With teams like Edmonton and Colorado making an early-season push up the standings, competition for playoff spots in the Western Conference is becoming that much more intense. And it only stands to reason that as new clubs are rising up, some of the eight playoff qualifiers from the 2015-16 campaign might have to drop off.
The Minnesota Wild were a candidate to potentially fit that bill in a lot of people’s minds before the season began. Not because of anything that was necessarily wrong with the Wild — more so because, well, it seems pretty farfetched that teams like Chicago, San Jose or Dallas would slide. And, again, there’s only room for eight playoff teams.
Minnesota isn’t showing any signs of stumbling, though. At least not through the first few weeks of the season. With eight games in the books, they’re sitting at 5-2-1 — good for first place in the vaunted Central Division. And they’re doing it with a pretty balanced attack.
Despite averaging 3.50 goals per game (fourth in the NHL), the Wild don’t have anyone on the roster with more than three goals. Charlie Coyle, Eric Staal and Ryan Suter are all tied for the team lead with three, and six others are deadlocked behind them with two apiece.
Overall, 16 different Minnesota skaters have tallied at least one goal. And 20 have notched a point. Considering a max of 23 players can make a roster out of camp — and two of those are goaltenders — they’re spreading the wealth about as evenly as possible.
The question now, of course, is just how sustainable that is. On the one hand, some of these guys are obviously going to see their production drop off as the season unfolds and these sample sizes get bigger and more meaningful. And the Wild probably aren’t going to keep their current 12.8 shooting percentage (No. 2 overall) intact. After all, the Dallas Stars topped the league with a 10.1 shooting percentage a year ago, and their roster is built specifically for scoring goals, above all else.
That said, players like Zach Parise are probably going to see an uptick in their numbers at some point, too. The six-time 30-goal scorer has only managed to light the lamp in one of Minnesota’s eight games so far. Over his 12-year career, however, he has averaged a goal per every 2.55 games. Even if he doesn’t keep that exact rate up, he’s going to contribute.
In other words, we can probably expect the scoring to settle down at some point — but not completely disappear. And, depending on your own personal hockey philosophy, it might be better that the offense is being spread around. Sure, the Wild can’t look to Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby or Steven Stamkos when they need a goal. But they also aren’t so reliant on one scorer that they just completely dry up if that individual is having an off night.
Of course, the key to all this working is the goaltending on the other end of the ice. Early on, Devan Dubnyk has looked a lot more like the guy who broke out and challenged for the Vezina two seasons ago than the guy who finished in the middle of the pack last season. His 1.67 goals against average and .944 save percentage so far have been impressive and, while he can’t be expected to maintain those ratios all year, a strong start is a good sign for the rest of the 2016-17 campaign.
On top of all that, the man behind the bench has a pretty good record of guiding his clubs to the playoffs. Bruce Boudreau is in his first year as Minnesota’s head coach, but it’s his 10th season as an NHL bench boss. In the previous nine, he’s qualified for the postseason eight times.
Ultimately, the Wild have higher aspirations than just making it into the playoffs. And Boudreau — who has a notoriously rough record when the schedule switches over to best-of-seven series — is looking to improve in that department as well. But all anyone can do during the first 82 games of the year is put themselves in position to keep playing after the regular season wraps up. Thanks to a balanced attack, Boudreau and the Wild are on the right track so far.