Wheels coming off the Wild defense, can they recover?

In a season that started so promising for the Minnesota Wild, the downward spiral to 7th place in the Western Conference has been faster than almost anything seen in the NHL since the lockout.

But how much longer will it last? The Wild were obviously overachieving early on in the season, cruising to the #1 spot in the NHL and were the first team to hit 20 wins. They got unexpectedly great play from such role players as Kyle Brodziak, Justin Falk, and Nick Johnson. The youthful backend was playing at a high level much earlier than expected, and the goaltending the Wild were receiving from Josh Harding, Niklas Backstrom, and Matt Hackett (for a few games) was sizzling.

However, the biggest surprise of the year, to me, was the play of the Wild’s defense. Marco Scandella looked like a future All-Star and Jared Spurgeon’s transition game was among the best in the NHL to start the year. Justin Falk was smashing people and avoiding the critical mental lapses that crippled the Wild last year.

Then, Devin Setoguchi went down with a knee injury. Marek Zidlicky got a concussion. Guillaume Latendresse got a concussion. Mikko Koivu missed a few games. Matt Cullen got sick. Jared Spurgeon missed a few games. The injury bug hit the Wild at the absolute worst time, when the team was at its peak and beginning to mold themselves into a surefire playoff contender. Now, the Wild sit at 7th in the West, a mere one point from 10th place. AHL callups simply weren’t doing the job that these guys were, and now that the Wild are finally healthy again, it’s going to be a gigantic struggle to get back to the aggressive forechecking style that Mike Yeo wants to implement.

The goaltending is not the issue, as some of tried to point out. Backstrom and Harding have been fine. Maybe they’re not as smoking hot as they were to open the season anymore, but they’re certainly not the reason that the Wild have gotten into this massive slump.

But the biggest question mark for the remainder of the season is easily the defensive corps, as it was before the season began. The Wild’s defenders, notably youngins Marco Scandella, Justin Falk, and Jared Spurgeon, have looked about as bad as can be over the past few weeks. The transition passes up the ice are becoming soft dumps to the neutral zone, preventing the Wild from making a full change and keeping tired players on the ice. Tired players lead to penalties. Penalties lead to goals. Goals lead to losses, and the Wild have certainly had their share of those over the past month.

Simply put, these guys just have to play better. Maybe the enhanced practice schedule over the next month (mentioned by Michael Russo of the Strib) will re-emphasize the fundamentals and priorities that have seemingly gone out the window for Scandella and Co.

Scandella is an exciting young player with loads of potential and the ability to be a very good player in the NHL, but his brain farts are becoming more frequent. Are teams figuring out a way to attack Scandella, or is he merely playing hockey with two hands around his own neck? I think it’s a little bit of both. Things tend to snowball for young players in the NHL when times get tough, and Scandella (or Falk/Spurgeon) is/are no exception.

Regardless, if these guys don’t get it together soon, the Wild will be the laughingstock of the NHL having gone from #1 to out of the playoff picture in a matter of a few months. Collapses like this aren’t supposed to happen in today’s NHL where you can earn one point for an OT loss and two for a win.

It’s gut check time for the Minnesota Wild. Who’s ready to step up?

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