Dean Evason’s Wilds abandon their boring playstyle

Historically, when most hockey fans thought of the Minnesota Wild, only one word came to mind: boring. But what has earned them this reputation? Most would say that because of their suffocating defense, but it doesn’t quite hold up. No one fell asleep in the Colorado Avalanche last year because of his stifling defense. Same thing with the top teams of the Chicago Blackhawks or the Detroit Red Wings.

Others attributed it to the star’s lack of power, which was absolutely a factor. A well-known player to watch can make a boring team less of a pain to watch. But that diagnosis lacks a crucial ingredient that has been essential in sealing the Wild’s lackluster reputation. Three little words: Dump and chase.

For those unfamiliar with hockey lingo, don’t worry; this one is as simple as it sounds. Dump and chase is a strategy in which a player enters the attacking zone by passing the puck past the defense and trying to retrieve it instead of a player entering the zone with control of the puck. If you’ve ever heard an announcer, coach, or player say “kick the pucks,” they’re talking about dump and chase.

If you’ve been watching Wild games before October, you’ve often heard “deep pucks”. It was practically their mantra. Even last year’s team, the most exciting in franchise history, were not immune to this snoozefest style of play. All Three Zones’ Corey Snznajder tracks entry into NHL zones, and here’s how the Wild forwards fared last season:

Minnesota relied heavily on Kirill Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala to enter the zone with puck control. Both were elite, but both got little support elsewhere. Marcus Johansson and (narrowly) Marcus Foligno were the only other Wild players to carry the puck at an above-average pace. All the others? It was Dump and Chase City.

But Kaprizov and Fiala single-handedly coached Minnesota to a 47% hold percentage, just above the league average. It was the first time in recorded history, possibly the first time since the mid-2000s, and possibly the first time the Wild had accomplished this. And now Evason’s Wild is even more determined to carry the puck into the zone.

According to Sznajder’s data for this year, Minnesota carries the puck in the offensive zone on 53.7% of its entries. It’s the sixth in the NHL and a huge step up from last year. Kaprizov and Fiala are still in the elite, but look at the rest of the roster and you’ll see that most of the squad are now carrying the puck on more than half of their entries.

Notice how little the list has changed. New faces like Rem Pitlick and Freddy Gaudreau helped, but leftovers like Mats Zuccarello, Nick Bjugstad, Marcus Foligno and more have improved tremendously. Either they’ve all spent this offseason working on puck transport, or Evason’s system is to blame. As a result, the Wilds become everything they don’t represent: a fast-paced, fun team.

Why is this switch necessary? Sure, it’s nicer to watch, but how does that lead to wins?

One of the earliest and most important discoveries in modern hockey analysis concerned entry to the zone. Eric Tulsky, now an executive with the Carolina Hurricanes, found that controlled entries (mostly deferrals) generated twice as many shots as uncontrolled entries. It makes sense: if you drop the puck, that means you have to get it back in order to shoot. This won’t always happen, so it will naturally reduce the effectiveness of a dump and chase team.

Dump and chase can indeed work for some teams. The Los Angeles Kings relied heavily on tactics during their Stanley Cup years. Ironically, the Tulsky hurricanes are do the same this year. But to be successful with strategy, you need skilled forwards to grab the puck, which Minnesota has rarely had.

The Wild have a great puck recovery line at Foligno, Joel Eriksson Ek and Jordan Greenway. Even they benefit from the new emphasis on puck carrying, which makes their offense more varied. The rest of the Minnesota lines employ at least one forward puck with great effect.

Obviously, having Kaprizov and Fiala on their own lines helps balance the zone entry load. Both do a great job entering the attacking zone with control and generating scoring chances. But unlike last year, both have the support of their trio mates. Zuccarello is much more aggressive to enter the zone with control this year which has resulted in a big increase in production to 5 to 5 for Kaprizov. Fiala has a rotating cast of Gaudreau, Pitlick and even Victor Rask as side options who carry the puck reliably this year. That’s a big reason he still has a decent production despite shooting 4.4%.

Even the fourth line kicks in. Nick Bjugstad may only have four goals and no assists, but he also enters the zone with control more often. What would otherwise be a simple dump and chase line can now get scoring chances, which at the very least means the puck isn’t constantly in their own court.

Winning is fun, but putting an entertaining product on ice is also important. The state of hockey has seen some good teams, but their lack of visibility puts them behind the Vikings, Twins and often even Timberwolves in the local buzz. Winning (at least enough to make the playoffs consistently) isn’t enough, even for their home market. Winning in style, however? They’re a team fans can fall in love with, and the Wild are putting a fun product on the ice that also accumulates W’s.

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