Analysts love to credit the Chicago Blackhawks for using analytics to survive the hardship of remaining competitive in a salary cap world. Purists prefer to blame analytics for the failures of the Edmonton Oilers, New Jersey Devils and Toronto Maple Leafs this season. Somewhere in the middle there is the Minnesota Wild, a team that willingly acknowledged its efforts to change from a trapping, dump-and-chase behemoth to a speedy carry-in assault, building on the principles of Eric Tulsky and others, who found that controlled entries on average lead to twice as many shot attempts as purposeful dump-ins.
The Wild are a curious case because last year, they started out as an analytic darling, with some of the best possession numbers in the league. But then some of the team’s core players got hurt, and in order to survive with a roster filled with replacements, the aggressiveness had to be abandoned – or at least put to one side – and the possession numbers, unsurprisingly, tumbled.
This year, something similar happened. The Wild started out with great numbers, leading everybody to believe they were the top team that looked so impressive in challenging the Chicago Blackhawks in the playoffs last year, but poor goaltending led to some bad results, and as a results things started to get off track. Without more micro-analysis, in the form of zone entry tracking, for example, it’s hard to know what exactly changed. Did the Wild revert to dumping the puck in more frequently? Did they collapse farther in the defensive zone to prevent high-percentage opportunities, thanks to a distrust in their goaltenders? One factor that we do know has not played a part this time around is the injury list, as you can see from this impressive visualization courtesy of Springing Malik.
It’s hard to make claims like “the bad goaltending created a distrust that led to a tilting of the ice in the wrong direction” just because a team struggles in the second half of two seasons. But maybe that claim has some validity. On January 15, the Wild acquired Devan Dubnyk from the Phoenix Coyotes, and the former Edmonton Oiler and Team Canada World Junior backup has been sensational, posting a .948 save percentage with four shutouts in nine games (going into a February 9th contest). If you split the Wild’s shot attempt numbers into three segments of the season, October 1-December 1 (ended by a three game stretch in which the team allowed 11 goals), December 1 to January 15 (the first game following the Dubnyk trade), and January 15 to February 8, the results are striking.
Obviously correlation does not equal causation, and the third sample is still small, but there might be something to the thought that poor goaltending damaged the team’s ability to effectively carry out its progressive strategy, and that the team’s psyche was damaged leading to poor play as a result of distrust. It’s not conclusive, but it’s certainly worthy of further analysis.