The Wild have a potential Vezina winner, coach of the year and a workhorse top defenseman, but come the post-season, opponent’s should most fear Minnesota’s depth.
Devan Dubnyk is well on his way to winning the Vezina Trophy and given the Wild have matched their win total from the past season in 25 fewer games, Bruce Boudreau is going to be in the conversation for the Jack Adams Award. He could very well take home the hardware by the time the season ends, too. There’s also going to be talk about Mikko Koivu for the Selke Trophy and Ryan Suter, as always, is going to be part of Norris Trophy discussions.
But with all the solo performances that have made this season an impressive one for the Wild, there’s more to this Minnesota club that the standout performances of single players. Rather, the best thing the Wild have going is their incredible depth, and as the playoffs inch nearer and Minnesota gears up for what looks like it could be a deep run, the way the Wild have been able to win should be striking fear into the hearts of opponents.
As of Friday, the Wild currently have the fourth-highest scoring offense in the league, but that’s a bit of a head scratcher given not a single player has hit the 20-goal plateau. Compare Minnesota’s lineup to that of the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers and Washington Capitals — the top three offenses in the league, respectively — and you don’t exactly walk away thinking the Wild belong in the conversation. The Penguins boast Crosby and Malkin, Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller are leading the way for the Rangers and the Capitals are always lethal with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov. On paper, one would likely take all three offenses ahead of Minnesota’s, especially given the Wild’s current top scorer, Mikael Granlund, had maxed out at 44 points before this season.
It’s been that kind of year in Minnesota, however, with just about everyone on the team stepping up under Boudreau. Matter of fact, no team boasts a more spread out offense than the Wild, who have 10 different players to have scored at least 10 goals. That list includes Koivu, Granlund, Zach Parise, Charlie Coyle, Chris Stewart, Eric Staal, Erik Haula, Nino Niederreiter, Jason Pominville and Jason Zucker. The Capitals high-powered offense is the only other group in the league that has as many 10-goal scorers, but the Wild have two more players, Suter and Jared Spurgeon, sitting at eight goals and on pace to hit double digits this season.
One of the things that’s evident is that Bourdeau has found a way to get the most out of players who are right in that prime stage of their development. There’s no better example than Granlund, whose 16-goal, 51-point performance thus far has already seen him set dual career highs. He’s not the only one on pace to reach new heights, however. Coyle’s 44 points are a new career-best, while Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, Matthew Dumba, Nino Niederreiter and Jason Zucker are all on their way to setting new bests.
And while Granlund is the best example of a guy flourishing under Boudreau, no player is quite as indicative of the way the Wild’s depth has been clicking like Zucker. The 2015-16 season was a frustrating one for Zucker and Wild fans. After coming off a 20-goal campaign in 2014-15, the belief was Minnesota had a goal-scoring star in the making. All the facets of his game were present, but none more than his ability to absolutely burn up the ice when he hit his top speed. And while he’s seen his ice time take a dip under Boudreau — he’s playing roughly a shift or two less per game — Zucker is having the season of his life while playing bottom-six minutes.
Through 57 games, he has 16 goals and 38 points, but only a single point of his has come on the power play and not a single point of his has been scored shorthanded. Instead, he’s been a stud for the Wild at 5-on-5, so much so that he’s in the same league as Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid. That sounds bizarre, but it’s true.
Zucker’s managed 14 goals and 37 points while playing five-a-side this season, and the other 500-plus minute players who rank in the top five in scoring are McDavid, Crosby, Brent Burns and Mark Scheifele. That’s a select bunch as all four rank in the top six in league scoring. More impressive yet is that Crosby is the only one of those four others to have a higher points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 than Zucker’s 2.86. Of course, no one is about to say Zucker’s in the same overall league as Crosby or McDavid, but when it comes to even strength play this season, the Wild winger is sure producing like it.
The brilliant thing about a player like Zucker playing that way is that he’s exactly the type of weapon a team that has designs on going deep into the post-season needs. Every post-season run has its unsung heroes, and they’re generally players who score a clutch overtime goal or get moved up the lineup in hopes of generating some offense. With the way Zucker has played, chances are he could be exactly that type of player for Minnesota in the playoffs, and if it’s not him, Niederreiter, Haula, Pominville and Stewart have all been proving they can give that added punch.
The post-season can be as much about rolling four lines and getting some mismatches along the way as it is about high-end skill. Given that’s the case, there isn’t a team more well equipped to make an opponent’s bottom six and depth defensemen pay quite as much as the Wild. So, while Dubnyk, Koivu and Suter could be in line for end-of-year award recognition, it’s the depth, led by players such as Zucker, that stands to carry Minnesota towards the real prize they’re chasing.
