When Vancouver’s Chris Tanev scored just 11 seconds into overtime to end the Minnesota Wild’s 2019-20 season, in a lot of ways the event encapsulated so many things that this organization is having to deal with. On that goal, the Wild started overtime by having its 4th line out on the ice against the Canucks’ top line which is an interesting choice for a team that has the last change. On the 4th line, was team captain Mikko Koivu perhaps playing in his last NHL game and soon after overtime started it was all over. Nico Sturm, making his NHL playoff debut (who had scored his first NHL goal in this game) was also on the ice and just didn’t quite have the reach to stop Tanev’s shot but is seen by many as the player who may take on Koivu’s role as its best shut down center. So in a strange way, it was almost like a symbolic passing of the torch.
There is a saying that adversity reveals one’s character in the way that you see how people handle things when it might be a bit chaotic or difficult. The Minnesota Wild’s handling of their play-in series was no doubt revealing to General Manager Bill Guerin as he completed his first season as the club’s leader. You have to admit, it was pretty eventful and I’m sure he’s learned a lot along the way. While Guerin has been learning more and more about this team, its relative strengths and weaknesses, Wild will be learning more about their GM in the decisions he makes at the draft and free agency this fall.
So here are 5 takeaways from the 2019-20 season which will probably be a season we will all remember for how Covid-19 stopped the season but also how well-executed the NHL handled creating two bubble cities.
1. The Minnesota Wild desperately need to get younger and faster ~ It was probably most evident during the Best of 5 playoff series, but the Wild looked and played like an older, slower club. The team struggled to stay with the younger and much faster Canucks team for most of the series and whenever the Wild seemed to have a step on Vancouver they just didn’t have the wheels to really get away. Even among some of the Wild’s younger players, they are not particularly blessed with great speed and if you looked around the playoff teams. Just about every team other than perhaps the Boston Bruins looked significantly faster than the Wild. It may seem like I am bringing this up to pick on the team’s collection of older veterans like Mikko Koivu, Eric Staal, Ryan Suter, Mats Zuccarello and Zach Parise, but it certainly hasn’t helped the club’s speed issues.
The league is all about speed and the Wild need to make that a big priority going forward in regards to its personnel moves and the the players it selects in the draft. It is a big reason why I always value skating so much, because the most successful clubs at just about any level are often great skating teams.
We will learn this fall if Bill Guerin plans to address this fundamental organizational flaw. Yet I think its painfully obvious and its time the team gets serious about being younger and faster. Mikko Koivu has probably played his last game for the Wild and while that may sadden some fans, its also an opportunity to get younger and faster with players like Nico Sturm.
2. Kevin Fiala and Kirill Kaprizov need a top line quality center to work with – Another strong takeaway from the Vancouver play in series was how frustrated Kevin Fiala was as the games went on. He tried to put the team on his shoulders and carry them but he just couldn’t do it all by himself. Fiala led the Minnesota Wild in shots on goal during the playoffs with 19 which was 10 more shots than the next nearest forward Eric Staal. But that reveals the flaw that Fiala was largely having to create his opportunities with little or no help.
Without a doubt, Fiala demonstrated to the Minnesota Wild the tremendous potential that former GM Paul Fenton saw in him and that his ‘gamebreaker’ comments were apt. However, his real ability to reach his full potential will be limited if he doesn’t have a Top line calibre center to play with. With all due respect to Eric Staal he was once that guy, but that was years ago. But now, while he can help out on occasion its still up to Fiala to do most of the work on his own.
The team finally was able to sign coveted prospect Kirill Kaprizov and player who one would think would work very well with a gifted sniper like Fiala. Yet, Kaprizov is a winger and without a top line quality center to work with you could see both of them being frustrated over having to do much of the work on their own. With both Fiala (24 years old) and Kaprizov (23 years old) it is imperative to acquire / draft a top line quality center now so this tremendous scoring potential isn’t limited / stunted.
