It’s safe to say that the Minnesota Wild have surprised everybody with their success in the first half of the 2016-17 NHL season. The team finished fifth in the Central Division one year ago and, without much roster turnover during the course of the offseason, the team was expected to again be in a dog fight for one of the final playoff spots.
Instead, the Wild are entering the All-Star break as not only the top team in the Central Division, but as the top team in the entire Western Conference. To put it bluntly, they are blowing all expectations out of the water.
So who’s to credit for this remarkable first-half performance?
Bounceback Player Award
The Wild have two players in Jonas Brodin and Eric Staal who are worthy of being named their best bounceback player so far this season. Given that Brodin had gone through the wringer in Minnesota last season and survived, it’s only fitting that he should be the recipient of this award.
Brodin heard his name included in almost every trade rumour swirling around the Wild during the 2015-16 campaign and admitted that it was difficult not to think about. The 23-year-old blueliner struggled during long stretches of the season last year as he tried to do too much on the ice to prove his skeptics wrong.
Now, after an offseason used to refocus, the former first-round pick has re-established himself as a young blue-chip defenseman who is an invaluable piece to his team’s success. The defense-first rearguard remains a bit too unselfish in the offensive zone but is only three points away from tying his career high of 19 points with just under half a season left to play.
A broken finger has Brodin on the sidelines at the moment and it’s evident that the Wild are missing his calming influence and steady play on their backend. Call-up Mike Reilly and seventh-defenseman Nate Prosser are doing their best filling in for the injured Swede but it will be a happy day for defense coach Scott Stevens when Brodin is cleared to return.
Unsung Hero Award
For whatever reason, defenseman Ryan Suter doesn’t seem to get anywhere near the same level of recognition as fellow minute-munching blueliners like Drew Doughty and Erik Karlsson. Minnesota’s No. 1 rearguard is trailing only Dustin Byfuglien and the aforementioned Doughty in time-on-ice per game and ranks first overall in the league with a plus/minus rating of plus-28.
Suter is an all-situation type of player who has earned the trust and respect of his new coaching staff just as he had with the team’s previous regime. The Madison, Wisconsin native averages upwards of two and a half minutes on both the power play and the penalty kill each game and is on pace for a second consecutive 50-point season.
Maybe the only thing keeping Suter’s name out of the Norris Trophy conversation has been a lack of team success. If the Wild go deep in the 2017 playoffs, then he might finally get some of the recognition he deserves in future awards shows.
Most Improved Player Award
If there’s one player who has really benefited from the arrival of head coach Bruce Boudreau, it’s Finnish forward Mikael Granlund. The former centreman has been converted to the wing full-time in 2016-17 and both the player and the team are reaping the rewards.
Granlund is skating in over 19 minutes per game under Boudreau — a career-high — which includes plenty of time on both the penalty kill and power play specialty teams.
The former ninth-overall pick has to be complimented on the exponential amount of development that has taken place in his game. The forward has shown significant growth in his all-around game, has been taking shorter paths to the puck, winning puck battles and has improved both his consistency and work rate.
Granlund has found tremendous chemistry with captain Mikko Koivu and winger Jason Zucker on the second line and is on pace to finish the season with 72 points–a mark which would shatter his previous career best of 44.
The 24-year-old has hit his stride just in time as he’s in the last year of a bridge deal carrying a $3 million cap hit. Granlund will be looking to re-up long-term and, with the way he’s been playing, he’ll have a strong case for a nice raise on his next contract.
There shouldn’t be any question about this one. The Wild wouldn’t be where they are in the standings if not for the spectacular play of goaltender Devan Dubnyk all year long.
The undisputed MVP in Minnesota, Dubnyk ranks first league-wide in goals-against average (1.88), first in save percentage (0.936), second in wins (27) and second in shutouts (5). He’s on track for a career best in all of those categories and should be the favorite for the Vezina Trophy if he can keep this up until season’s end.
At the All-Star break, Dubnyk has played in 38 of Minnesota’s 48 games. He’s on track for 65 starts but it won’t be surprising if the Wild give him a few more nights off in the second half considering they have a bit of a cushion sitting in first place with games in hand.
The Wild will also want to see if they can rely on Darcy Kuemper in the backup role or if they’ll need to go shopping for an upgrade prior to the trade deadline. The team has six sets of back-to-backs left on the schedule, which typically means that the backup will see duty in half of those contests.
Quick to give credit to his teammates, the 6-foot-6 netminder only has to look in the mirror to see the team’s true MVP. The top priority for the Wild in the second half should be to ensure that Dubnyk is rested and ready to go come playoff time. With the way he’s playing, he’ll be more than capable of stealing a series or two.
Mark Bowie covers the Edmonton Oilers and the QMJHL for THW.