Minnesota Wild’s struggles should come as no surprise

SAINT PAUL, MN - OCTOBER 12: Eric Staal #12 of the Minnesota Wild talks to a teammate during the game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Xcel Energy Center on October 12, 2019 in Saint Paul, MN. (Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)
We probably should have seen Minnesota's early-season struggles coming. (Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)

The arguments for the Minnesota Wild to improve on last season’s dismal performance were straightforward:

Multiple important players missed huge chunks of the season.

They had the best team defense in the league by expected goals last year.

They added some offensive talent late last season and over the summer, and there should be some development for younger guys on the roster.

And yet, through six games, the only thing that’s really held up is health, and it’s mathematically difficult to have guys miss “significant time” when you’re in mid-October. Even then, yes, they’ve been without defenseman Greg Pateryn (not exactly a huge difference-maker) the whole season to date, and Mats Zuccarello is about to miss a week with a lower body injury. So maybe that’s not turning around as fast as anyone would want.

But to the larger and more controllable points: That defensive wherewithal hasn’t carried over from last season, as the Wild are deep into the lower third of the league in terms of expected-goals against per 60 so far this season, to say nothing of being bottom-three in actual-goals against. The argument, in many ways, was that the Wild suffered some bad luck in net last season and they could be better even if they got goaltending that was best described as “less bad.”

That hasn’t come to pass because, predictably, Devan Dubnyk has been pretty bad once again, allowing more goals than expected against the more difficult workload. If he didn’t play well behind a good defensive effort, the idea that he would be worse against a poor one follows naturally. Alex Stalock has made two appearances and only allowed one goal on 37 shots, or things would actually be worse, but we should not count on a goaltender with Stalock’s track record to keep it up, either.

As for the offense, well, the Zuccarello injury doesn’t help now, but he also hasn’t delivered on the promise behind his contract at all; no points in four games, and Minnesota has been outscored 6-0 when he’s been on the ice. Small samples, bad luck, etc., but this guy is playing with Jason Zucker (who’s a player, but not exactly impressing on his new contract) and Mikko Koivu (who’s a strong defensive forward even if his best days are behind him). His bad numbers are being skewed by the Wild giving up two empty-netters, but they’re not encouraging at 5-on-5, even if they are better.

Meanwhile, Kevin Fiala and Ryan Donato, both acquired late last year, are also sitting five games into the season with as many combined healthy-scratches (two) as points (Fiala has a primary assist, Donato a secondary). Victor Rask, the other guy who was acquired mid-season last year, is obviously a bit of a lost cause but he, too, has been healthy-scratched multiple times, despite his whopping two points.

Worth noting, though, that while “two points in six team gamesdoesn’t sound good, it’s actually tied for second among forwards on this roster. Brad Hunt, the third-pair defenseman who’s bounced around for years, leads the team at 2-2-4. Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon, both rather notably “also not forwards,” are on the same level, each with 1-3-4. Only Marcus Foligno (0-3-3) has more points than Rask, who’s tied with seven other guys at two points. Defensemen have scored five of the team’s 14 goals through six games.

Eric Staal, who’s had two nice years in Minnesota, is off to a horrible start. Young guys like Joel Eriksson Ek, Jordan Greenway, and Luke Kunin don’t seem to have taken a step. It’s a problem and you can probably make small changes to help address them. But then it’s a question of “how many?” They’ve shown they can play extremely well defensively, but if you need to open up the offense — and with the injuries acknowledged, these guys still only scored 210 goals last season, so… — you have to sacrifice things and still try to win 2-1 or 3-2. They don’t have the firepower to go toe-to-toe with most legit playoff teams on a nightly basis.

And look, some of this is definitely the quirk of small samples making things look worse, and the Wild haven’t exactly had the easiest schedule: a road trip through Nashville, Colorado, and Winnipeg isn’t exactly going to produce many points even for good teams — something the Wild almost certainly aren’t this year. Then it’s a home game against the Penguins and, yes, Sidney Crosby is going to go off on you sometimes. Then they won at Ottawa (sure) and lost at Toronto (also sure).

While 1-5-0 looks (and is) quite bad, I don’t know how much more you’d expect out of a team like this. Maybe two extra points. Still puts them in a tough spot to start the year, regardless.

This was always likely to be a team in transition: Too old or too young in all the wrong places, and even with a great coach, things probably weren’t going to go great. There’s still plenty of time to steer away from the rocks here, but for this particular group, it kinda seems like there are rocks everywhere.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats/salary info via Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference, CapFriendly and Corsica unless noted.

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