Just think, if Fiala and Kaprizov were paired with a top line quality center, opponents would have to pick their poison and the Wild just might have a line that (gasp) actually puts fear into other clubs as opposed to being a one-trick pony as it currently stands. So how is this done?
I think trying to get a young-ish top line center would be supremely difficult (because honestly, how many teams want to give up a player like that) via trade or free agency might be prohibitively difficult so that’s why I favor acuiring one via the draft might be the better bet. In fact, the Wild need to make drafting centers a priority in this draft so it has a bunch to develop and hopefully can give the organization strength down the middle. If you want to flirt with the trade market, I might kick the tires on Florida’s Alexander Barkov who I think might be a little tired of that organization and is signed for only 2 more years at a relatively affordable $5.9 million per season. Maybe dangling a defenseman might get a deal done, especially if Barkov is unhappy. Either way, it would be a waste to bring Fiala and Kaprizov together if we stick a player between them that is probably best suited for the 2nd or 3rd line like a Luke Kunin or Joel Eriksson Ek.
Another intriguing possibility is in regard to the upcoming NHL Entry Draft this fall. On Monday, August 10th at 5:00PM CST, the NHL will hold its Phase 2 Draft Lottery where the Minnesota Wild are one of eight teams which will have a 12.5% chance at selecting 1st Overall in the 2020 NHL Draft. While left wing Alexis Lafreniere is the consensus #1 pick, the Wild need a center and the consensus #2 pick is Quinton Byfield. Byfield is a 6’4″, 215lbs left-shooting center who is big, fast and can score.
An interesting scenario could involve the Los Angeles Kings who have the #2 pick in this year’s draft. They are an organization already deep with centers in its prospect pool and most likely would value a player like Lafreniere more than the Wild. It might provide the Wild an opportunity to both draft Byfield and acquire an additional center like Jarret Anderson-Dolan, Rasmus Kupari, Gabe Vilardi or Akil Thomas; who are centers who lauded for being fast, very skilled and ideal candidates for a Top 6 role. Of course this whole dream scenario is moot if the Wild don’t win the lottery and thus pick 9th Overall instead, but there will intriguing center prospects available at that point in the draft as well. My advice to the Wild would be to prioritize taking centers whether you pick #1 or #9, it is simply that important for this team to do considering its current needs.
3. Its time to give Kaapo Kahkonen a shot – I am not going to blame the outcome of the Wild’s play in series on Alex Stalock. I thought Alex Stalock kept the team in games long enough for the team to have a chance to win most of the games. His series numbers will not look great with 1-3, 3.08 goals against average but I don’t think the team could have done better with Devan Dubnyk. Now, if someone were to say why didn’t they give Kaapo Kahkonen a chance? Maybe they should have. And I think its time that he gets a real chance to audition for the starting job next season with the Minnesota Wild.
Kahkonen, who was the AHL Goaltender of the Year for 2019-20 doesn’t have much to prove anymore at that level and I think the time is now to start integrating the 23-year old netminder into the lineup. Some feel the Wild may buy out Devan Dubnyk in his last year of his contract and I don’t really have a problem with it. The team has been rather patient with the 34-year old whose performance had continued a steady decline the last few seasons. While I understand and empathize that for this year he had challenges off the ice that likely compromised his ability to focus, the truth is the Wild were having to win more and more games in spite of his play between the pipes.
I know SKOR‘s Judd Zulgad thinks there might be a bit of a market for Dubnyk who is on the last year of his $4.33 million deal, but I am not sure that’s realistic. Even if teams wanted to bring him to their club as a rather ‘expensive’ backup, do you want to bring in a player whose last few seasons have seen his goals against average climb while his save percentage decline?
Either way, I think Kahkonen’s opportunity in Minnesota should start now. Perhaps ease him into it as Stalock also has another two years remaining on his very affordable $785,000 a season deal carry most of the load with Kahkonen in support. But by the start of the 2021-22 season, unless he gives us reason to pump the breaks he should probably be given the chance to carry the mail for this club.
