2020 can get bent. I doubt I’m the only one that will be happy to see that year pass on by and hoping that 2021 will be better. I am sure the NHL, team owners, players and fans probably feel the same way.
As NHL clubs get closer to opening training camp, they are finalizing their rosters with some affordable free agents as the flat cap forced some mid-tier players to tighten their belt a bit in order to secure a contract. The Minnesota Wild were not one of those teams taking advantage of that situation as the team was hoping to preserve some cap space if emergencies manifest themselves during the season.
All that needed to be decided was a starting date and an idea of how many games there would be. The NHL decided upon a 56-game season and with the pandemic making things more complex it meant a re-alignment of divisions and this did not exactly work out all that well for the Minnesota Wild. The NHL pushed the Wild into the ‘Pacific Division’ along with the Colorado Avalanche, Arizona Coyotes, St. Louis Blues, Vegas Golden Knights, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks. Wild fans already realize this will probably mean very late start times for most of their games of around 9:00PM or 9:30PM and needless to say fans were not too thrilled about it. Reportedly the Wild asked the league to be placed in the Central but to no avail.
Since we are talking about schedules, perhaps now would be a great time to talk about TV viewing. Unless the games are going to be nationally broadcast, this might be a concern for Wild fans as disputes between Sinclair and providers like Dish Network, YouTube TV might make it a challenge to be able to watch the games.
I have been an NHL Center Ice Subscriber for nearly 20 years and I spent the extra money so I would have access to all of the Fox Sports Net‘s across the nation but the dispute between Sinclair and Dish Network has me locked out of just about all of it. Last year I subscribed to YouTube TV to watch the games (even though I was still paying for all that I just listed above) and now Sinclair has stopped YouTube TV from broadcasting Fox Sports Net there. I know the Wild have commented a bit hoping this dispute resolves itself, but Sinclair has been in this dispute with Dish Network for nearly 2 years so why would it fix itself now? So to toss in Sinclair’s on going disputes combined with a late schedule is kind of a double whammy.
You can check out the Wild’s schedule here. Without the game start times its tough to judge how much I like or dislike this schedule. The 4-game finish to the season against the Blues doesn’t sound fun to me though.
So enough of that and let’s talk about Wild hockey shall we? Peruse their training camp roster if you’d like.
The Minnesota Wild will start this season with a lot of new faces in the lineup after General Manager Bill Guerin‘s ‘house cleaning’ that saw the club part ways with veterans Mikko Koivu, Eric Staal and younger players like Luke Kunin, Ryan Donato and Alex Galchenyuk. Replacing them is Marcus Johansson, Nick Bonino, Nick Bjugstad, and the long awaited arrival of Kirill Kaprizov the most hyped Wild player since Mikael Granlund.
Despite having a limited no-trade clause, the Wild surprised many by moving Eric Staal and his 19 goals and 47 points for Marcus Johansson who struggled mightily at center and had a disappointing 9 goals and 30 points last season in 60 games with the Buffalo Sabres. Johansson, with one more year left on his $4.5 million a season contract brings a little more speed but experience would indicate he might be better suited to playing on the wing even though he will still probably get a initial shot as the team’s top center. Will the team give Joel Eriksson Ek a chance as top 6 center and if he gets that opportunity will he reward the team with the offense that has so far eluded him to this point? If Eriksson Ek can’t produce offensively enough one would think the team gives Nick Bonino that opportunity. Bonino was 52.6% on his draws last year with the Nashville Predators and I think might elevate him into a role on the top 6. I realize that Eriksson Ek is an advanced stats darling, but I think Bonino is better on his draws and is more likely to give you points and I think that makes him more ideally suited to that 2nd line center spot.
While some fans are hoping the club gives Marco Rossi an early shot, I think beyond a cup of coffee I think the team would rather have him playing in a bigger role in the Swiss National League where he can still benefit from playing against professional-level competition but with less pressure to deliver right away. He can play 6 games before he starts to burn a year of his 3-year, entry-level deal. Unless he looks 100% NHL ready, I think the smart move would be to send him back to Europe to season.