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Matt Walilko had a playoff game to remember, recording six goals and five assists. It wasn't exactly a once-in-a-lifetime game since he had a 10-point game earlier this year.
In the dying minutes of his Jr. C playoff game Tuesday night, Matt Walilko of the Midland Flyers had his stick broken in two by a slash. A dastardly deed to be sure, but you can kind of see his opponent’s reasoning. It was the probably same thought process Bobby Clarke had when he broke Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle during the 1972 Summit Series.
“The guy was telling me that my stick was way too hot and he had to break it,” Walilko said. “He just axed the stick right in half and said it had too many points in it. We were laughing about it after the game.”
Considering that stick – along with the 17-year-old using it - was responsible for six goals and five assists in a 12-3 rout over the Huntsville Otters, you can understand why the opponent would rather see that one propping up tomato plants than demolishing his team’s playoff hopes. So when his team hits the ice for Game 6 of their playoff series Friday night, Walilko will be using new lumber, but riding the confidence of a once-in-a-lifetime game.
Or was it? Earlier this season, the Grade 12 high school student registered a 10-point game with five goals and five assists en route to scoring 80 points in 39 games and being named rookie of the year in Ontario's Provincial Junior Hockey League. Walilko is just 17, playing in a league where there are players as old as 22. He was easily the youngest player among the league’s top 10 scorers this season and one of only two teenagers. In what should come as no surprise, Walilko’s night vaulted him into the league’s playoff scoring lead with 10 goals and 20 points in five games. “It makes it look like I’ve been lighting it up every night,” Walilko said, “but I only had nine points in four games before that one.”
Back to the game, Walilko attributed his good fortune to being in the right place at the right time. He said a couple of key players were out with injuries and school commitments, so he knew he would have to step up. One of his linemates had seven points in the game and the other linemate had six. Walilko said that, as was the case in his 10-point night earlier this season, he went into the game knowing he was facing the opponent’s backup goalie.
“You kind of do your research, right?” Walilko said. “You see the backup is starting and you try to put a lot of pucks on net.”
What makes the feat even more impressive is that it gave Walilko’s team a 3-2 series lead with a chance to win it in Game 6. The Flyers had dug themselves into a 2-0 hole in the series, but have stormed back and clearly have some momentum on their side, not to mention a confident young man leading the attack.
Which begs the question: What is a young man this good doing playing this far down the junior hockey ladder? Well, Walilko played AAA midget last season in Barrie and rather than play on the third or fourth line for a Jr. B or Jr. A team this season, he thought it would be better for his development if he were a prime time player at a lower level. He has his sights set on earning a scholarship, something he hopes to do in a year or so. Walilko plans to take next season off school and hopes to play next season for the Pembroke Lumber Kings. He plans to write his SATs in the hope of attracting interest from U.S. schools.
Flyers president and GM Gerry Asselin said Walilko is so focused on getting a scholarship that he turned down a chance to practice, and perhaps even play, with the struggling Barrie Colts this season. The Flyers are affiliated with the Colts, who are struggling and in last place this season. Asselin said he recently had a conversation with Colts GM Jason Ford, in which Ford asked him to suggest a couple of players the Colts might have a look at down the stretch. Asselin said when he approached Walilko, he was flatly turned down.
“He’s a smart kid,” Asselin said. “He has his head screwed on right.”
A student at a Catholic high school in Barrie, Walilko said he can’t take all the credit for his success. His personal motto comes from the Bible passage Philippians 4:13, which says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
“I’ve put it on every stick I’ve bought since I was a young kid,” Walilko said. “I grew up in a religious family and every time I’m on the ice and having a tough time, I’ll just look down at that and kind of re-motivate myself. It kind of applies to me in everything I do, not just hockey.”
Walilko will be looking to continue making a big contribution in the playoffs, but is another double-digit performance in the future?
“I don’t know if any of my backup sticks have that many points in them, but I’ll try.”
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The Red Wings right winger got the punishment he deserved for his attack on Jared Spurgeon – given the precedent the league has set for suspensions.
Was it too much? Too little? It depends on how philosophical you want to get.
Gustav Nyquist earned a six-game ban Wednesday for his high-sticking of Minnesota Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon, which happened Sunday. Six games was about exactly what we should’ve expected. And, based on the precedent set by the NHL’s Department of Player Safety in recent seasons, that seems fair.
