After 20 of 82 games, the Minnesota Wild are in trouble. The team sits last in their division and 14th out of 15 teams in the Western Conference with seven wins and 16 points.
The franchise will be broken up into forwards, defensemen, goalies, player development, coaching, and front office management and analyzed and assigned a letter grade at this point in the season.
Todd Richards' new system is very dependent on forwards getting deep into the zone and pressuring opposing teams into mistakes. There have been few occasions this season where Wild forwards have been able to effective accomplish this effectively.
Richards' style is not the issue, the Wild seem to be able to effectively play this way against tired or flat opponents. There are signs of hope, but when the only positives are coming when opponents aren't at their best, it's generally a sign of a lack of talent.
The Wild rank third from the bottom in the West in goals for and only Mikko Koivu, Andrew Brunette, and Eric Belanger have a higher points-per-game ratio than their post-lockout career numbers.
The youth in James Sheppard and Benoit Pouliot, the megastar in Martin Havlat, and the offensive support in Petr Sykora, Chuck Kobasew and Owen Nolan have not showed up.
In the last two years of Jacques Lemaire's reign with the Wild, there were a lot of fans who demanded he relinquish his defensive stranglehold on the team. It's pretty clear now that the only thing keeping the roster that Doug Risebrough afloat was the defensive stranglehold of Lemaire (and a healthy Marian Gaborik).
The Wild have given up the third most goals in the West and the team's collective goals-against-average has gone up by 0.82. That number has been inflated by some poor starts by then-injured Josh Harding but even Niklas Backstrom has seen his GAA rise by .34 since last year.
In addition to not playing as tight defensively, Wild defensemen also seem to be struggling to adapt to Richards' up-tempo system. Greg Zanon and Shane Hnidy have been solid additions in their own zone, however both look nervous with the puck on their stick and prone to turnovers in their own zone.
Kim Johnsson has struggled with injuries for most of this season and Brent Burns still displays lingering effects of being moved to wing last season.
The days of "good, not great" goalies in Minnesota getting their stats padded are over with. Lemaire's system saved this team nearly a goal-a-game and now Backstrom's stats look more human. Imagine the trouble this team could have been in with a 40 year-old Dwayne Roloson or a 35 year-old Manny Fernandez.
Backstrom has done a great job of giving this team stability on a consistent basis and his .908 save percentage is nothing to sneeze at. However, he doesn't look as sharp as a year ago. The lingering problem Backstrom has had is rebound control, which he appeared to conquer last season, and it's returned.
Harding started the year with an undisclosed lower-body injury and made two starts with a sub-.750 save percentage in those starts. Since his return from injury he has made two appearances and his save percentage is at .955. It's unlikely that he'll continue to play at that level, but it's fair to say his early season woes can be attributed to his injury.
Player Development F
In the history of the Wild, the team has managed to draft seven players that have earned a tag as anything more than "promising." Gaborik, Koivu, Harding, Burns, Nick Schultz, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Cal Clutterbuck were all draftees who have gone on to some sort of prominence within the team.
Only Gaborik has been an All-Star. Only Clutterbuck was drafted outside the first two rounds, and he was taken in the third.
The Wild's 2005 first round pick Benoit Pouliot and 2006 first round pick James Sheppard are both on the roster, but neither have proven they deserve a promotion from the fourth line. The 2007 first round pick Colton Gillies spent 2008-2009 with the Wild, but only played in half the team's games.
This left many wondering how sitting in the press box was more beneficial than playing regularly with the team's minor league affiliate or in junior hockey.
As it stands, the team doesn't have many prospects that look ready to make an immediate impact in the NHL. Robbie Earl has made his mark in his recent call-up but the majority of who's left in Houston don't seem to be any major solutions to the team's issues.
This probably wasn't the start to his head coaching career Richards was hoping for. But given the pieces he was given, he's doing an admirable job of minimizing panic. His team is leaking goals and they can't score any either, but Richards has managed to put together special teams units that are smack in the middle of the league.
His players may not be showing it on the ice, but Richards' system has its value. When the Wild play teams coming off games the previous night, or flat teams, the offensive pressure is highlighted and is clearly effective.
If Richards is given a few seasons to collect the type of players his system requires, those flashes of the system's capabilities could be regular occurrences.
However, as it's been clear all season, this team does not fit Richards' system. There's something to be said for sticking to your guns, but there's also something to be said for not banging your head against a wall.
If Richards was to adapt his style to a more conservative approach, he might be able to keep his team in games the way Lemaire used to.
Front Office Management B-
To be fair, it's only Chuck Fletcher's first season with the Wild. And also to be fair, he was handed am absolute mess of a hockey club. The start to his draft was genius, moving down and collecting picks later is something this club was in desperate need of.
But to pass on University of Minnesota star Jordan Schroeder might end up haunting Fletcher. And to pass over the USA junior star for Minnesota's Mr. Hockey Nick Leddy doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
Fletcher was also eager to sign Havlat to his six-year, $30 million contract. Rumors suggest there weren't many teams willing to give Havlat such a lengthy contract considering his injury history. Perhaps his excitement to join the Wild could be explained by the otherwise lack of interest and Fletcher's desire to put his stamp on the club.
His trade of a second round draft pick and prospect Alexander Fallstrom to Boston only nine games into the season quickly erased the "wait and see" philosophy of his predecessor. However, giving up draft picks is one of the largest reasons this team is in as much trouble as it is.
Minnesota Wild D+
If this team is going to do anything other than rebuild this summer, it needs its forwards to play the type of hockey their scouting reports, contracts and resumes say they can.
It needs to stay healthy, injuries to Bouchard, Johnsson and Harding have magnified the team's problems but if they can return, the Wild can climb out of the bottom of the West.
It needs time to adjust to Richards and his system and it needs Fletcher to get the players Richards needs.
This team is in bad shape at the moment, but there are signs of life. It's going to take time to get the players it needs but an infusion of new blood is the start. And if the grades in late February are anything like they are, a fire sale at the trade deadline will be the start of that infusion.
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