4. Make a deal to move Zach Parise – It nearly happened at the NHL trade deadline this late winter, but at the last minute a potential trade with the New York Islanders fell through. The Wild alternate captain and leading goal scorer throughout the regular season had 3 assists and no goals on just 6 shots in 4 games against the Canucks in the play in series. But for the most part the veteran winger was mostly invisible and wasn’t nearly the pesky net-front presence that was traditionally a signature of Parise’s game.
The 36-year old winger still has 5 more years left on his current contract and his no movement clause means he has all the cards in any situation where the club decides it wants to move him. And after much preparation to get a deal done with the Islanders, it didn’t happen and I’m sure it had to be awkward to return to the team. Since Parise has to approve such a deal by waiving his NMC, he obviously didn’t mind the thought of being traded to the Islanders. Parise made comments to the Athletic‘s Michael Russo about how he recognizes that window of opportunity to win a Stanley Cup is getting smaller and smaller.
“Its pretty disheartening, the roller coaster of the playoffs from Game 1, winning that game and then all of the sudden find yourself trailing 2-1 and then to have leads late in the game and then they tie it up, to lose 10-11 seconds into overtime its pretty shocking for everybody.” ~ Wild’s Zach Parise on losing their playoff series to Vancouver
I don’t have a problem that Zach Parise wants a Stanley Cup, I think all NHL players (should) have that as their top personal goal. As he told Russo in that article, “Well, now I’m 35 (now 36). I don’t even know how many years I’ve been in the league, and I’ve really had one chance. I’ve had one chance to win it all, and that wasn’t in Minnesota, and that’s how hard it is. I mean, it’s just not easy, and a lot of things have to go right. But I think now at my age, I mean, you start to get a little worried. Am I going to have another chance? Because that’s why you play. You do get worried, ‘Will I get that opportunity?’ When I went to the Finals my last year in Jersey, and you think just from how fun it was, how great of an experience it was, you crave to get that again.”
Yet if he wants to win a Cup, I think he realizes as well as anyone that its probably not going to happen in Minnesota anytime soon. So if the Islanders still have interest in Parise (as they seem to be only other organization that does) then I’d be willing to make that deal happen even if we have to take a bad contract in return (i.e. Andrew Ladd). I think it will give Parise his chance, and also help this club establish a new culture which I think is necessary towards turning this Wild franchise from an above average team mired in mediocrity and into a true contender. His departure would also open up another spot in the Wild’s Top 6 and give younger players an opportunity to step in that role and the Wild would have one less player it would be obligated (by his NMC) to protect for the expansion draft.
5. The Wild should make either Marcus Foligno, Jared Spurgeon and Matt Dumba captain & / or alternate captains – If the Wild are going to use the offseason to try to transform itself as its long-time captain moves onto towards a likely retirement, they will need a change within its team leadership. Also, if the team decides to trade Parise, that will open up another spot in that leadership group. Throughout the season, Marcus Foligno, Jared Spurgeon and Matt Dumba have emerged as vocal leaders.
If the goal is to embrace being younger, why not take that step in its team leadership as well. If that leaves Ryan Suter as its only incumbent leader, then give him the option to keep the “A” on his jersey or have him step aside. I do not really have a preference for either Foligno, Spurgeon or Dumba as captain as long as its one of them. Perhaps it would be best if no one was named captain and they were all listed as alternates, but the main point is I think the locker room dynamic needs to change and I want to see it drift away from the traditional veteran-led sources.
When it was revealed that Jared Spurgeon and Marcus Foligno reached out to Kirill Kaprizov during the hiatus to try to welcome him to the team demonstrated both initiative and leadership. A good leader is inclusive and shows value in all team members and I think that is what you want to have in today’s NHL. Having a younger leadership group might make the Wild a more inviting team for potential free agents to come to than one with a veteran-led group with a distinctive pecking order. Either way, its another opportunity to change the dynamic and I think its one that is long overdue.
What do you think? As KFAN‘s Common Man would say, am I onto something, or do I sound like I’m on something? Let me know what you think on Twitter @CreaseAndAssist or in the comment section below.