Better Late than Never: Minnesota Wild

ST PAUL MN - SEPTEMBER 25: Nikolai Zherdev #93 of the Philadelphia Flyers is checked into the boards by Greg Zanon #5 of the Minnesota Wild during the third period at Xcel Energy Center on September 25 2010 in St Paul Minnesota. The Flyers defeated the Wild 3-2 in a shootout. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

I'm posting a series of pieces that were originally intended to go into an NHL annual this year.  The parties involved in producing the book got a little behind schedule and now it's not so timely.  But I didn't want everything to go to waste, so here is the first installment, on the Minnesota Wild:

There’s only one question to be asked about Minnesota’s 2009-10 season: what happened?  In the preceding three seasons, Minnesota was sixth overall in the NHL in goal differential, powered mostly by a defense that allowed the 3rd-fewest goals in the league.  But last season started out very differently: the Wild didn’t win in regulation until their 13th game, and they won by two goals or more just twice in the first two months of the season. 

Last year was always going to be a rebuilding year for Minnesota: they lost their first ever player, 2000 #1 draft pick Marian Gaborik, to free agency, and they parted ways with the only coach and general manager they ever had, Jacques Lemaire and Doug Risebrough.  Even at their most-successful, the Wild were significantly outshot, and they relied on a defensive system that pushed the puck outside in the defensive zone and suppressed dangerous chances. 

Based purely on where his opponents shot from, Lemaire’s teams had an expected shooting percentage of 7.06% against, by far the best in the league – Claude Julien was 2nd at 7.13%.  (This includes just road shots on goal from 2001-2010.)  But if we include shots that missed the net, Lemaire falls behind Julien to finish 4th overall.  It’s important to keep in mind that the NHL didn’t record missed shots in 2002-03 and 2003-04, the latter having been Lemaire’s best single-season performance.  So the second method may underestimate what Lemaire was able to do. 

Let’s break his performance down by year:

Year

w/o misses

w/ misses

Coach

2001-02

7.13

5.00

Lemaire

2002-03

7.03

 

Lemaire

2003-04

6.57

 

Lemaire

2005-06

6.99

5.10

Lemaire

2006-07

7.05

4.88

Lemaire

2007-08

7.23

5.30

Lemaire

2008-09

7.30

5.39

Lemaire

2009-10

6.95

5.14

Richards

2009-10 (NJ)

7.21

5.34

Lemaire

Lemaire MIN

7.04

5.16

 

Lemaire All

7.06

5.17

 

Richards

6.95

5.14

 

League Avg

7.40

5.32

 

The Wild were incredibly good at suppressing scoring chances through the 2006-07 season, which was, not coincidentally, their best in franchise history.  Despite not changing his roster, Lemaire appears to have adopted a different strategy after that year, one that he carried over to New Jersey.  And new head coach Todd Richards’ system actually improved on Lemaire’s chance suppression, at least in the short-term.

So if Jacques Lemaire isn’t a Magician and Todd Richards is, who’s to blame?

One of Minnesota’s defining characteristics over their history has been keeping the band together, so to speak.  The Wild started the season with 17 returning players, including fifteen skaters, nine of whom got more than 10 minutes of ice time per night.  Their year-over-year change in production at 5-on-5 is very instructive:

Player

Mins

Shots

PDO

+/-

Koivu

6

-13

5

2

Brunette

39

-16

2

0

Sheppard

-358

23

-10

0

Miettinen

-14

46

-9

-1

Schultz

14

95

-14

-2

Burns

-200

1

-11

-4

Clutterbuck

-34

26

-14

-4

Zidlicky

64

-68

1

-5

Nolan

143

-7

-45

-18

 

 

 

 

 

Average

-38

10

-11

-4

 

Under Todd Richards’ tutelage, their shot differential went 10 shots in the right direction.  But as the chart makes clear, they also experienced a disastrous drop in PDO, which crushed their overall plus-minus. 

In comparison, under Lemaire, Minnesota was a .500 team, with a very non-traditional game.  Other than in their 2006-07 peak, when they barely surpassed 50% in their best season in franchise history, they were consistently outshot at even-strength.  But by their 3rd season in the league (2002-03), Jacques Lemaire had assembled the defensive and goaltending corps that would allow him to succeed despite conceding all those shots.  The Corsi and even-strength PDO table shows that progression: 

Season

Sh%

Sv%

PDO

Corsi%

Pts%

2009-10

8.5

911

996

47.9

45.7

2008-09

8.0

922

1002

46.7

48.9

2007-08

9.1

922

1014

46.6

53.8

2006-07

7.8

929

1007

50.5

57.1

2005-06

8.8

919

1007

45.9

46.2

2003-04

8.7

934

1021

44.8

47.7

2002-03

8.5

928

1014

45.1

54.6

 

 

 

 

 

 

Average

8.5

924

1009

46.8

50.6

 

In the six seasons prior to Todd Richards’ arrival, the Wild achieved an even-strength equilibrium.  They conceded extra shots against but stopped them at a higher-than-average rate.  Richards, on the other hand, improved the shot count, but couldn’t keep the puck out of the net.  If you want to know why that happened, it’s hard to look anywhere beyond the goaltending:

Goaltender

2009-10

2008-09

2007-08

2006-07

Total

Backstrom

912

923

925

933

922

Harding

921

931

917

978

926

 

Niklas Backstrom was plucked from obscurity in Finland at Age 28 after a dominant season there.  His performance in his first three NHL seasons was exceptional, but last year was a dud, as he posted an even-strength save percentage barely above replacement-level.  Overall, Minnesota finished 22nd in 5-on-5 save percentage after finishing 4th and 8th the previous two seasons.

