The Minnesota Wild are currently sitting safely in a playoff spot right now and have been very successful this season as the season is close to concluding. It seems like a good time to do our first installment of a roundtable discussing the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs.
This roundtable edition will include the Wild writing crew for The Hockey Writers: Aaron Heckmann (AH), Mariah Holland (MH), Devon Platana (DP), Justin Walters (JW), Daniel Centeno (DC) & Lucas Burrell (LB). We will be covering key matchups down the stretch, things the Wild need to work on, examining possible playoff opponents, most important players going forward, pending free agents, and rookie Kirill Kaprizov.
Question #1: Key Matchups Down the Stretch
There are some key matchups down the stretch for the Wild including five games against the St. Louis Blues and two games against the Colorado Avalanche, how important are these games?
AH: It will be very important for the Wild to win these games to set the tone and go into the playoffs with momentum. Their game needs to be polished because they will be playing a tough team — Avalanche or Golden Knights — both of whom will be a big test. It could also be very beneficial to beat the Blues in a majority of the remaining games in the season series in order to restrict them from making any sort of playoff push, which would result in the Arizona Coyotes making the playoffs.
Never say never — especially with how much hot goaltending can be a difference-maker — because if the Coyotes somehow found themselves in the second round, and the Wild advance to the second round, it could be a huge advantage because the Wild have had their number this season.
MH: All of the games towards the end of the season will be important regardless of who they play. Teams want to finish the season on a high note and keep a winning streak alive. If the Wild were to play the Golden Knights in the first round of the playoffs, it would be great for the Wild to have finished their regular-season series against them with wins and possibly get in the heads of the Golden Knights going into the playoffs.
The Blues, on the other hand, are always a tough team to play and could easily snatch some much-needed points from the Wild if they do not take them seriously. If the Blues were to win all five games, they could climb up into playoff contention right behind the Wild depending on how their other games go. The Wild will need to continue to play their best and win as many games as possible to secure their spot in the playoffs and keep a winning mindset.
DP: I think anyone would agree that these matchups are more important this season than any other season. With the Wild playing at least the first two rounds of the playoffs against other Honda West Division teams, it’s going to be important to establish as much momentum as possible. Unless something crazy changes, they probably won’t play the Blues in the first round, but there’s a decent chance that they could wind up matched up with the Golden Knights. The Wild are already 4-1-1 against them, so getting at least a win or two against them to finish the season could bode well in a possible playoff matchup.
JW: Those games are obviously going to mean a lot, but it’s not just for standings implications. It’s about setting a tone during those games, making the opponents hope they don’t run into the Wild come playoff time.
DC: The Wild have a substantial lead over the fourth spot in the Honda West Division, meaning their final regular-season games will determine who is their matchup in Round 1. The games between the Wild and the Golden Knights may be potential playoff previews, but I think the Blues will be as exciting during this last stretch. The Blues’ struggles have been evident all season, yet their chances of securing the fourth spot are not over yet. I expect the Blues to come out and play hard against the Wild in their last-ditch effort to make the playoffs.
LB: Both matchups are going to be extremely crucial, especially the games against the Golden Knights. It’s unlikely that the Wild will catch up to the Honda West Division pack, but gaining more confidence while playing a potential first-round opponent is a difference-maker.
Question #2: Polishing Their Game
What are some of the things the Wild need to work on down the stretch heading into the playoffs?
AH: The biggest element they need to work on heading into the playoffs is their process of winning a game. They continue to win games despite getting outplayed and they are truly breaking models in terms of being one of the best teams in the league now despite underlying numbers to the contrary.
Their share of shots, expected goals, and scoring chances are all in the bottom three at 5-on-5 league-wide since the middle of March, which is truly a concern despite their ability to continue to win games when getting outplayed. Their defensive game and offensive game both need improvement. The only facet that has been stagnant is goaltending from Cam Talbot, who continues to win games for the Wild. Another important factor is their power play, which is finally seeing results.
MH: Obviously one of the biggest things the Wild have to work on — as they have had to all season — is their power play. Despite finally having some success with the power play, they are still at 23rd in the NHL. They sit at 18.3 percent while the top team in the league, the Carolina Hurricanes, have 27.5 percent. On the power play, the Wild have 221 shots in comparison to the Hurricanes’ 189 shots and the second-place Washington Capitals have 206 shots. So, the Wild are shooting a lot on the power play, but for some reason they can’t convert. They’ll need to figure that out as they move towards the playoffs.
