On Wednesday, the Winnipeg Jets host the Minnesota Wild in a potential first-round playoff matchup.
The Wild sitting in second place in the Central Division — and two points out of first — this late in the season qualifies as something of a surprise. They are carrying more than $12.7 million in dead cap space after buying out Zach Parise and Ryan Suter last summer — a figure that will climb to more than $14.7 million in 2023-24 and 2024-25. Those decisions forced Wild general manager Bill Guerin to trade All-Star forward Kevin Fiala, who had a team-leading 79 goals and 186 points over his three-plus seasons.
Minnesota, which is 8-0-2 in its last 10 games, was expected to take a step back this season, so why hasn’t that happened? It starts on defence, where the Wild rank third in actual goals against per game (2.58) and sixth in expected goals against per game (2.65), respectively. That is despite allowing 20 goals in their first three games. (Since then, the Wild are allowing an average of 2.38 actual goals and 2.59 expected goals over 61 games.)
Goaltender Filip Gustavsson has been a breakout player for the Wild, saving 17.8 goals above expected and 87.4 per cent of slot shots — well above the league average of 82.2 per cent among 85 goaltenders who have played at least 100 minutes. Linus Ullmark (18.8) and Juuse Saros (18.5) are the only goaltenders with more goals saved above expected than Gustavsson, whose active shutout streak of 175:45 is the longest in the NHL this season. Gustavsson also leads all goaltenders in quality-start percentage, preventing more goals than expected in 22 of his 28 starts.
The Wild are 18-7-7 in one-goal games, which can be looked at in two different ways. On one hand, they are comfortable playing tight-checking games. On the other, though, they struggle to score and pull away from opponents. The Wild have scored 6.92 fewer goals than expected, making them the worst finishing team in the league.
Kirill Kaprizov continues to dazzle, trailing only Connor McDavid in scoring chances with 253 in 64 games. The problem is that Kaprizov is carrying the Wild’s offence almost single-handedly. He has scored eight of the team’s 19 goals over the past 10 games.
“We only need two or three goals from him every night,” Guerin jokingly told reporters last week. “That’s it. It’s all we ask. He’s pretty much been doing that.”
Under financial constraints, Guerin addressed the Wild’s lacklustre offence as best he could at the trade deadline, bringing in Marcus Johansson, Gustav Nyquist, Oskar Sundqvist and John Klingberg.
Klingberg, considered one of the top offensive defencemen in the NHL not too long ago, is an intriguing addition. He still pushes play up the ice at a high rate, ranking 24th out of 272 qualified defencemen (min. 100 minutes) in possession-driving plays (PDP) per 20 at 5-on-5. That includes controlled exits and entries, as well as redline carries and outlet passes. In his first two games with the Wild, Klingberg was credited with 38 total PDPs at 5-on-5, second most on the team behind Kaprizov. He also quarterbacked the top power-play unit.
The Wild have the defensive structure in place to shelter Klingberg from tough matchups.
“We like to defend first, but when there’s a play to be made, he’s a type of guy that really can make a high-level offensive play,” Guerin said. “His natural offensive abilities and instincts are (things) that will really help us.”
Although the Wild have made it this far without a reliable offence, it is likely to hold them back once the playoffs start. Even with a stout defence and a seemingly impenetrable goaltender, the Wild do not have the look of a championship contender.