How do we know to pin the blame on Backstrom?  First, it seems clear that the shots he faced were no closer than they had been in his previous three seasons.  And second, Minnesota’s defense did a better job of clearing the puck and preventing rebounds:

Season

Rebound%

2006-07

7.0

2007-08

6.5

2008-09

6.7

2009-10

6.3

 

There’s no good way to spin this.  Niklas Backstrom is in the middle of a four-year, $24 million contract, and any reasonable analysis says he’s not likely much better than a league-average goaltender.  That’s bad news for Minnesota: they’re paying about $4 million more per season for him than they need to.

Of course, there may be more to the story of Backstrom’s decline.  Jacques Lemaire has had four coaching jobs in his career: Montreal 1984-85, New Jersey 1993-98, Minnesota 2000-09, and then a return to New Jersey in 2009-10.  He has had seven goaltenders in that time who had a significant number of appearances prior to joining his team.  If we compare their save percentage over the preceding three seasons to their performance while Lemaire was their coach, they’ve generally improved in his presence:

Goaltender

Lemaire

Before

Delta

Roloson

919

894

25

Terreri

906

889

17

Danis

923

910

13

McLennan

905

898

7

Brodeur

916

920

-4

Fernandez

914

922

-8

Soetaert

854

869

-15

 

 

 

 

Weighted

908

905

3

 

That’s not a huge difference, and there’s no reason to believe it wasn’t luck or data-collection noise that caused it.  At the other end, he’s had eleven goaltenders move on to other teams or coaches:

Goaltender

Lemaire

After

Delta

Penney

876

834

42

Backstrom

923

903

20

Harding

920

905

15

Terreri

906

892

14

Fernandez

914

902

12

Roloson

919

909

10

Brodeur

916

908

8

McLennan

905

899

6

Schwab

899

893

6

Dunham

909

913

-4

Soetaert

854

873

-19

 

 

 

 

Weighted

906

892

14

 

If we assume – and that’s a big if – that Lemaire’s coaching talent lies at approximately 8.5 points of save percentage, then he brings 3.5 wins to his team per season.  This represents both improvements in goaltender performance and reductions in opponent scoring threats.

None of this should make Minnesota Wild fans feel any better about their team’s prospects.  They don’t have players who can control puck possession.  They don’t have a goaltender who can save them from their mistakes.  And now they’re two seasons away from Jacques Lemaire’s inscrutable defensive magic. 


Appendix

Table 1 – Expected Shooting Percentage Against, Road Games, 2001-2010

 

First

Last

Exp Sh%

First

Last

Exp Sh%

Jacques

Lemaire

7.06

Bob

Hartley

7.45

Claude

Julien

7.13

Joel

Quenneville

7.45

Alain

Vigneault

7.21

Mike

Babcock

7.49

Marc

Crawford

7.22

Mike

Keenan

7.52

Ron

Wilson

7.25

Peter

Laviolette

7.52

Dave

Tippett

7.26

Jacques

Martin

7.53

Ken

Hitchcock

7.26

Lindy

Ruff

7.57

Craig

Mactavish

7.27

Randy

Carlyle

7.60

Pat

Quinn

7.36

Michel

Therrien

7.61

Barry

Trotz

7.38

Tom

Renney

7.61

John

Tortorella

7.39

Paul

Maurice

7.67

John

Stevens

7.42

Andy

Murray

7.81

Wayne

Gretzky

7.44

 

 

Table 2 – Expected Shooting Percentage Against, Road Games, 2001, 2005-2010, Misses Included

First

Last

Exp Sh%

First

Last

Exp Sh%

Craig

Mactavish

5.11

Wayne

Gretzky

5.30

Claude

Julien

5.14

Mike

Babcock

5.32

Bob

Hartley

5.14

Joel

Quenneville

5.35

Jacques

Lemaire

5.17

Peter

Laviolette

5.35

Marc

Crawford

5.17

Mike

Keenan

5.41

Alain

Vigneault

5.18

Michel

Therrien

5.41

Ken

Hitchcock

5.18

Lindy

Ruff

5.42

Ron

Wilson

5.19

Randy

Carlyle

5.45

Dave

Tippett

5.28

Tom

Renney

5.46

Pat

Quinn

5.37

Jacques

Martin

5.48

Barry

Trotz

5.32

Andy

Murray

5.56

John

Tortorella

5.29

Paul

Maurice

5.59

John

Stevens

5.29

 

 

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