Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Just Who Are the Wild?

The Devils go to Minnesota to play the Wild tomorrow. Sure, already has a preview of tomorrow's game, but let's take a closer look at Minnesota. The game tomorrow is New Jersey's next-to-last game against a Western Conference opponent during the regular season. Unless we're fortunate, and the last games come in June. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's focus on the opposition in standard, long-winded, overly detailed In Lou We Trust fashion.

The Wild are similar to the Devils in some ways. They're built around defense, patience, and a counter-attacking style of play. They have only have one player with over 30 goals so far this season like New Jersey. They're coached by a Lou-preferred man, former Devils coach Jacques Lemaire. They've been drafting fairly well in their short history. Would it be fair to say that Minnesota looks to New Jersey as an influence? I'd say so, and who can blame them? The Devils have been perennially good since 1994, it's not a bad model to follow.

However, the results have been much different. The Wild may be built similarly, but their defense in terms of skaters and goaltenders aren't nearly as effective. While New Jersey's defense is led by Paul Martin and Colin White; Minnesota's is led by Brent Burns and Kim Johnsson. Don't be fooled by the mix of veteran and youth. White is a much better defensemen on defense than Johnsson, and Martin has more experience than Burns despite Burns' production. The proof of difference is clear in the numbers: the Wild has conceded an average of 30.1 shots against per game (21st in the league) and 190 goals this season, a big reason why they're fighting for their playoff lives in a tight race instead of clamping down on the Northwest Division. Compare that to New Jersey's defense and their 27.7 shots against per game average and 163 goals against. It's clear while both teams have some unhearlded/inexperienced defensemen (e.g. Kurtis Foster, Nick Schultz), Sutter's gotten more out of his than Lemaire has gotten out of his own team's. Though, to be fair, goaltending has a part of goals against disparity as well. Don't get me wrong, Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding aren't bad; but they aren't goaltenders who can always keep a team in the game like a Martin Brodeur.

On offense, it looks even more similar to the Devils. As mentioned, the Wild has one player who stands out on offense and everyone else seemingly comes and goes in streaks. For New Jersey, that one player is Zach Parise and his 30 goals. For Minnesota, it's Marian Gaborik who has definitely found his scoring form again with 34 goals and 35 assists this season. Behind Gaborik, the biggest threats are dimunitive playmaker Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who has 12 goals and a team leading 45 assists, and ex-Devil turned #1 center Brian Rolston, who has 26 goals and 23 assists. Beyond that, you have Pavol Demitra, who is clearly on the downside of his career, and a number hard working skaters but are not scorers. Seriously, the Wild only have 4 players with more than 40 points this season and I just named them. In terms of skill, the Devils forwards have an edge; but in terms of actual results, the teams are very similar. Well, not quite, only 3 Devils have more than 40 points this season: Parise, Patrik Elias, and Brian Gionta. Though Jamie Langenbrunner and John Madden are very close with 39 and 38 points, respectively. Conclusion? A lot of scoring by committee for both squads.

There is one area where Minnesota is clearly the better team between the two: special teams. The Wild have the 10th most effective power play with a 18.3% effectiveness rate, and the 6th best penalty killing success rate with 84.1%. I don't even need to say with probability; when your special team units are doing this well, they can help you win games. This is also in sharp contrast, as the Devils have a much worse power play, with only a 16.3% effectiveness rate - good for 21st in the league. While that may not seem like much, it does matter in terms of actual goals. Minnesota has 53 power play goals, which is good for 12th in the league and the Devils have 46 power play goals, which is good for 27th in the league. With a season as tight as this one, 7 extra power play goals are crucial. The Devils' penalty killing unit is OK with a 82.9% success rate; but it hasn't been as good as Minnesota's. Even if the talent isn't the same; the Wild have the results that prove them to be the better squad. Clearly, the Devils need to keep this game at even strength as much as possible.

Regardless of some lackluster offense and a weaker defense, the Wild has had success. They have a record of 37-26-7 this season. Most seasons, that would be good. Except the Wild are in a tight division race with Calgary and Colorado sitting one point ahead and Vancouver sitting one point behind. What's more is that the Wild are not doing well as of late. The season isn't lost for them and the playoffs are well within reach, but this is the wrong time of the season to go 4 games without a win.

So for the Devils to succeed, they need to continue to pour on the misery. The Wild knows full well that continuing to falter could spell doom, and I'd expect them to feed off the crowd for additional motivation. The Devils are not a stranger to playing in front of hostile crowds; but they need to take them out of it early. That won't be easy; there's a reason why the Wild are called the Team of 18,000. But I think the method is the same to continuing to pour on the misery: take the game right to the Wild, dictate the tempo, and do whatever is necessary to get that first goal. I fear if they don't do that, we could see a repeat of what we saw last night in Montreal. Nobody wants that - except for the Wild. Overall, the goal should be to get 3 goals. Just look at the sidebar at Hitting the Post, a Wild blog; they have a fun stat showing that if the Wild let up three goals or more, their record sinks below .500. Get one first and then continue to attack.

So that's the Wild, as I understand it. Let's go Devils; let's get back on the winning side and make life difficult for Minnesota.

NOTE: Clarification added to difference in the Wild and Devils' power play; but my point remains the same, the Wild's power play is more effective.

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John, the power play is "much worse"? There's a 2% difference between the two -- meaning that the Wild score ONE more power play goal than the Devils per FIFTY power plays granted. Yes, this does make an impact over the season, but on any given night, they're virtually indistinguishable -- just like a .280 and a .300 hitter in baseball.
My two favorite teams duking it out! I would have gotten to see the game if it were last week when I had Spring Break. Oh well, at least I'm $45 richer for not having done it.

Best result = Devils win in overtime. The Wild need that point!
Loweeel - You have a point. Percentage wise, it doesn't seem like much. In terms of actual goals, Minnesota has 53, which is good for 12th in the league and the Devils have 46 goals, which is good for 27th in the league. With a season as tight as this one, 7 extra power play goals are crucial.

In fact, I'm going to put that in here as a clarification. Thanks.
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