What went wrong for the Minnesota Wild in the 2023-24? Regression, injuries and more

After another Round 1 exit, the 2023-24 Minnesota Wild faced the same question that has overshadowed any regular season success year after year: Were they finally ready to play deep into the spring?

With the season coming to a close, there is a clear and concise answer: No.

Unlike years past, Minnesota won’t get the chance to try and prove it in the postseason. The Wild are eliminated from playoff contention after failing to bounce back enough from a slow and disappointing start.

So what went wrong with the Wild this year?

What were the chances?

The Wild were not a playoff lock going into the season, but at 71 percent it felt like they were on solid ground. A 97-point season shouldn’t have been too difficult to manage for a team that paced above 100 points for three straight seasons.

A few things just didn’t go Minnesota’s way this season and that led to a finish between 85 and 90 points. That wasn’t an especially uncommon outcome to expect as it only landed one standard deviation away from the expected mean. But that doesn’t make it any less disappointing for a team with higher aspirations.

For teams like the Devils and Senators, anything that could go wrong did, leading to both teams vastly underperforming expectations. For the Wild, a team not far off from the expected cutoff, it didn’t take much to push them to the outside. Come into the season strong and it takes a lot more to push a team out. For teams of Minnesota’s caliber however, a single injury and shaky goaltending can be all it takes.

What’s the Big Answer?

Is Minnesota strong enough down the middle to contend?

Before the season we made one thing clear: Joel Eriksson Ek is not the problem here. While he may not be a guy who puts up huge numbers, his two-way ability more than makes up for that. He was even better than expected this season with a plus-15 Net Rating, up from his plus-10 projection. It may not be contender quality, but any playoff team will take that any day of the week.

Down the middle, the problems looked to be elsewhere with a trio of Ryan Hartman, Marco Rossi and Connor Dewar — not very inspiring. Hartman was coming off a down season, Rossi had yet to do much at the NHL level and Dewar didn’t offer much offense.

As it turns out, the Wild’s center group was passable, especially when coupled with  Eriksson Ek’s jump. Hartman was as offensively capable as expected earning a 49-point pace that will do just fine in a middle six. Dewar did his part defensively while adding a bit more scoring (before being traded at the deadline). And Rossi finally arrived as an NHL-caliber talent, showing some savvy at both ends of the ice — more on him in a bit.

Between the four our expectation was a combined Net Rating of minus-four which is where the big question stemmed from. It was one of the weakest amounts among the likely playoff teams.

With Eriksson Ek taking another step and Rossi’s emergence, the Wild were able to turn a weakness into a strength this season. For the first time in a long time, their center depth looked reasonably good. Still not contender caliber, but finally didn’t look out of place among playoff teams.

Minnesota’s depth down the middle was not the reason for disappointment this season. That it was actually a reason for optimism speaks to the team’s issues elsewhere.

Which direction did the wildcard land?

Is Marco Rossi finally ready to be an everyday NHLer?

After a longer road than expected, Rossi played his long-anticipated rookie season with the Wild and finally became an everyday NHLer for the team.

Rossi’s year started in more of a depth capacity, but he saw more meaningful minutes in November when he was bumped up to the top line between Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello. That top line has played about 311 five-on-five minutes together, with a 53 percent expected goals rate. And this combination has had the results to match, outscoring opponents 19-13 for the second-best differential of any combination in Minnesota.

When the Wild decided to load up that top line with Eriksson Ek and Matt Boldy, Rossi moved to the middle-six where he has been a source of depth scoring this team has needed alongside the likes of Hartman and Marcus Johansson. But even when he didn’t have the support of the team’s best winger, he still managed to be a difference-maker.

While Minnesota has some shortcomings to reflect on this year, Rossi’s development is absolutely a positive. At five-on-five, he boosted the team’s expected goal generation by 0.14 more than his teammates. His playmaking and ability to generate shots off the cycle stood out on the Wild. With a plus-3 Net Rating, he is the most improved of the Wild by a swing of plus-12 – although, to be fair, his projection was rough since it was based on such a small sample of NHL play to this point.

The only downside really is that the coaches never gave him much of a chance to cook with Boldy, but there is time for that next year especially if he can take another step forward over the summer.

Did they live up to their strengths?

Before the season, Minnesota’s biggest strength was obvious: team defense. That remained the case this year, even with Jared Spurgeon sidelined for all but 16 games. As expected, Jonas Brodin and Brock Faber were rocks on the blue line, and the forwards elevated their defense too. That led to the projected skater group delivering a combined plus-29 Defensive Rating, up from the plus-24 that was projected of them.

