In any conversation about the Minnesota Wild over the past three months, there are three players you’re most likely to hear about: Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Devan Dubnyk. But there’s another name, that of defenseman Marco Scandella, that should be heard just as often.
Scandella doesn’t have the big contract and offensive talent of Parise, he doesn’t play huge minutes like Suter and, quite obviously, he can’t be the man between pipes like Dubnyk, but over the course of 2014-15 he has been as important to the Wild’s success as any other player in Minnesota. Though he’s missed the past five games due to an oblique injury, when he gets back in the lineup, the Wild are going to be that much better.
But what has made Scandella so great for Minnesota this season?
While for other blueliners there are obvious reasons why they stand out – be it playing big minutes on the top pairing, having a booming slapshot or being able to lay a huge hit – Scandella stands out most because on a team that has allowed the fourth-least shots against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5, he is the defenseman taking on most of the defensive minutes. Which means when Scandella is on the ice, good luck getting pucks to the net.
Without slighting the play of Dubnyk, which has been nothing short of inspired since a trade brought him to Minnesota in January, it must be nice for him to play behind Scandella. Of the 60 defensemen in the league that start fewer than 30 percent of their shifts in the offensive zone and have played at least 500 minutes at 5-on-5, Scandella has the second best shot suppression rate. When he has been on the ice, there have been only 49.54 on-ice shot attempts per 60 minutes. The only player ahead of Scandella, Pittsburgh’s Ian Cole, has 274 defensive zone starts. Scandella has 364.
The next question, then, is whether or not his parter has been helping drive his play. Is he paired with Suter or Jonas Brodin, two of the most highly regarded Minnesota rearguards?
Not quite. For the most part, Suter and Brodin play together, which leaves Scandella to be paired with any of Nate Prosser, Matt Dumba or Jared Spurgeon. It’s Spurgeon who Scandella lines up with most often, but Spurgeon has still played over 470 5-on-5 minutes away from Scandella. Almost 64 percent of Spurgeon's minutes away from Scandella have been shifts that start in the attacking zone. When the pairing is together, only 40 percent of their minutes begin with an offensive zone faceoff.
Scandella’s great play in the defensive zone hasn’t hurt his ability to contribute offensively, either. When he’s on the ice, he has the fourth highest on-ice shot attempts for per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 with 55.22. The three defensemen ahead of him, Spurgeon, Suter and Dumba, each start at least 34 percent of their 5-on-5 shifts in the offensive zone. Scandella starts in the opposition’s end a mere hair over 27 percent.
Making those numbers even more impressive is that Scandella has managed a relative 5-on-5 shot attempts for percentage of 0.9 percent, which means he’s a better possession player than average on a Wild team that ranks 10th in the league in 5-on-5 shot attempt percentage. Suter, who starts 37 percent of his faceoffs in the offensive zone, is sixth among Wild defensemen at 0.5 percent.
When it comes to arguing Scandella isn't the best defensive defenseman on the Wild, one might posit he doesn't play the toughest competition. But that’s not true, either. Scandella plays the second highest quality of competition of all defensemen in Minnesota, higher than even Suter. That means Scandella is generally drawing the offensive stars from the opposition – or at least those that drive possession. And when he’s been facing them, the puck is usually heading out of the Wild zone.
Even if you don’t look at the underlying numbers, Scandella’s playing the most minutes of his career and has scored nine goals and 20 points, both career highs. Minnesota GM Chuck Fletcher rewarded Scandella’s play with a five-year, $20 million extension. His breakout season has been about more than just impressing the front office and putting points on the board, though.
It’s hard not to think of Suter as the big time defensive star in Minnesota, but maybe it’s time Scandella gets more appreciation for playing so brilliantly in all three zones. After all, he’s one of the reasons Minnesota wasn’t dealing with a lost season before Dubnyk arrived. If he keeps playing this way, get prepared to see a lot more No. 6 jerseys inside Xcel Energy Center.
(All statistics via Puckalytics.com)