On the wing, can Kevin Fiala continue his ascendance as the team’s go-to scorer after scoring 23 goals, 54 points in 64 games. The possibility of playing on a line with talented playmaker in Kaprizov some are predicting it will mean Fiala’s games will take another big step forward. Considering that both players are still under 25 gives the team the kind of young promise it hasn’t had in the last decade. For both players, who are entering the last year of their contract there is plenty of financial incentive in order to have a big year. No doubt they will also have to go against every opponent’s best shutdown line(s) every night, so it will be tough challenge mentally and emotionally for Fiala and Kaprizov to endure. For Fiala, at least he doesn’t have to go through that alone this time around.
Zach Parise also returns after leading the team with 25 goals last season, but will he be fully engaged after seeing the team jettison older vets like Koivu and Staal? I thought Parise seemed kind of disengaged this summer and one has to wonder if his mind was thinking about the near trade to the Islanders and pondering if he really wants to wait much longer for Wild to turn its fortunes around. Another older veteran, Mats Zuccarello whose first season with the Wild was disappointing will start the season out of the lineup trying to recover from surgery he had on his arm in December. The arm issue supposedly was partly to blame for his paltry performance of 15 goals, 37 points. With another abbreviated season, the return on the investment of Zuccarello’s 5-year, $6.5 million a season contract has been pretty poor to say the least.
Jordan Greenway was read the riot act by Bill Guerin at the conclusion of the 2019-20 season and he knows the team wants to see him more dedicated and engaged on a game-to-game basis. Another young player hoping for more opportunity is Nico Sturm. Sturm brings size and a two-way game that makes him a good fit for a bottom 6 role. He will probably get placed on a line with Marcus Foligno and Ryan Hartman who for the most part were pretty solid last season.
Bjugstad and Victor Rask will likely be hoping to prove their worthy of roster spot and at the very least they give the team two more viable options at center. For as much as Rask has been criticized by Wild fans, when he did get the chance to play he often played well and even scored some clutch goals on the road.
While Kaprizov and Fiala give the team some exciting potential for scoring, its tough to see the ‘center by committee’ approach is going to be a recipe for success. Eric Staal was slowing down for sure last season, but I’d still feel more confident with him centering a top 6 lines than many of the possible options the Wild will be forced to audition this season. There still isn’t enough offense in this group to make for a formidable attack and once you get beyond Parise, Fiala and perhaps Kaprizov where are the points going to come from?
Here is the projected forward lines according to Daily Faceoff.
If the Minnesota Wild have a strength that is universally agreed upon, it is its blueline corps. Led by Ryan Suter, who still averages over 24 minutes of ice time at 35 years old. Suter is also still steadily productive with 8 goals, 48 points in 69 games last season. He’s joined by the team’s highest paid player in 31-year old Jared Spurgeon who incredible hockey mind makes up for his diminutive size. Spurgeon is arguably the team’s best puck mover and I would argue the team’s most dangerous offensive defenseman more often than not as well.
Matt Dumba, coming off his pectoral tear had sub-par season and his name was bantered about in trade rumors but supposedly the offers were pretty uninspiring for the 27-year old with a cannon of a slap shot. Yet perhaps that’s to be expected as the team has over $27 million committed to its top 4 defensemen when you add Jonas Brodin‘s 7-year, $42 million contract extension. That has led some to believe the team will have to shop Dumba and thus teams making low-ball offers hoping to pick him up on the cheap. The team also brought back Carson Soucy who had a great regular season but a rough return in the playoffs. Brad Hunt, Louie Belpedio and Matt Bartkowski will be vying for that last spot while top defensive prospect Calen Addison probably hones his game in Iowa. Greg Pateryn is shelved with an injury to start the season.
With the Seattle expansion draft taking place in the summer of 2021, it seems rather unlikely that Matt Dumba stays with the team especially when you consider the Wild have no movement clauses it must act upon for Suter, Spurgeon and Brodin already. With a talented offensive defenseman prospect on the way, it seems like the writing is on the wall and having nearly $30 million of your $81.5 million cap space tied up into your defense seems unsustainable. Either way, this is still the strength of this team.
Here are the defensive pairings as projected by Daily Faceoff.
