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Despite winning record, Wild still have work to do

By Josh Newman
We officially have one month in the books. I didn’t know what to expect from the Wild this year, so I decided to keep my expectations low for the early part of the season. I knew that if I had high expectations, I might be disappointed. But I also knew that if my expectations were too low, then I might be thrilled whenever they won one game.

But there was one thing I knew for sure: with Jose Theodore wearing a Wild sweater for the first time in his career, Niklaus Backstrom would be our starting goaltender.

I never was a Jose Theodore fan. Even though his numbers with Montreal and Colorado were less than deplorable, his outing in his only start during the month of October justified my original opinion of him. Is this guy seriously a former Vezina Trophy and Hart Trophy winner? Yes, it’s true, with the emphasis on “former.” But on this particular night against Vancouver, Theodore would have had trouble stopping a shot from the opposing goaltender. The Canucks rode a pair of goals from Manny Malhotra and cruised to an easy 5-1 win over the Wild.

Getting past that, following their victory over the mighty San Jose Sharks last night, Minnesota stands at 5-4-2 and faces at least a few big obstacles between them and a postseason berth.

Step 1: Identify the problem(s)

It’s hard to say exactly what the weakness is. I do know for sure that it is not the power play. Before their game against San Jose, the Wild had converted on 13 of 43 power play attempts. They are 9th in the league in penalty killing at 86.2 percent. And the goaltending has been reliable, as Backstrom’s save percentage ranks in the NHL’s Top 5 following his stellar 36-save effort in the 1-0 win over San Jose.

So what’s the problem? Take away the team’s effective power play, and the Wild would be averaging just 1.17 goals per game.

You think that’s sad? Then chew on this: the team has scored more goals on the power play (14) than it has when playing at even strength (13).

Step 2: Fix it

I am just at a loss for words after putting those numbers on paper myself, so I’ll get right to the point: unless the Wild start lighting the lamp more during 5-on-5 situations, they will be watching the playoffs from the comfort of their own homes. So they need to just fix it already.

But of course, it is not that simple. The players are so team-oriented that they are always thinking “pass first.” Either that, or the players have forgotten what to do when they get possession of the puck.

Mikko Koivu, their leading scorer, has only three goals, just like four other players. He also has nine assists, and forwards Matt Cullen and Martin Havlat have seven assists apiece. Team first. Good concept. But unless somebody – anybody – takes more initiative on offense on a consistent basis, Backstrom might have to be perfect all season. Come on, he can get 20 shutouts this year, right?

Uh, not likely. The Wild clearly need practice playing 5-on-5, and individual tutorials on taking shots when they have opportunities might be in order because right now, when our guys get a good opportunity, they look either scared or confused.

What about defense? On average, the team is allowing more than 30 shots on goal per game! Again, I ask you: what about defense? Apparently, they don’t play any. Sure, they just shut out San Jose, but as I stated before, Backstrom had to make 36 saves to make it happen.
The team has had a month to get it together. If the current lines still don’t have any chemistry after one month, maybe it’s time to shuffle them around. Coach Richards, that’s your cue!