There's a temptation to look for an easy answer to explain Minnesota's success. Especially since the Wild aren't loaded with talent. Not yet, anyway.
"I don't know how we rate on the talent meter, other people can be the judge of that," GM Chuck Fletcher said.
They're a franchise historically known for defense and the trap. So when you wake up in December and the Wild have three more points than any other NHL team, those inclined to quick conclusions will credit the trap and move on. The first-place Wild have been called boring. They've been called passive. But those analysis shortcuts rob this team and the character it has shown of the credit it deserves.
"Just the word passive really irks me," said coach Mike Yeo, your current Jack Adams front-runner. "There's nothing passive about the way we play. I don't think teams that are playing against us are going to be under the impression that we're a passive team. We always have somebody pressuring the puck. We like to do it where we have good structure and we're protecting certain areas and we're taking away certain options."
But why do references of being a passive team really irk Yeo?
"What really ticked me off about it is our guys deserve better than that," he said. "Shift after shift our guys go out and battle and compete and work and never stop moving their feet. To me, there's nothing passive about that."
Matt Cullen knows what a playoff contender looks like. He won a Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006 and has been to the postseason with four different teams. He didn't arrive at training camp and get swept up in the belief that this team was headed to the playoffs. Minnesota had a good camp, but nothing exceptional. But the team got exceptional goaltending early on to help build confidence while the Wild established their identity.
"We continued to work and improve within the system and getting really comfortable with the way we needed to play," he said. "Goaltending has been our one constant, which has been unbelievable."
Another constant has been resiliency. Guillaume Latendresse and Marek Zidlicky are recovering from concussions. Justin Falk is out with an upper-body injury. Cal Clutterbuck, Niklas Backstrom and Marco Scandella have all battled through assorted injuries. And the Wild keep winning.
Tuesday night's win over the Sharks was a great example. Josh Harding was knocked out of the game with a neck injury, and Backstrom was already out with a groin injury. So prospect Matt Hackett jumped in and made 34 saves in the win. Devin Setoguchi was knocked out with what the team is calling a lower-body injury. He was spotted after the game with a limp and soft cast on his leg. Another tough blow, but not enough to slow the Wild down.
"We've got a ton of character in that locker room. We have a ton of leadership. Not only will they not look for excuses, they won't accept excuses," Yeo said. "Guys just don't accept that stuff. Guys keep fighting."
According to Fletcher, the Wild are the fifth-youngest team in the NHL, with many of the players familiar with Yeo's system from their time together in the AHL. The blend of youthful energy and leadership from guys such as Mikko Koivu, Cullen and Dany Heatley (yes, Dany Heatley) has put the Wild on a path to respectability faster than even the Minnesota brain trust expected.
There are enough red flags when you watch the Wild to suggest they won't stay on top of the league the entire season. They spend way too much time in their zone, their improving power play still needs to get better and they aren't generating enough scoring chances to be considered elite. While some might see those as reasons the Wild will return to earth, they see them as a chance to get better.
"Like every team, we're a work in progress," Fletcher said.
The winning doesn't change Fletcher's long-term game plan. The Wild are filled with young players, but their most elite prospects haven't arrived yet. Some of them aren't even signed. And this summer, they'll have financial flexibility. Expect Minnesota to emerge as the front-runner to land potential unrestricted free agent Zach Parise, a Minnesota native. The Wild may struggle to score now, but they could be loaded offensively next season and beyond.
But that's down the road. The players and coaches didn't get to first place thinking about next season.
"The only reason we've had this success is because we haven't focused on playoffs or the big picture of where we want to end up," Yeo said. "We're still trying to build something here. We're still trying to create our own identity. We're still trying to build that winning environment. We're still trying to build a team that is consistent day in and day out and does what winners do."
• More on the Wild system: It's closer to what the Pittsburgh Penguins are doing than the old Jacques Lemaire trap in Minnesota. "We work our butts off in our end but we also have the freedom to go and attack and get in on the forecheck. I think guys have just been waiting for the opportunity to do that," Cullen said. "You look at a team like Pittsburgh, it's similar to the way they play. Go and attack, it's a fun way to play." Yeo agreed with that assessment. "It's similar [to the Penguins]. Very similar in a lot of ways," he said.
• I've been as guilty as anyone of looking at Heatley's eight goals and concluding that his best days are behind him. He's on pace for just 23 goals. But when you talk to people with and around the Wild, they say Heatley has been a huge part of the turnaround. Not only did Martin Havlat have to go, but the return has been a key contributor.
"Dany Heatley -- he's been unbelievable for us," Fletcher said. "People get fixated on the goals, but this guy is out there in the last minute -- he's strong, handles the puck well on the wall and is a good penalty killer. He's done a lot of little things for us."
• In further proof that some of the toughest players in the league have the biggest hearts, there was a great story in The Arizona Republic on Paul Bissonnette and his work with the Phoenix homeless. He's doing more than just handing them cash and posting their pictures on Twitter. He helped 100 homeless attend a recent Coyotes game by paying for their transportation and food. "I'm not doing it for a selfish reason, but I do get joy out of seeing people get joy," he told the Republic. "It's not like I don't get anything out of it either."