On the opposite side of the power play, the Wild will need to figure out how to keep certain players out of the penalty box. The team has had success on the penalty kill with 84 percent, which ranks sixth in the NHL. Despite that success, they don’t want to spend unnecessary time in the penalty box, especially during the playoffs. The Wild need to address this prior to the playoffs starting.
DP: Honestly, faceoffs are a huge thing. I know that people have done studies on how being good at faceoffs doesn’t necessarily equate to overall success. At the same time, I think a lot of Wild fans and the organization themselves would feel more confident if the team can somehow get better at winning faceoffs. All I know is that if the Wild have to take an important draw in overtime of a playoff game, I’d personally feel more confident if they had a better faceoff percentage than the 46% they’ve been hovering around as of late.
JW: They need to get better at starting on time. They can’t sleep their way through the first 10 minutes of games and expect to always be able to claw their way back. Talbot has kept them in games where they might have deserved to be down a couple early on, and that needs to stop.
DC: Entering the final stretch, the Wild need to keep the momentum going. The offense is clicking, but there needs to be defensive and goaltending consistency, as well. The team hit a rough patch before the April 12 trade deadline, with some bad losses against the Blues and Avalanche. The team rallied and are on another winning streak, but they must minimize these types of blowouts and make the right adjustments before their first-round matchup.
LB: Their 5-on-5 play is an element they need to work on. Luckily they have had some success on the power play lately, so things haven’t been all bad. However, so far in the month of April, the Wild are one of the worst teams at 5-on-5. They rank dead last in shots for percentage (42 percent) and in the bottom 10 in terms of expected goals-for percentage (46 percent). I expect they will regress back to their early season ways once they are able to practice again though.
Question #3: Examining Possible Playoff Opponents
It appears the Wild will play either the Vegas Golden Knights or the Colorado Avalanche, which team would be easier for the Wild to win against?
AH: This might be a hot take, but in my opinion, the difference between the Avalanche and Golden Knights is minimal. Both teams have star power with goaltending favoring the Golden Knights and the defensive core in favor of the Avalanche. Therefore, I think they both are equally hard to play against in the postseason.
It isn’t a secret that the Wild play better against the Golden Knights, which is an advantage, but this would be the third time in franchise history that the Wild would be the underdogs in a first-round meeting with the Avalanche. The first two times ended with an unbelievable Game 7 overtime winner in Colorado that left the Wild victorious. Wouldn’t it be a magical storybook ending for the team to do it again (for a third time) with Kirill Kaprizov leading the way in his rookie season after nearly six years of waiting? Obviously, the Wild have a better chance against the Golden Knights, but I wouldn’t mind seeing a first-round meeting with the Avalanche.
MH: Either team will be difficult for the Wild to beat. Personally, I believe the team may have an easier time beating the Golden Knights. The Wild do not have a playoff history with them, so they have a clean slate compared to their history with the Avalanche. The Wild are currently 4-2 against the Golden Knights this season with two games left, while they went 3-5 against the Avalanche. Overall, the Wild have had much better results against the Golden Knights and seem to have figured them out while the Avalanche have been a real thorn in the Wild’s side all season, and more than likely would continue to be in the playoffs.
DP: That’s a really tough question because to say either team would be “easier” to beat would be disrespectful to what they’ve done this season. With that being said, the Wild were 3-5-0 against the Avalanche this season and were outscored by them 29-19. As I mentioned before, Minnesota is 4-1-1 against Vegas. So, if we’re going by experience, I’m leaning towards the Golden Knights being the “easier” matchup for the Wild.
JW: I think the Avalanche are the best team in the division, and therefore I believe the Wild will meet the Golden Knights in the first round. Both teams will be tough to play against and beat. If the question is the lesser of two evils, the answer is the Golden Knights.
DC: The Wild do match up quite well against either the Avalanche or the Golden Knights, but would be preferable to get the Golden Knights in Round 1. The Avalanche are solid everywhere, especially down the middle, and it looks like Philipp Grubauer has finally emerged as a legitimate No.1 goalie. The Golden Knights have Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner as their tandem, but I think the Avs’ offense and defense trump the Vegas lineup overall. Also, the Golden Knights lack center depth (like the Wild) and have a top-heavy lineup outside of their stars.
