If there is one word that could be used to describe the Minnesota Wild’s 2015-16 season, it would be ‘inconsistent’. The veteran team experienced another year full of extreme highs and frustrating lows as they managed to sneak their way into the playoffs for the fourth straight campaign.
The Wild finished the regular season with 87 points and qualified for the postseason as the second wildcard team in the Western Conference. Their 87 points ranked 17th overall in the league and six points behind a Boston Bruins team that failed to qualify for the postseason in the Eastern Conference.
Minnesota went on a spectacular 28-9-2 run in their final 39 contests of the 2014-15 regular season and hoped to carry that success over to the 2015-16 campaign. The season started off strong with a franchise best 10-3-2 record out of the gate but they could not maintain pace and proceeded to ebb and flow the rest of the way. All of the positive momentum that they had been riding dwindled away as the losses began to pile up.
Along with the losses came rumors of a locker room divide and internal conflict. There was no shortage of drama in the Gopher State as questions arose surrounding a multitude of topics including captain Mikko Koivu’s leadership abilities, certain players not being held accountable for poor play, players worrying too much about trade rumors, assistant coach Darryl Sydor’s legal problems, as well as the whole Ryan Suter incident where he publicly announced his displeasure at being reunited with fellow left-shot defenseman Jonas Brodin.
Not helping matters was the fact that Minnesota had trouble adjusting to the new overtime format as they finished third in the Western Conference in overtime/shootout losses with 11 and were a miserable 1-9 in games decided in the five-minute three-on-three overtime period.
The team completely fell apart in February when a season-high eight-game losing streak resulted in the firing of long-time head coach Mike Yeo. Rather than conducting a full-fledged coaching search and adding further distractions to an already delicate room, the Wild acted quickly by promoting their AHL affiliate’s bench boss John Torchetti to interim head coach.
Under Torchetti, the Wild would go 15-11-1 but their inconsistent play remained evident as they closed out the regular season by posting an alarming six straight wins followed by five straight losses.
Finishing as the bottom seed in the Western Conference playoffs, the Wild drew a tough opening round matchup as they squared off against the offensive juggernaut Dallas Stars. The first-round series was missing key players on both sides as Tyler Seguin was limited to one game for the Stars while the Wild were without Zach Parise for the entirety of the series due to injury.
Minnesota had hoped to take advantage of the Stars’ uncertainties in net but could not muster enough offense to come away with the series win as they eventually fell to the conference’s top seed in six games.
Team 2015-16 Record: 38-33-11 (5th in the Central Division)
Key Roster Additions:
- Eric Staal
- Chris Stewart
- Alex Stalock
Key Roster Losses:
- Thomas Vanek
- Jarett Stoll
- David Jones
- Justin Fontaine
Key Organization Changes:
A major offseason shakeup took place behind the bench and featured the exit of Torchetti, along with assistant coaches Sydor and Rick Wilson. All three men have since found new employment as assistant coaches in other organizations with Torchetti being hired by the Detroit Red Wings, Sydor moving on to the AHL’s Chicago Wolves, and Wilson joining former Minnesota bench boss Yeo with the St. Louis Blues.
Assistant coach Andrew Brunette was moved back into a front-office position while Darby Hendrickson and Bob Mason remain in their respective roles of assistant and goalie coach.
Highlighting the much-anticipated group of new voices behind the bench is one of the NHL’s most successful regular season coaches, Bruce Boudreau. The former head coach of Washington Capitals and Anaheim Ducks has not only guided his team to the playoffs in eight of the last nine seasons but he’s led each of those teams to division titles as well.
The 2007-08 Jack Adams Award winner employs more of an offensive style than Minnesota fans are used to and it will be interesting to see how he impacts the careers of the many young veterans on the current Wild roster.
