It might not happen until August at the earliest, but the Vancouver Canucks are going to take on the Minnesota Wild in a play-in series at some point in the near-ish future. The winner will move on to the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the loser will move on to the Draft Lottery — a fate that would end up costing the Canucks their 2021 first-round pick.
In other words, the Canucks haven’t quite made the playoffs yet — and before they can make that claim, they’ll have to make like Grizzly Adams and conquer the Wild.
Previously in our Preparing for the Wild series, Managing Editor David Quadrelli looked at Elias Pettersson’s potential deployment against Minnesota, and then yours truly took aim at the defensive matchup — an area in which the Canucks are definitely at a disadvantage.
Today’s article, however, will focus on a domain of the game that promises to be much more favourable for Vancouver — goals, and the people who score them.
Comparing Team Offense At A Glance
|2019/20||Goals Per Game||Goal Differential||Shots Per Game||PP%||Corsi %||Scoring Chances %||High-Danger Scoring For||Team Shooting %|
|Minnesota||3.16 (12th)||Even (18th)||30.1 (25th)||21.3% (t-10th)||49.6% (17th)||52.42% (7th)||53.85% (6th)||9.43% (2nd)|
|Vancouver||3.25 (8th)||+11 (t-12th)||31.2 (18th)||24.1% (4th)||48.4% (t-23rd)||47.33% (28th)||49.41% (19th)||8.60% (9th)|
Anyone who watched both of these teams play in 2019/20 could probably tell you which of them is, on the whole, better at scoring goals.
Vancouver simply scored more often than the Wild, and more easily — despite Minnesota holding distinct advantages in most possession-related offensive metrics. The Canucks obviously didn’t need the puck all that often to rack up goals at a greater rate than all but seven other NHL franchises, helped in no small part by their absolutely lethal powerplay.
While the Wild’s own offence is perhaps less effective and certainly less showy, it does have some traits that could make them a difficult opponent to tackle. For one, the Minnesota offence is incredibly efficient. They don’t waste shots if they can help it, and prefer to get the puck to a high-danger area before letting it go — something that has resulted in them having the second-highest shooting percentage in the entire league this season.
Their powerplay isn’t half-bad, either, and is only a couple of percentage points behind the Canucks’.
The Minnesota Wild are thus a team that can look offensively outmatched throughout a game, particularly against a high-flying team like the Canucks, only to strike unexpectedly when the chance they’ve been waiting for finally arrives. Maybe that’s why the Wild took the season series against the Canucks with two close victories.
In any case, while there may be some room for debate, it’s clear that the Canucks have the superior team offence when it comes to this play-in series — and, once each team’s respective top-sixes are stacked up against one another, it’s really not all that close.
The Minnesota Top-Six
#1 C Eric Staal: Still Number One
17 years after being drafted second overall in the legendary 2003 NHL Entry Draft, Staal is still a number one center — albeit, barely. In 2019/20, he ranked third in Wild scoring with 47 points in 66 games. That’s better than the pace of his previous season, but still a far cry from the 76 he put two years ago. With all that said, Staal has a combination of size and veteran poise that should equip him well in the postseason.
#1 LW Zach Parise: Not An Islander Yet
At the Trade Deadline, news broke that Parise was on his way to the New York Islanders in a deal that involved Andrew Ladd — but it never materialized, and Parise remains in Minnesota with five years left to go on his ridiculous 13-year pact. That transaction would have had to include some other moving parts, because Parise — while perhaps not deserving of his current salary — is still a top-six forward, and miles better than the AHL-exiled Ladd. With 46 points in 69 games, Parise was 4th in Wild scoring and remains a respected competitor.
#1 RW Kevin Fiala: Fianally Breaking Out
After being acquired straight-up for Mikael Granlund, Fiala came to Minnesota with some enormous expectations — and immediately flopped. The former 11th overall pick had struggled to find his footing in Nashville, but he tanked in Minnesota, recording an abysmal seven points in 19 games post-trade.
But this season, Kevin Fiala is a brand-new player. With 54 points in 64 games heading into the hiatus, Fiala led the Wild in scoring — and his possession stats are also the best in the top-six. Though he’s left-handed (as is the entirety of Minnesota’s top-six), Fiala finished the regular season as a right winger. By his natural position, he ranked 15th in league scoring by left wings.
#2 C Joel Eriksson Ek: The Good Eriksson
Drafted in 2015 and with the Wild since 2016, Eriksson Ek has taken a few seasons to firmly settle into an NHL role, but he’s definitely arrived as of 2019/20 — and turned himself into one of Minnesota’s most important forwards. With just 29 points in 62 games, Eriksson Ek might not look like much of an offensive threat, but he’s in no danger of losing his #2C position with just Victor Rask and Mikko Koivu behind him. He’s also sure to continue getting lots of ice-time, because he’s already established himself as one of the team’s most defensive responsible players and the de facto leader of their penalty kill.
