PITTSBURGH PA - JANUARY 8: Nick Schultz #55 of the Minnesota Wild prevents Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins from gaining control of the puck in front of goaltender Jose Theodore #60 of the Minnesota Wild on January 8 2011 at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
The Minnesota Wild have struggled under the guidance of Todd Richards. They are no longer the Jacques Lemaire-led defensive powerhouse, capable of shutting down anyone by clogging the neutral zone, keeping shooters to the outside and relentlessly hounding the opposition all over the defensive end. After two trips to the playoffs, Lemaire had a down year and the Wild's ownership thought it best if Jacques "retired" from hockey.
Todd Richards was hired to replace Lemaire and ownership watched as the Wild fell to twenty-second in the league with eighty-four points in 2009-10, and are on pace to finish nineteenth in the league this season with eighty-nine points. Two straight years without the playoffs might make fans long for the "boring", trapping days and ways of Jacques Lemaire. For two seasons now, Richards has had trouble implementing his system and coaching style and the Wild have suffered because of it, but it's not all been his fault. The personnel isn't there to do much about it:
None of this should make Minnesota Wild fans feel any better about their team’s prospects. They don’t have players who can control puck possession. They don’t have a goaltender who can save them from their mistakes. And now they’re two seasons away from Jacques Lemaire’s inscrutable defensive magic.
But there is one way in which Richards could attempt to reclaim Lemaire's magic - application of on-ice personnel, e.g. matchups and zonestarts.
One area in which both Lemaire and Richards agree is the utilization of Nick Schultz. Schultz has been a workhorse for the Wild, consistently taking on the best competition each year.
All stats via the venerable, terrifying Gabe Desjardins' behindthenet.ca.
Prior to Zanon's arrival, Schultz played the toughs with a couple of different partners, but the two of them have combined to take on the best competition and by a wide margin. Not only are they playing the toughest competition, they are starting in their own end more often than any other Minnesota defender.
But even though Richards continues to give the two of them the most difficult starting positions, he's actually being much easier on them than Lemaire was. Below is their offensive zonestart percentage by year.
While Lemaire made Kim Johnsson and Schultz climb mountains just to get to ice level, Richards has taken it comparatively easy on Schultz and Zanon. Of course, giving those faceoffs to some other pairing must have an impact, right?
We can find out by correcting Corsi for starting position. Doing so shows how the increased defensive zone faceoffs have affected the rest of the team:
|Rest of Defense||2.30||-1.40||-1.47||-8.20|
Schultz has been somewhat of a rock. Though his adjusted Corsi has dipped, there seems to be some correlation with the second part of this article.
The second significant change that Richards has made in his in-game personnel strategy concerns Mikko Koivu. Whereas Lemaire used Koivu in a power-versus-power matchup, Richards has shielded Koivu, allowing him to take on second-tough minutes. Below is a compilation of the same stats used to analyze Schultz, again via the venerable, terrifying Gabe Desjardins' behindthenet.ca.
Lemaire used Koivu against tough minutes and gave him somewhat difficult starting positions. Richards is using Koivu against second-tough minutes and giving him more offensive zone starts than most of his teammates. Like the utilization of Schultz, this must have had some impact on the other forwards, right?
|Rest of Fwds.||-0.96||-2.23||-2.19||-6.47|
It has had an impact, a noticeable one at that. As Koivu has played easier minutes, his teammates' Corsi has suffered.
Wild fans have complained about the lack of a team identity for some time now. They're a listless, lifeless bunch without a real system, and without the ability to impose their style, whatever that may be, on their opponents. Lemaire had a group of players who were intent on playing, as Lorne Molleken would say, from their end out, using his best players against the other team's best players and putting them in the toughest circumstances possible. In spite of all of that, they succeeded and the easy assignments and starting positions allowed the lesser lights on the Wild to win their individual battles as well. It might be time for Todd Richards to face the fact that Mikko Koivu's best role is outplaying the other team's best players and Nick Schultz needs even tougher zonestarts.