Alongside Boudreau and the two returning coaches will be new hires Scott Stevens, who will run the defense and help with the penalty kill, and former Atlanta Thrashers head coach John Anderson, who will help with forwards and the power play.
|Zach Parise||Eric Staal||Charlie Coyle|
|Mikael Granlund||Mikko Koivu||Jason Zucker|
|Nino Niederreiter||Erik Haula||Jason Pominville|
|Kurtis Gabriel||Tyler Graovac||Chris Stewart|
Extra: Jordan Schroeder
The top three lines are evenly balanced and appear to be mostly set; however, Minnesota’s fourth line is far from decided. Coach Boudreau has publicly stated that he would like a fourth line he can throw onto the ice at any time but, heading into training camp, the players who will be battling for fourth-line spots are mostly unproven commodities. Newly re-acquired Chris Stewart is the most established of those competing for fourth-line minutes while rookies Kurtis Gabriel, whom Boudreau has spoken glowingly about, and Tyler Graovac also appear in line to crack the opening night roster.
The 13th forward position will likely come down to a battle between a couple of former highly-touted players turned tweeners in Jordan Schroeder and Zac Dalpe as well as potential returnee Ryan Carter, who will be coming to camp on a Professional Try-Out agreement.
There also exists the outside possibility that one of the Wild’s young guns, Joel Eriksson-Ek or Alex Tuch, breakout at camp with the big club but it would be considered a surprise if it were to happen.
Here’s a closer look at some forwards who will be expected to play key roles for the Wild this season:
Despite finishing second on the team in scoring a year ago, Minnesota’s highest-paid forward is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career as he struggled to find his game on a consistent basis. Much of the forward’s recent struggles can be linked to a nagging back injury that plagued him throughout a good portion of the 2015-16 season. Parise’s health remains his biggest concern heading into the new season but, with his back said to be fully healed following an offseason of rehab, the Minnesota native is hopeful that his injury woes are behind him and is expected to be in the Wild’s opening night lineup.
Parise is scheduled to get a head start on the season as he will suit up for the United States at the upcoming World Cup of Hockey and the much-publicized event should provide him with the chance to shake off the rust, work on his timing, and regain his feel for the ice. Expect Parise to bounce back under Boudreau’s guidance.
Minnesota’s captain and leading scorer last year remains one of the more underappreciated players in the game today. It’s a real mystery how Koivu has yet to be nominated for the Frank J. Selke Award despite the fact that he regularly takes on his team’s toughest assignments and does an admirable job playing the role of shutdown centre. Koivu has likely already seen his best days offensively but should once again find himself in the 50-60 point range in 2016-17 while continuing to provide stellar defensive play and leadership.
Mikael Granlund has been a tough player to project so far in his NHL career. Very highly touted coming into the league, Granlund has stagnated since his first full NHL season by finishing each year with between 39 and 44 points. Being a smaller skilled forward without elite skating ability has proven to be a challenge for the former ninth overall draft pick. A shift from centre to the wing this upcoming season should help eliminate a lot of the issues that Granlund has had with the game’s speed and provide him with more time and space to set up offensively. Should Granlund fail to find his footing this upcoming season it could very well be his last in Minnesota.
|Ryan Suter||Jared Spurgeon|
|Marco Scandella||Jonas Brodin|
|Mike Reilly||Matt Dumba|
Extra: Nate Prosser, Christian Folin
Expect Minnesota to have a crowded blueline to start the year if left-shot sophomore Mike Reilly forces his way onto the roster. Christian Folin is no longer waiver exempt and the team won’t risk losing him on the waiver wire, while fellow right-shot defenseman Nate Prosser is expected to start the season seventh on the depth chart.
Here’s a look at some of the most prominent pieces on Minnesota’s backend:
Logging an average of 28:36 per game in 2015-16, Suter was once again amongst the league leaders in ice time as he finished second only to Ottawa’s smooth skating captain Erik Karlsson. Routinely seeing upwards of 27-29 minutes per game might be a trend that the All-Star will be hard-pressed to replicate this season as Boudreau has stated his intentions to even out the playing time among his top four.
The blueliner scored a career-high 51 points last season but might be in tough to duplicate that number if he does, in fact, see a reduction in ice time. Regardless of ice time distribution, however, Suter will remain the undisputed anchor of the deep Wild defense corps and should continue to be used in all situations.
2015-16 proved to be a tough year for Brodin as he struggled to meet the high expectations that have become the standard for him. The Swedish defenseman was taken off the team’s top pairing and saw a dip in ice time and production as a result. The rearguard appeared to be distracted by constant trade rumors which could help explain the decline in his play. Brodin will look to use the new season as a way to start over fresh and put last season behind him. Minnesota, meanwhile, will also be counting on a return to form.