The natural point of comparison was Duncan Keith’s stick to the face of Wild right winger Charlie Coyle last April, which earned Keith a six-game ban including Game 1 of Chicago’s first-round playoff series against the St. Louis Blues. The NHL has established in the past that it weights playoff games heavier than regular season ones, so five regular season games plus a playoff matchup was the equivalent of, say eight games for Keith. Keith wasn’t a repeat offender according to the official league definition as outlined by the collective bargaining agreement, as he hadn’t been suspended in more than 18 months, but he did have a history of tiptoeing close to the line of supplemental discipline with retaliatory stick work. It’s not always black and white. The DOPS keeps tabs on player behavior of all sorts, including borderline plays on the right side of the law.
Keith earned the second-longest player safety ban of the 2015-16 season after the 41-game suspension handed to Raffi Torres in October of that campaign. Keith’s play was dangerous enough and malicious enough to warrant the punishment.
Now Nyquist gets what appears to be the same ban at first glance: six games. But we know Keith’s playoff game was weighted heavier, making Nyquist’s ban a bit less severe, which feels about right.
Working in Nyquist’s favor: (a) he was not a repeat offender, with a squeaky-clean record save for one embellishment fine; and (b) Spurgeon stayed in the game after eating the stick blade. Both criteria impact a suspension length – only after supplemental discipline has been deemed necessary. Neither would matter if the DOPS deemed the play unworthy of any suspension.
The play was obviously suspendable, of course, so Nyquist can thank his lucky stars he had no previous suspension and that Spurgeon was unhurt, as the attack was still vicious enough to earn what is tied with the Philadelphia Flyers’ Radko Gudas for the season’s longest ban.
What worked against Nyquist: Narrative. The fact Spurgeon cross-checked him in the back and deserved a penalty actually hurt Nyquist’s case, as it made the ensuing stick swing far more retaliatory and thus far more deliberate. Nyquist insisted the play was accidental…sort of. He did intend to attack Spurgeon with a cross-check, he told the DOPS, but claims he inadvertently smacked Spurgeon on the way to assuming the cross-check position. The carelessness of Nyquist’s act alone was still worthy of supplemental discipline, but the “game story” – admitting he did plan to physically harm Spurgeon – really did Nyquist in. Intent is intent regardless of how forceful the act was supposed to be, and Nyquist had to go behind virtual bars.
So yes, the punishment fit the crime…unless we zoom out of the whole thing. The reality is no suspension in pro sports is long enough to truly deter dangerous behavior. We have to accept that we’ll never see truly appropriate bans, though – because the rules of player safety are collectively bargained. The NHLPA had a say in the drafting of said rules and, by representing the players, stands for the victim and perpetrator of each on-ice crime. Nyquist easily could’ve taken out Spurgeon’s eye and ended his career. In a just world, that warrants a 50-game suspension, maybe more, yes? But we’ll never see one. The exception is a guy like Torres, who repeated the same identical behavior so many times that even the PA couldn’t protect him.
So we’re best off forming our opinions with context and understanding that NHL discipline happens within the confines of the CBA. With that in mind, six games was exactly what we should’ve foreseen for Nyquist, and we should accept it as a reasonable punishment.
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Penguins goaltender Matt Murray has a serious shot at finishing the season as a Vezina Trophy finalist, but there’s a chance he won’t even be named one of the three best rookies this season.
Patrik Laine did it again Tuesday night. For the third time this season, and third time before his 19th birthday, Laine scored a hat trick. He’s got 26 goals now, one off the rookie scoring lead and four back of league leader Sidney Crosby. And on the same night, Auston Matthews continued his dream rookie season, firing home two goals of his own to bring his total to 27 on the year, while Mitch Marner stayed ahead of all rookies with an assist that brought his point total to 48.
It’s not just those three rookies turning heads, though. There’s also been the superb play of William Nylander, a teammate of Matthews’ and Marner’s in Toronto, the continued emergence of Zach Werenski as a legitimate top-four defender in Columbus and a litany of others who have laid their claims to the title of league’s best rookie. Everyone from Matthew Tkachuk to Sebastian Aho has had their share of Calder talk.
But with everyone swept up in the top scorers and the brilliance of some of the fresh faces, it’s hard not to feel as if Matt Murray’s being overlooked in Pittsburgh. Tuesday, while Laine was torching the Dallas Stars and Matthews and Marner were helping their Maple Leafs blowout the New York Islanders, Murray was hard at work in Pittsburgh, stopping all 29 shots he faced en route to his third shutout of the season. Murray, we need remind you, is still a rookie.
