Feature photo courtesy of Bruce Kluckhohn
There was a time not long ago when the Minnesota Wild were a self-pitying disaster: a team down on its luck team that did all the little things right but still managed to watch goal after goal enter its net with no rebuttal. They threw every seemingly capable goalie in the organization into the fire, and all were lit up. On Jan. 13, the team bottomed out after enduring a brutal 2-8-4 spell with just one point in the final six games of the skid, sinking them to 18-19-5. A third straight playoff spot was in jeopardy and so was head coach Mike Yeo’s job. With nowhere else to turn within the organization, general manager Chuck Fletcher took a flier on journeyman goalie Devan Dubnyk, sending a third round draft pick to the Arizona Coyotes to complete the transaction. It seemed inconsequential. It ended up being the most important trade of the season.
Consider the Wild’s goalie situation before Dubnyk arrived. With longtime starter Niklas Backstrom injured, 24-year-old Darcy Kuemper was thrust into the starting role with only 32 career games under his belt. Kuemper, average last year, could not handle the added responsibility. Among goalies with 1,000 minutes of time on the ice, Kuemper posted the 10th worst save percentage at .904. His goals saved above average was -6.75 and his goals allowed percentage minus was at 112, with 100 being average and the lower the number the better. He had played almost exactly the same amount of time as last year, but his numbers dipped across the board, bringing him to a 13-12-2 record with 2.62 goals against average. Unfortunately for Minnesota, Backstrom’s return intensified the goaltending problem instead of alleviating it. Backstrom’s save percentage of .887 was the single worst among goalies with 1,000 minutes. The rest of his numbers are no less excruciating: 3.04 GAA, -12.00 GSAA, 131 GA%-, .143 quality start percentage, 5-7-3 record. The Wild were struggling on offense and their goaltending made it impossible to compete consistently, let alone win.
Enter Dubnyk. Vezina Trophy lock and Hart Trophy frontrunner Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens leads the league with a .935 save percentage. Since joining the Wild, Dubnyk has been stopping pucks at a rate of .937. Price leads the league with a 1.93 goals against average. With the Wild, Dubnyk is allowing 1.67. Price is posting a 75 GA%- and a .673 quality start percentage. Dubnyk with Minnesota? Try a 73 GA%- and a .750 quality start percentage. It’s a much smaller sample size for Dubnyk, but he has an undeniable impact on the Wild. In 24 games, he has five shutouts. That’s one way to solve a goal-scoring problem: the other team can’t win if they can’t score. All Minnesota needs is a goal or two.
With Dubnyk’s play, perhaps it should be no surprise that Minnesota has gone 19-4-2 with 40 points since Dubnyk’s acquisition, as of March 13. The Wild have clawed their way back to the top wild card spot, their 81 points ahead of the Kings’ 79, the Jets’ 78 and the Sharks’ 76. And here’s part of the confidence factor that having Dubnyk in net adds: the Wild were averaging 2.69 goals per game before the trade and are averaging 3.16 per game after. That’s a bit of a difference maker. Enough to make the Wild the single best team in the NHL since Dubnyk’s first game with the Wild Jan. 15, better than even the red hot New York Rangers (18-5-3, 39 points) and St. Louis Blues (16-6-2, 34 points).
Consequently, the playoff picture in the Western Conference is suddenly very different, and could still be changing. Minnesota is just five points behind the Chicago Blackhawks, who are without superstar Patrick Kane for the rest of the regular season. The Blackhawks still have exceptional experience and talent, but aside from an 11-1 stretch in November through December, they have struggled to really dial it in and find consistency. If both teams continue to play the way they have been recently, the Wild could end up leapfrogging Chicago. That would open up the possibility of a first-round matchup with the suddenly slumping Nashville Predators, who have 91 points but just one win in their last eight games. On paper Pekka Rinne and the Preds seem to have the advantage, but momentum this time of year is crucial, and right now the Wild have all the momentum in the world willing them forward. Of course, Nashville is tied in points with the Blues, and the Wild could easily end up meeting them in the first round instead. If both teams can keep stringing wins together, this potential matchup could be the most entertaining in the first round. The Anaheim Ducks remain another option if the Wild don’t move up from their wild card position. The Ducks may actually be the most favorable matchup for Minnesota because of their lack of deep playoff experience, strong defense and shutdown goaltender.
It’s very early to tell if the Wild can make a serious playoff run. Their early season struggles remain a warning flag, no matter how far in the rearview mirror they shift. The Blackhawks have escorted the Wild out of the playoffs each of the last two years, who’s to say it wouldn’t happen again, even without Kane around until the conference finals? The NHL season is long and bears many peaks and valleys for its teams, who’s to say Nashville’s slump isn’t just a blip on the radar that will be long forgotten come April? Vladimir Tarasenko has given the Blues a weapon they have not had in recent seasons; will that take St. Louis over the hump, leaving Minnesota in its wake?
What makes it hard to not be skeptical about Minnesota is that its top asset–and greatest weakness earlier in the season–is confidence, which is realistically unquantifiable. Kuemper, Backstrom and Dubnyk are represented by numbers, but their respective impacts go far beyond anything that shows up on the stat sheets: they single-handedly alter the team’s mentality. The Wild have hung around the edge of the top 10 of possession and Corsi numbers all season, win or lose. Zach Parise and Ryan Suter have played well all year, but they’re racking up more points now without the pressure of having to score a goal every possession to keep up with the other team. Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek have been finding the back of the net with greater regularity, but it’s not as if Dubnyk is recording the assists that open them up to score. It’s all in the mindset of the team created by knowing they have a brick wall in net intent on making the opposition truly earn a victory.
Devan Dubnyk has turned in a heck of a performance and may prove to be capable of stealing a series or two this spring. He saved Minnesota’s season and altered the playoff landscape by himself and could end up being nominated for the Vezina. However, Minnesota is a worrisome case because of their apparent emotional fragility. They were nearly ready to throw in the towel and blow key pieces of the team up in January, but stumbled upon a miracle. What happens if the Wild fall behind in a playoff series 2-0 or 3-1, with Dubnyk imploding in one game? Are we going to be watching a group of zombies dressed in green jerseys mope around the ice again, accepting what they perceive to be their fate? Sooner or later we are going to find out the mental fortitude of the Minnesota Wild, and for Dubnyk’s sake I hope his life-saving performance following the team’s lengthy drought was enough to instill the determination in his teammates necessary to pay him back with a run at the Cup.