Even with injury replacements filling in the gaps, the Wild’s baseline of defensive excellence remained intact. Better even. Last season the team allowed 2.37 expected goals against per 60 at five-on-five. This year they got that number down to 2.25. The Wild were stingy.

Of course, that didn’t matter at all thanks to the team’s No. 1 problem: goaltending.

Minnesota entered the season with what was expected to be top 10 goaltending. That was on the back of Filip Gustavsson who looked like a future star in 2022-23. Instead, he crumbled under the pressure of a starter load and Marc-Andre Fleury wasn’t up to the task of providing insulation.

The conservative expectation was for the Wild to save six goals above expected this season and what actually happened is why goaltending projections in general tend to be more conservative. In 44 games Gustavsson allowed 8.5 goals above expected, Fleury gave up 8.5 himself in 39 games, and for good measure, Jesper Wallstedt was at minus-2.8 himself in just three starts. The final retail price is 20 goals below expected according to Evolving Hockey — and that actually undersells it given their model tends to overshoot how many expected goals there are.

That’s the season in a nutshell. The skaters provided elite defense and passable offense led by Kaprizov and Boldy being as good as expected (and Eriksson Ek being even better) — and it didn’t matter at all. The goaltending was that bad.

Were they overwhelmed by their weaknesses?

The Wild did not suddenly become an offensive juggernaut. At five-on-five, Minnesota managed to outpace their defense and move above break-even in expected goals, but the team still ranked in the bottom five in offensive creation. Their 2.34 expected goals for per 60 were a step down from last year, but the team did have more finishing this season to boost their actual goal production.

The problem was that this team was still pretty one-dimensional. While Minnesota stayed one of the top forechecking teams in the league, they lacked off the rush.

While players like Rossi stepped up and Marcus Foligno was a fairly efficient scorer at five-on-five in his minutes, Frederick Gaudreau was a black hole offensively. He scored at a really low pace of 0.70 points per 60 at five-on-five and dragged down the team’s shot and scoring chance generation in his minutes. Those are the depth players the Wild needed more from, especially when their top players got off to a slow start.

Losing Spurgeon for most of the year was a blow to the blue line’s chances of creating offense, too. It meant more minutes for players like Jon Merrill and Alex Goligoski, who are both negative offensive players. And Jacob Middleton’s game took a huge step back at both ends of the ice.

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Brodin, who generally is known for shutdown defense, picked up the pace a bit for Minnesota — he scored at a career-high rate and was a plus on the Wild’s five-on-five expected goal generation in his minutes. Faber contributed some scoring too, especially when he saw minutes on the top power-play unit in the second half of the season.

As a whole though? The Wild’s blue line was one of the least offensive in the league when this team needed some contributions from their blue line to make a potential weakness a strength.

Word from the beat

It’d be easy to call this a ‘lost’ season for the Wild due to injuries, with Spurgeon — injured in the final preseason game — limited to just 16 games all season before hip/back surgeries. At their most critical juncture of the year, holding a playoff spot on Dec. 30, they lost Gustavsson and Kaprizov in a game in Winnipeg, the start of a 1-7-1 stretch they couldn’t recover from.

But it was a lot more than that. The same issues that sparked their horrible start (5-10-4) that led to Dean Evason getting fired continued in spurts the rest of the way. Their goaltending wasn’t nearly good enough, with an .897 save percentage. The penalty kill was one of the worst in the league (74.2 percent). They were basically a one-line team most of the year, with 40-goal scorer Kaprizov, Boldy and Eriksson Ek the only unit they could consistently trust to score. Down years by Johansson, Gaudreau and injuries to Foligno sapped any semblance of secondary scoring.

The Wild couldn’t beat the top teams in the division (0-10-1 against the Avalanche, Stars, and Jets), so that just put them below the mushy middle. The most encouraging news was the development and rise of Calder Trophy candidates Brock Faber and Marco Rossi, with touted goalie prospect Wallstedt, forward Liam Ohgren and Marat Khusnutdinov showing a glimpse of the future. – Joe Smith

The bottom line

The worst-case scenario didn’t fully come to fruition for the Wild. Kaprizov and Boldy bounced back from slow starts, and young players like Faber and Rossi were the difference-makers this team needed. But the Gustavsson regression was real and has cost this team standings points, which ultimately knocked them out of the playoff race.

The Wild once again won’t be making a deep run into the spring, but this ending came sooner than expected.

Data via Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference, NHL, All Three Zones Tracking by Corey Sznajder

(Top photo of Marc-Andre Fleury and Filip Gustavsson: Matt Krohn / USA Today)

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