give the team fantastic depth at center, allowing Mike Yeo to balance ice-time between his 4 forward lines. Gordon could pivot the 3rd with Brodziak on the 4th, or possibly Gordon on the wing. His special teams ability would be a huge boon for the Wild too after losing Matt Cullen to free agency.
He stands to make a raise this year, probably getting a contract with a cap hit of around 3 million. A lot of teams need help down the middle, so there could be quite the bidding-war for someone as good as Gordon. The Wild probably won’t be able to afford him.
He doesn’t play very physically, with relatively low hit counts, and PIM. While, for me, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, a lot of coaches want their 3rd or 4th line centre to be tough and physical, so Gordon might not fit the bill.
Chipchura is a fairly typical 4th line utility guy. He’s reasonably young, he’s versatile, gritty, energetic and can put up some points. His contract would be dirt cheap, with a cap hit of probably about 1 million. This would be very economical for the Wild. If they can offload Konopka, Chipchura’s contract could just swap-in at a similar price.
His usage last year shows that he wasn’t considered to be a defensively skilled player as he received soft minutes with a high number of offensive zone starts and still posted a negative Corsi. He also doesn’t contribute on the PK and has the lowest FO% of this group.
While he would be an okay option if nothing else is available, he just doesn’t seem to be a big improvement on the guys the Wild already have in-house.
Steckel is a fairly typical 4th liner. He was popular in Toronto before he was, somewhat strangely, traded to Anaheim last year. He flourished there and left a good impression. His main skill was in the face-off circle where he put up Boyd Gordon-esque numbers. He also brings some size, being the heaviest and tallest member of this group.
Steckel is a reliable 4C, an upgrade over Konopka and would probably cost around 1 million against the cap. He’s not ognna make the team a whole lot better, but he’ll be steady as a rock.
There isn’t a whole lot wrong with Steckel, but he isn’t going to provide much offensive or defensive skill. At best, he could play for 10-12 minutes a night, which isn’t a huge improvement if the Wild want to get deeper and spread out their ice-time a bit.
For a big guy he doesn’t really impose himself physically and doesn’t have much else to his game outside of face-offs.
Lapierre is a prototypical pest. He draws a lot of penalties (along with the ire of opposition players and fans) and is a versatile 3rd/4th liner. He averaged just under 15 minutes a night and put himself about registering a lot of hits, but not too many PIMs. He is good at the dot and, while he played relatively easy competition, he took a high number of defensive and neutral zone draws.
1.5 million would probably be enough to get him so cap room shouldn’t be a problem. He could actually be a bargain at that price.
His production to a bit of a nose-dive last year, though there’s every chance it could recover. Other than that there isn’t a whole lot wrong with Lapierre. He would certainly be a big upgrade at 4C and could take on a lot of minutes to take pressure off the top-9.
During his time with the Islanders, Reasoner could provide solid defense at times, decent face-off statistics, and reliable penalty killing. He will be going cheap and brings a wealth of experience and grit to the table.
His offence deserted him when he arrived in Long Island, and he is showing clear signs of decline. At this point he just doesn’t provide anything that the Wild don’t already have. He’s barely an improvement over Konopka and would cost more.
Aucoin is a bit of an unknown around the league but his numbers from this season are impressive. He posted the best Corsi of this group, playing fairly tough minutes. He had a hot and cold year; starting strong, cooling off, getting scratched and then catching fire again. At one point in the play-offs, the coach referred to him, Colin McDonald and Michael Grabner as the Islanders best line. He would be worth taking a risk on as his cap hit is minuscule and he could probably be signed for sub-1 million.
He could be used as 4C or on the wing. He can play a lot of PK time and can handle around 12 minutes a night. He contributed decent offence and put his body around the ice, while also being no-slouch at the face-off dot.
He is the smallest player in this group and also the least experience. He doesn’t bring much grit to the table. He is 34 and this year could have been his peak. While not being a huge risk due to his (likely) cheap contract, his hot & cold nature means there’s a chance he could be a non-factor for the Wild.
So, overall there’s a decent group here to choose from. While Gordon is probably too expensive, unless the Wild clear some cap room very quickly, there are other options. Lapierre, although hated and not that skilled, would be an upgrade at 4C, and Aucoin might be worth taking a gamble on as he could be a useful piece for the 4th line.
With one of these signings, the line-up could look like this:
That 4th line certainly looks much improved. Obviously Brett Bulmer needs a strong training camp performance to grab a place, but if he can find his 2011/2012 form then he will help make that line extremely energetic and hard to play against.
If they could land Boyd Gordon, it opens up a lot more options. Even if Granlund didn’t work out at 2C, Charlie Coyle could move to that spot with Gordon slotting into the RW spot on the 3rd or 4th line.
(I also considered other players such as Nik Antropov, Michael Handzus, Scott Gomez, Jochen Hecht, Craig Adams, Matthew Lombardi and Eric Belanger, but left them out for either being too expensive or just obviously not a good fit)
Thanks to Rob Vollman & HockeyAbstract.com for the Player Usage Charts
Tags: Boyd Gordon Cal Clutterbuck Charlie Coyle Chicago Blackhawks Chuck Fletcher Dany Heatley David Steckel Devin Setoguchi Jason Pominville Jason Zucker Keith Aucoin Kyle Brodziak Kyle Chipchura Marty Reasoner Matt Cullen Maxim Lapierre Mikael Granlund Mike Yeo Mikko Koivu Minnesota Wild Pierre-Marc Bouchard Zach Parise