#2 LW Alex Galchenyuk: The Bust On His Last Chance
Acquired near the trade deadline in the Jason Zucker deal, Galchenyuk hasn’t had all that long to make an impression on his new team – and the early results are just alright. Galchenyuk has been skating in the top-six as a winger, and has put up seven points in 14 games. Those aren’t stellar numbers, but his analytics were surprisingly strong and that’s good enough to give some hope of him fitting in with this group in the short-term. As a former 2nd overall pick who may be on his last NHL legs with his fourth franchise, Galchenyuk has extra motivation to shine this postseason.
#2 RW Mats Zuccarello: The Lizard King
Already 32, Zuccarello is in the first year of a five-year deal that sees him paid an average of $6 million annually — a contract so bad, it played a sizeable role in GM Paul Fenton getting the boot after just one season on the job. Fenton, if you’ll recall, signed Zuccarello in part because “he’s like a lizard, the way a lizard takes his tongue and sticks it as far as it does and retrieves what it was trying to do.”
In any case, it’s not all bad when it comes to the Norwegian forward’s debut season in Minnesota. Zuccarello did rank fifth in team scoring with 37 points in 65 games, the lowest production pace of his career — but he was starting to heat up in late February and early March. He’s also the only player in the top-six who prefers the right-side, even if he is left-handed.
Others Who May See Time In The Top-Six
There isn’t much danger of lowly veterans like Mikko Koivu or Victor Rask making an appearance in the Minnesota top-six in the play-in, but they do have a handful of young talents that could easily step up — including Luke Kunin, Jordan Greenway, and Ryan Donato. The hard-hitting Marcus Foligno has also seen some time up there.
Is there really much that needs to be said here? It could be argued that each member of the Canucks’ most frequent top line — Elias Pettersson, JT Miller, and Brock Boeser — are each better than any forward in the Wild organization.
In terms of center depth, Vancouver blows Minnesota out of the water. Elias Pettersson is a truly elite number one center, and Bo Horvat is probably already the superior player to Eric Staal — and, if not, they’re neck-and-neck.
Add Tyler Toffoli and the resurgent Tanner Pearson to the mix, and there’s no contest at all. The Canucks’ top-six is better than the Wild’s any way you slice it — as a whole, line-by-line, or position-by-position. Minnesota has one game-breaker on the roster in Kevin Fiala, but the Canucks have at least four of them.
The team stats say that the Canucks will have to overwhelm the Wild’s offence in order to win this play-in series — and the rosters say that’s definitely achievable.
Skate-By-Numbers: Strengths And Weaknesses
The Canucks also hold a distinct advantage over the Wild when it comes to the cohesiveness of their top-six. Sure, they’re going to have to decide whether Brock Boeser or Tyler Toffoli rides shotgun with Elias Pettersson and JT Miller, but that’s a good problem to have. Five members of Vancouver’s top-six have played there all season, and the other one arrived at the Trade Deadline. That sort of consistency and chemistry is going to count for something in a short series.
Compare that with Minnesota’s absolute disaster of an Even-Strength Forwards Network, courtesy of Micah Blake McCurdy at HockeyViz. This is a team that gets it done — or doesn’t — by committee, and doesn’t give their forward corps much of a chance to develop as units.
As was previously mentioned, Minnesota likes to take shots from high-danger areas primarily. They’ll give up the middle of the zone with few compunctions, so long as they can fire a few pucks from the top of the circle and then bang in rebounds from up close. Unfortunately for Vancouver, if you read our previous article on team defences you’ll recall that Vancouver tends to bleed opportunities from those high-danger areas — something they’ll have to shore up immediately to counter the Wild’s game-plan.
It’s a very different strategy than the one Vancouver typically employs.
The same is largely true on the powerplay, where Minnesota prefers to blast bombs from the blueline and hope for the best in front. This contrasts heavily with Vancouver’s own powerplay, which essentially runs through Quinn Hughes at the point and Elias Pettersson at the half-wall — a setup that Minnesota’s PK seems destined to struggle with.
There might be some ways in which interim coach Dean Evason and the Wild manage to mitigate the offensive advantage the Canucks hold over them, but they won’t be able to erase the disparity entirely. The best that Minnesota can hope for is that the play-in series doesn’t devolve into the mere trading of chances, because that’s a game they will lose — which means that’s exactly the sort of series that Vancouver should be aiming for.