Following an offseason that saw his name circulate amid trade speculation, combined with elongated contract talks that eventually resulted in a two-year bridge deal, Matt Dumba is entering the most important season of his career to date. The former seventh overall draft pick has the tools to become an impact player but will he use them to take that next step this season or will we see much of the same inconsistencies that were on display in 2015-16? New defense coach Stevens will have plenty to work with as he does his best to mold Dumba’s game to his strengths.
Devan Dubnyk has seen more than his fair share of rubber over the past two years and, while still subject to the odd blunder, has cemented himself as a core member of the Wild. The goaltender appeared in 67 games during the 2015-16 regular season, second only to Los Angeles Kings’ netminder Jonathan Quick and has more than earned his teammates’ trust and respect.
The goalie will likely get a bit more rest under Boudreau’s watch this season which will allow for backup goalie Darcy Kuemper to take on a bit heavier workload than he’s seen lately.
Related: Dubnyk Standing Tall in Wild Crease
Breakout Player: Nino Niederreiter
Typically players with a good chance of breaking out meet a certain set of criteria: they are in the 21-25 age bracket, they have shown signs of progression or glimpses of dominance during the previous season, and they have a history of high performance in lesser leagues. One Minnesota player meeting all of these criteria is Nino Niederreiter.
The Swiss winger was the team’s best possession player in 2015-16 and finished the season with a career-high 43 points. The 6’2″ forward followed that up by posting six points in six playoff games while showing that he could be relied upon to provide more offense than he’s generated to date.
Niederreiter regularly finishes his seasons with more goals than assists, which is a pretty uncommon feat in today’s day and age. In fact, during his NHL career so far, Niederreiter has totals of 60 goals and 59 assists. If he’s able to better use his linemates to help generate his offense then this is a player who could see a huge spike in production.
Player with Most to Prove: Eric Staal
There might not be anyone who wants to erase the memory of last season more so than Eric Staal. A long way from the 100-point scorer he was back in 2005-06, Staal was signed to a three-year deal by Minnesota on July 1st without much fanfare. The big centreman will be starting a new chapter in his career as he suits up for his third NHL franchise and will get to do so without a cap hit of $8.25 million weighing down on his shoulders.
Staal is poised for an opportunity to prove his doubters wrong as he’s expected to centre Minnesota’s first line alongside Parise and Charlie Coyle. While a return to the scoring leaderboard is highly unlikely, it’s not unrealistic to think Staal could rebound from last year’s nightmare with a solid 60 point season.
First Players in the ‘Call-Up’ Line:
On defense, offseason acquisition Victor Bartley was brought into the organization for the main purpose of providing depth and a veteran call-up option, while the younger Gustav Olofsson could also see some more time in the NHL this year.
Up front, the Wild will likely call on the loser of the Schroeder/Dalpe training camp battle if players at the bottom of their lineup are struggling. Christoph Bertschy will likely get a few more games in the big leagues when the inevitable injury bug hits and top prospect Eriksson-Ek could force the Wild’s hand if he finds early success in the minors.
Meanwhile, Alex Stalock has some NHL experience and provides Minnesota with a solid number three option in net.
Related: Future is Now for Joel Eriksson-Ek?
The hiring of Boudreau changes the dynamic of the entire Wild organization and makes them a hard team to figure out going into the 2016-17 season. The player personnel is mostly the same but the way they will be deployed and asked to play will be completely different.
A full season from a healthy Parise will go a long way to reigniting the offense while players like Niederreiter, Coyle, Granlund, and Jason Zucker could all have breakout seasons and excel with the team’s new tactics.
Will veterans Staal and Jason Pominville rebound from poor seasons or continue on their respective declines? Will Erik Haula take the next step and develop into a premier two-way centre? How will the defense corps cope with more evenly distributed minutes? A lot of questions and a lot to look forward to as the new season approaches.
A lot of questions and a lot to look forward to as the new season approaches.
Team 2016-17 Record Prediction: 39-35-8 (6th in the Central Division)
Mark Bowie covers the Edmonton Oilers and the QMJHL for THW.