Soucy-Hunt / Belpedio
Wild GM Bill Guerin made it a priority to address the goaltending situation after it was painfully clear that team found itself undermined far too often by sub par play between the pipes. Most of this was focused towards then starter Devan Dubnyk who found himself supplanted by Alex Stalock. Stalock had 20 wins last season and while he performed better than Dubnyk, his play was merely adequate. The team traded Dubnyk to the San Jose Sharks and then signed Cam Talbot as a free agent in a 3-year, $3.66 million a season deal. Talbot has had his own share of struggles but it is hoped that with a strong defense in front of him he can provide of a level of play to give the Wild a chance to win most nights. Stalock appeared to be a lock for the backup role but an injury has put him out of the lineup to start the season so the team will likely promote last year’s AHL goaltender of the year Kaapo Kahkonen for that spot.
Is Kahkonen the heir apparent to being the Wild’s future starting goalie? He went 3-1-1 in 5 starts last season, but with Stalock’s injury he might get that audition a bit sooner than the organization planned. The team also signed Andrew Hammond (aka the Hamburglar) presumably to carry the mail in Iowa in Kahkonen’s absence. Goaltending prospect Hunter Jones will likely back up Hammond with the baby Wild.
I have a hard time seeing Talbot as a major upgrade goaltending-wise, but the truth is Dubnyk seemed to be getting worse and worse each season and whether it was declining reflexes or drama on the homefront he just wasn’t getting it done. Stalock has been a good soldier, and its a shame he wasn’t at least going to be able to pick up after his career-best season but timing is everything. Until we see Talbot play its tough to know if this team really improved itself that much or not. Grade: B-
The Minnesota Wild finished with the 10th best power play (21.3%) in the league last season. It of course stalled out in the playoffs when Vancouver focused its defensive efforts on shutting down Fiala who was visibly frustrated. Parise returns as the team’s top power play goal scorer with 12 goals followed by Fiala’s 9. The addition of a skilled playmaker like Kaprizov should help keep Minnesota’s power play dangerous.
If Dumba can rediscover his scoring touch would also help make the Wild’s power play tough to stop. However, the big question mark is who is going to take these important draws on the man advantage. In the past, that role would’ve been filled by Koivu or Staal. So this is a potential weak point that might make it difficult for the Wild to maintain possession off the initial draw on the man advantage.
Penalty kill-wise, the team’s penalty kill was a weak spot for the team last year as they finished 25th in the league. Yet when you look at it closer, the main culprit for the paltry penalty kill wasn’t the efforts of players like Ryan Hartman, Marcus Foligno, Joel Eriksson Ek but because of sub par goaltending. If Cam Talbot can provide the team with better than .900% save percentage when on the kill that is already an upgrade over the play they received last year. Grade: B
Dean Evason had the interim tag removed after having a fairly solid finish to the regular season. Evason earned rave reviews for his attitude and some of the players, most notably Kevin Fiala seemed to respond to him opening up the offense. While coaches are hired to be fired, the fact Bill Guerin is comfortable with Evason shows that both men seem to be on the same page in regards to how they want to see the team play on a nightly basis. The team parted ways with longtime goaltending coach Bob Mason and replaced him with Frederic Chabot who had been advising the team’s goaltenders in Iowa. The team also promoted Iowa Assistant coach and Comox, British Columbia-native Brett McLean to an assistant coach and they retained assistants Bob Woods and Darby Hendrickson. Grade: C+
With so many new faces, I think it could take a while before chemistry emerges. That may not be such a big deal if the team had quality top 6 centers but right now you have no idea if they have even one viable Top 6 quality center. That makes me worry about possession and I wonder how many games will be spent where the Wild is expending tons of energy trying to track down the puck because they don’t have enough players that can reliably win faceoffs. A lack of two clear top 6 centers also means the team will have an audition period and that could be a rough stretch of games and in a compressed season that could very well cost its chance for the playoffs.
This is really a transitional season for the Wild as they have 8 skaters in their contract year, giving the team lots of potential to re-shape itself. And in a season where fans are not likely (even with Covid vaccine available) to have much of an opportunity to attend games, isn’t this the ideal time for an organization to find itself at a crossroads?
I think the team will finish 4th or 5th in the West Division with 24-28 wins to its credit. Where do you think this Wild team will finish the 2020-21 season? Tell us on Twitter @CreaseAndAssist or in the comment section below!