Sure, Murray has a Stanley Cup to his name and he was at the very least in the conversation for the Conn Smythe, but by the league’s standards, Murray still counts as a rookie. He played only 13 regular season games prior to the start of 2016-17, and the 21 games Murray played in the post-season during the 2015-16 season don’t count toward his total. Take umbrage with that if you will, but the fact is that no matter how many games Murray saw in the playoffs, he was going to be a rookie this season.
We can debate the eligibility rules all we want, and that debate was surely had last year when it came to Artemi Panarin’s candidacy, and subsequent victory, given his time in the KHL, but Murray’s situation is not unique to him. John Gibson finished seventh in Calder voting last season despite having 30 combined regular season and post-season games under his belt prior to the start of the campaign, Jake Allen was eligible and finished 17th and 10th in Calder voting in back-to-back years, Torey Krug played 15 playoffs games before finishing fourth in 2013-14 and Logan Couture played 40 games — 25 regular season, 15 post-season — before his second-place Calder finish in 2009-10.
So, given that Murray is eligible, it might be time we start giving some consideration to his candidacy. And when he’s compared to rookie goaltenders, there’s no one even close.
There are 18 freshman goaltenders who’ve suited up this season, none of whom have seen more action than Murray and not a single one who has had near Murray’s level of success. In 31 games, Murray has a sparkling 21-6-2 record, and the next closest rookie netminder to Murray is Juuse Saros. The Nashville Predators rookie has won five of his 11 starts. Yes, that means there’s a 16-win gap between Murray and the next winningest rookie goaltender. It’s incredibly difficult to be named rookie of the year as a goaltender, however. Only eight netminders have managed the feat in the post-expansion era.
That means for a rookie goaltender to win the Calder, he almost certainly has to be one of the very best at his position in the league, which in turn puts him in the upper echelon of all players in the league for a given season. What better measure of that is there for a goaltender than finishing as one of the Vezina Trophy finalists?
Murray’s going to have a tough climb to put himself into the Vezina conversation, though, especially with the seasons Devan Dubnyk, Sergei Bobrovsky and Braden Holtby have put forth. But if there’s anyone who could sneak into contention, it might be Murray. As of Wednesday, he ranks fourth out of all qualified goaltenders with a .926 save percentage, sixth in the league with a 2.27 goals-against average, is tied for eighth with three shutouts and is one of only 16 goaltenders to have won 20 or more games this season. Murray’s case as a Vezina finalist is more impressive when you consider a couple of other numbers, too.
For instance, there are 38 goaltenders who have played 1,000 minutes or more at 5-on-5 this season, and of those only Dubnyk and Holtby have posted a better save percentage than Murray’s .937 mark. In addition, if Murray played more, he’d almost certainly be among the league leaders in wins. Consider that of all goaltenders to play at least 30 games, Murray boasts the second-best win percentage in the league, behind only Dubnyk.
This is to say that where it matters most, Murray has been one of the three-best goaltenders in the league for the duration of the season. He’s deserving of a Vezina nomination. Will he win? Almost certainly not. The Vezina is Dubnyk’s to lose at this point, but that Murray has a shot at becoming a finalist for the award is significant when it comes to the Calder.
Since 1981, when the Vezina turned into an award for the most outstanding goaltender, six of eight netminders who have been finalists for the award have also finished top-three in Calder voting. That list includes Grant Fuhr, Tom Barrasso, Ron Hextall, Ed Belfour, Jim Carey and Steve Mason. Coincidentally, the two odd-men out both played for the New York Rangers. Henrik Lundqvist and Mike Richter had identical third-place Vezina, fourth-place Calder finishes in 2003-04 and 1990-91, respectively. However, it seems as though Murray’s more likely to join the latter category rather than the former.
With the flashiness of this season’s freshmen and the number of players pushing for top rookie honors, Murray probably will be overlooked. The fact of the matter is Matthews is having a rookie season the likes of which we haven’t seen since Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin came into the league. The same goes for Laine, too, who has shown every bit the goal scoring flair that was promised. Throw in Marner, Nylander, Werenski and others and you’ve got a crowded field.
It’s a shame, too. Even if Murray wouldn’t have won either award, he’d be joining some elite company such as Fuhr, Barrasso and Hextall as a finalist for both awards in the same season. In any other year, against any other rookie crop or in a season he started more games, that very well could have been a reality. Instead, he might have to settle for a spectacular season that’s just a hair short of being given the credit it deserves.