It’s a sensationalist headline, and obviously one I don’t truly believe, at least fully. That doesn’t make it a lie either, and Kulikov sums up the Minnesota Wild’s surprising start that has them atop the Central Division by four points.
Mostly, whenever I and many others talk about the Wild, it’s about how unidentifiable they are. That you don’t think about the Wild until your team plays them, and then your awareness of them goes back to next to nothing as soon as the final horn blows. They disappear into some void filled with snow. That’s what happens when you have never been truly awful, but have also never come close to a championship. That’s the Wild, who couldn’t be a firmer definition of “the middle” for their entire existence, which actually makes them about as representative of Minnesota as anything could be.
The hockey world hasn’t noticed yet, but this team might not be “the middle.” They do have a genuine superstar in Kirill Kaprizov, who again is averaging over a point per game. He’s even gotten Ryan Hartman, formerly just a bowling ball, to 12 goals on the season while Mats Zuccarello has been out. They just beat the Lightning at home, a week after trying them on the road and losing in a shootout. They’ve put up seven goals on both the Jets and Stars in the past couple weeks, as well as beat the Panthers on the road. This is a whole thing here.
And they’ve done it with Kaprizov basically being their only true star. So what are they doing here? Let’s view them through the prism of Kulikov.
Kulikov is in the top-10 amongst defensemen (min. 100 minutes, according to NaturalStatTrick.com) in expected-goal percentage while on the ice, per 60 minutes. Basically, for the non-analytic inclined, the Wild produce among the highest number of scoring chances against the chances they give up while Kulikov is on the ice. However, Kulikov is unique amongst the best d-men in this category, because he only starts 40 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone. The others start at least over half of their shifts in the offensive zone, some way over. In the top-15, only Oliver Kylington in Calgary and Cal Foote in Tampa start less than half their shifts in the offensive zone, and both are butting right up against 50 percent. It’s obviously easier to produce more scoring chances than you give up if you begin closer to the opponent’s goal most of the time. Kulikov — and his usual partner Jon Merrill, another player who seemingly bounced around the league with all the fanfare of an electricity meter check—are buried in their own zone to start most of the time and yet get the play to the other end about as often as anyone else, and create chances there. It’s highly impressive.
And this is kind of the WIld in a nutshell. Below Kaprizov, a bunch of not-household names that are just playing solid-plus hockey. Only two players are below water in Corsi-percentage (shot attempts share). Only one is below in expected-goals percentage. They might only be a bunch of second-pairing d-men, but they have six of them. It might be only a group of second and third-liners below Kaprizov, but it’s 12 of them. Somehow perfectly, the WIld have created a team of “the middle” and it’s gotten them to the top of the standings.
Is there any air in their start? Just a touch. They have the second-highest shooting-percentage in the league, just behind the Caps at 9.5 percent at even-strength. While the Caps have a bunch of long-tenured snipers (including the greatest one of all-time), the WIld don’t. And only the Caps in the past five full seasons have finished a year with a shooting-percentage above 9.5 for a season. The Wild will come down from this, most likely. Ryan Hartman, we’re looking at you.
When that happens, they haven’t really gotten the goaltending to balance that out. Cam Talbot has been fine, at a .914 save-percentage overall, but hardly earth-shattering. And backup Kaapo Kahkonen has been woeful, which means Talbot might get flashbacks of being ground into a fine paste from his days in Edmonton somewhere around February in St. Paul. Their special teams have been ho-hum at best.
The Wild don’t create a bountiful amount of chances either, just 13th in expected-goals per 60 at evens. They need to keep shooting the lights out.
But for now, it’s enough. And their division helps them, with Colorado beat up and the rest of the teams that might be unable to get out of their own way. This might just be the first Minnesota team in some time that you can actually identify at another time than when they come to your local rink.