The Minnesota Wild traded Kevin Fiala to the Los Angeles Kings on June 29. From June 30 until today, discussions about the water cooler in the state of hockey often start with a question. How the hell will the Wild replace Fiala’s offense?
With a huge cap crunch, the Wild need to replace Fiala’s career-high 33 goals and 85 points internally. Could incoming rookie Marco Rossi fill that void? Perhaps a mix of Tyson Jost and Freddy Gaudreau can combine on a line alongside Boldy and Rossi to help close the gap?
No. If you look at the players, you have it all wrong. Any of these three players, and possibly others, will play a part in replacing Fiala, but it’s unfair to expect Rossi, Jost or Gaudreau to reach the heights that Fiala has achieved this season. last. None of them have Fiala’s talent, or at least not yet, in Rossi’s case.
No, for the Wild to be as successful as they were last year, their coaching staff will have to do the heavy lifting.
Finishing with a franchise-record 53 wins and 113 points, the 2021-22 campaign was fantastic for Minnesota. It’s just a shame there wasn’t a post-season for the Wild to prove, and no, we’re not looking into that further! Perhaps for the first time in history, they were go-to TV for hockey fans across the league, not just Minnesota.
It was easy to see why, as they finished fifth in the NHL in points. That’s just two goals behind the eventual Stanley Cup winner, the Colorado Avalanche. Along with fellow Hart Trophy nominee Kirill Kaprizov, Fiala played a major role in those results. Now that he’s gone, it’s almost impossible to expect the Wild to reach that goal tally again. That is, short of a record-breaking rookie season from Rossi.
But just because the Wild scored nearly at will last season doesn’t mean every facet of their game clicked. It seemed their ability to score 5-on-5 and with the keeper out late in games were the only elite parts of their game. When you dive deeper into the numbers, three areas could use a lot of improvement.
And if these improve, it will help offset Fiala’s lost production.
For this exercise, we will dig deeper into the goals directly impacted by Fiala last season. He registered 85 points, but he registered a goal or the first assist on only 64 of them. We’ll remove these secondary assists from the equation, as the goalscorer or primary assist often provides the impact. With that in mind, the Wild are essentially looking to replace the 64 main points Fiala gave them.
But wait, if we’re looking to replace 64 goals, why is the penalty kill top of the list? Who said the Wild had to replace the 64 vacated goals by scoring them all? It would be just as easy to replace some of it with goal removal. For this reason, we start with the penalty kill.
The Wild’s ability to kill penalties last year was…excruciating. It is impossible to use a more delicate term for this. That should have been a bigger red flag for a team entering the playoffs with Stanley Cup aspirations. A shorthanded unit ranking 25th in the NHL with a 76.1% kill rate is bound to doom you sooner rather than later.
General manager Bill Guerin has publicly tasked Evason and his team with improving the penalty kick this offseason. Hopefully they’ve found the right remedy, as it’s the most obvious way to use goal removal as a replacement for Fiala’s main 64 points.
Expecting Evason to move the unit from 25th place in 2021-22 to the top 5 this year is probably a stretch. But it’s not too much to ask for the unit to finish in the top third of the league, is it? Let’s say they could accomplish that. Last year, the Anaheim Ducks finished with the 10th best penalty kill in the league at 80.8%. If the Wild had achieved that conversion rate, they would have allowed 13 fewer goals throughout the season.
Alright, 51 more goals to score.
Even though it was much better than their shorthandedness, the power play still finished 18th in the NHL last year at 20.5%. With the amount of attacking skill at their disposal, there’s no reason he can’t improve to be in the top third of the league this year. As with the power play, we’ll use the Calgary Flames, the 10th best team on the power play, as an example.
Darryl Sutter’s teams are generally known for their defense and discipline, but the 2021-22 Flames have been a fire truck. Their numerical advantage converted on 22.9% of their chances. Although only 2.4% higher than Minnesota, the difference is more than you might think when you factor in the number of penalties the Wild have taken.
Minnesota’s 258 men’s pro ranked fourth in the NHL, but they ranked 18th in conversion rate. Had they scored on 22.9% of their chances like Calgary did, that would have given the Wild six more goals scored.
It’s a cumulative total of 19 goals for those following at home. We have already replaced around 30% of Fiala’s production.
Yes, I’m cheating a bit here. When you first started reading this, I said that most of the work is on the coaching staff, and I’m going there by including the players in the equation. However, it’s just an impossible stat to ignore when looking for ways to improve a team that lost a point-per-game player and then couldn’t replace him with someone even close to his pedigree. Even if it is a player issue, the coaching staff still have their part to play.
In 2021-22, the Wild have won 53 games despite their goalie. The combined trio of Cam Talbot, Kaapo Kahkonen and the short stint of Marc-Andre Fleury combined for a GSAx of -21.35 goals. Yeah.
Considering 25 other goaltenders in the league who have played at least 20 games finished with a GSAx greater than zero, imagine if the Wild could return to league goaltending average this season. That would essentially eliminate 21 goals against last season.
Is it a lot to ask Fleury, who turns 38 in November, and newcomer Filip Gustavsson to just be league average this season? Let’s hope not, considering the former is only 15 months away from winning the Vezina Trophy with the Vegas Golden Knights. The Wild’s coaching staff can help.
After adding him to the deadline last season, the Wild haven’t had much time to adjust to Fleury’s quirky style of play. His acrobatic saves are magnificent, but that makes him less predictable and puts rebounds where Minnesota isn’t used to. It was a factor that cannot be underestimated.
Rebounds were no longer within feet or inches of the goalie. The defender and net forwards didn’t know where to go and struggled to get to the right spot. You’ve seen the familiarity with Fleury pay off for former teammate David Perron, who feasted on Fleury in the playoffs last year. Adjusting their defensive positioning could greatly help Fleury.
The man nicknamed “Flower” is also much more aggressive playing the puck on dumps. It’s an advantage, but only for a team that is well practiced on how to work with their keeper on the breakout. How will Wild assistant coaches position their defenseman in these scenarios?
And perhaps more importantly, how will defensive systems and positioning change when Gustavsson spells Fleury on his starts? Adjusting defensive systems could go a long way towards turning last year’s -21.35 GSAx into a positive number this season.
For those not following the running tally, these three improvements over last year would add up to a total of 40 goals, or around 62% of Fiala’s attack. That’s not all, but it’s a much nicer number to hit for a likely combination of Rossi, Jost or Gaudreau.
For that reason, it makes a lot more sense to depend on the Wild’s coaching staff to replace Fiala’s production rather than assume it all on a 21-year-old rookie or a few fellow forwards. They’ve had the entire offseason to make those improvements. We will soon see if they can put them into practice.