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Defense, Not Goaltending, Is the Minnesota Wild's Biggest Problem

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 28:  Drew Doughty #8 of the Los Angeles Kings slides into goaltender Niklas Backstrom #32 of the Minnesota Wild in the second period during the NHL game at the Staples Center on December 28, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. The play resulted in a goal for Doughty after the puck slid into the net. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
Victor Decolongon/Getty Images
Blake BenzelCorrespondent IOctober 8, 2016

Imagine this:

 

You’re a goaltender in the NHL, or in the AHL, or in any competitive hockey league.

 

The opposing team has the puck on the half boards, while you are in position, sliding out of the net enough to cut down his angle, but not so much that you’re leaving yourself open.

 

You’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing. You’re worrying about the puck—seeing it, tracking it should he pass. You’re doing your job.

 

You don’t worry about whether or not there’s a player on the backdoor. Why? Because you’ve got a defenseman that is taking care of that, either a) blocking the passing lane or b) making sure that even if the player gets the puck, he won’t get off a clean shot.

 

The player on the half boards makes the pass, and you instantly begin to move over to get in position for the…

 

Wait. Where was the defenseman?

 

Goal.

 

If that’s not frustrating enough for you, imagine this.

 

Your team is on the power play. You actually get somewhat of a break. You’re doing everything you’re supposed to be doing when the puck is in your end. You retrieve it and wait for the defenseman to collect it behind your net.

 

You move back into position as he breaks out right onto the stick of one of the most dangerous snipers in the league.

 

The only problem being that he’s wearing a different color sweater than yours.

 

That’s okay. Even though it’s the power play, there’s someone who might be able to contest the…

 

Hold on a second. Is he in alone?

 

Goal.

 

Are you frustrated yet? Good. Just multiply that by 10 and you’ve got an idea of the frustrations that Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding are facing in net for the Minnesota Wild this season.

 

The bottom line, my dear readers, is that the problems that the Wild are having in their own end are not entirely the fault of poor goaltending.

 

The team has suffered defensive lapse upon defensive lapse this season. Unless this is addressed, they will continue to do so.

 

Now, there are many proponents of the idea that the goalie’s sole job is to “stop the puck.” There is no disputing that. The goalie is in the crease for one reason and one reason alone. To let the vulcanized rubber hit him time and time again.

 

In addition, goalies are expected to make the big save every now and again—the save that keeps their team in the game, changes momentum, and there is absolutely no rational explanation for him making.

 

But to expect your goaltender to bail your defense out time and time and time and time again?

 

That is exactly what the Wild are doing.

 

They are so gung-ho about this shiny new system that allows them offensive freedom, that the vast majority of them are forgetting the fundamentals. Forwards are forgetting to backcheck. Defensemen are letting the backdoor sit wide open.

 

Is it the goalie’s job to stop the puck?

 

Absolutely.

 

But when the puck is in the defensive zone, there are five other players on the ice whose job is to make sure that the goalie doesn’t have to. It’s much like the relationship between an offensive line and a quarterback in football. It’s the quarterback’s job to run the offense and make the plays, while it’s the offensive line’s job to make sure he has time to do so.

 

Likewise, it’s the rest of the hockey team’s responsibility to make sure that the goalie has the time to get in position to make saves. He shouldn’t have to make “the big save” on 15 out of 30 shots every game.

 

In this area, the Wild are failing miserably, and a change needs to be made. Whether it’s in personnel or in the system, the bottom line is that the goaltenders need more support. Quite simply, they aren’t getting it.

 

Now, I realize that there is cause for excitement. The Wild just completed the best comeback in team history—a four-goal comeback in the third period against the Blackhawks

 

Absolutely stunning.

 

But amidst all the excitement and renewed fervor over the Wild, what’s gotten lost is the fact that, for 40 minutes, they didn’t even look like they could play with Minnetonka High School.

 

And that, my friends, is an enormous problem. I don’t mean to be all doom and gloom after a tremendously exciting win as the Wild had on Saturday, but Minneapolis resident Dustin Byfuglien said it best, as recounted to the Star Tribune by Backstrom himself.

 

“Buff skated by me and said, ‘Do you feel like you’re back playing summer hockey in St. Louis Park?’” he said, laughing. “I said, ‘Yeah, I do.’”

 

That says it all right there. There is a systemic flaw with the Wild that has nothing to do with offense or goaltending.

 

It is the defense. So long as it is not addressed, the Wild will not be a team that is playing anything other than golf after Apr. 14.

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