LB: I’m going to choose Vegas, but I might regret it. The Wild lead the Golden Knights during their season series, but haven’t played them lately. Regardless of who they end up against, the Wild are going to be a terrible opening-round opponent.
Question #4: Most Important Players Going Forward
Which three players will be the most important down the stretch and in the playoffs?
AH: Aside from the obvious choices of Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala, I think the three most important players will be Zach Parise, Marcus Foligno, and Joel Eriksson Ek. I say Parise because he has been the Wild’s most consistent playoff performer. A huge reason — beyond goaltending — that the Wild never made a deep playoff run was due to their core of Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker, Nino Niederreiter, and Charlie Coyle being silent in the playoffs, which for the most part resulted in Parise doing the heavy work.
His play was problematic in the first half of the season, but his game has vastly improved over the past several weeks and he always seems to find a way to produce in the postseason. Foligno is having a career year in terms of offensive production and underlying numbers. Beyond his physicality and ability to turn the momentum in their favor, he has once again been a top defensive forward by the eye-test and analytics. The Wild have witnessed Eriksson Ek break out this season, which has resulted in him being one of their most impactful forwards on both ends of the ice.
MH: While it’s hard to narrow down just three players who will be most important to the Wild because they are such a tight group that plays well together, there a few that come directly to mind. Obviously, No. 1 has to be Kaprizov and everyone knows why he’s important. He’s a great natural goal scorer with an obscene amount of talent that continues to get better each day. No. 2 would have to be Jared Spurgeon — being captain and one of the Wild’s top defensemen — they’ll need him to be at the top of his game in both leadership to keep the team intact and functioning smoothly, as well as his defensive capabilities to help whoever’s in the net.
The third would be actually two people, the goalie tandem of Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen. Most would probably believe that Talbot will nail down the top spot, but if something were to happen or they decide to switch it up, Kahkonen will need to be on top of it, as well. In the playoffs, a lot of the time it does come down to the goalies who win the game. Talbot has previous experience in playoff games that will come in handy while Kahkonen does not have any prior playoff experience, but he has done well in high-pressure situations, such as when he made his NHL debut. Both goalies will be important going into the playoffs and will be key in winning games.
DP: Again, super hard question. On one hand, you have to list Talbot. He’s been playing some of the best hockey of his career since the middle of February and sometimes it’s the team with the hottest goalie that makes a deep playoff run. Secondly, I’d say Foligno. He’s having a breakout season and he’s the type of big-bodied forward that you want to see getting those dirty, physical scoring opportunities in the playoffs. Plus, he’s always great at sparking the team with some energy. Lastly, Kaprizov. He’s arguably the team’s best forward in his rookie season and is more than capable of producing goals on his own or putting a linemate in the perfect scoring opportunity. You can’t ask the world of him in his first NHL offseason, but the Wild won’t make it far without him.
JW: I am going to go with Talbot, Fiala, and Spurgeon. Talbot has been one of the best goalies in the league over the past few weeks and will need to continue that heading into the playoffs. The first half of the season was not ideal for Fiala, but he has really picked it up as of late. Fiala takes some of the pressure off of Kaprizov to be the main point-producer for the team. This will be Spurgeon’s first playoffs as captain and his leadership skills will be put to the test. He will be looking to motivate his team to their first playoff series victory since 2015.
DC: The three most important players towards the playoffs will be Kaprizov, Jonas Brodin, and Talbot/ Kahkonen. Kaprizov has already become the main driving force of the Wild’s rejuvenated offense this season, and we should expect more of the same in the postseason. With his experience in the KHL, I assume there will not be many first-year jitters or a need to shelter his minutes. Brodin is the team’s defensive cornerstone and a model of consistency.
Like the regular season, he will play more than 21 minutes per game and be placed in all situations by head coach Dean Evason. He will set the tone of the Wild’s deep core as the leader on the back end. Talbot and Kahkonen are listed here because the one that takes the crease will be crucial to the Wild’s playoff fortunes. After last season’s subpar performances from Alex Stalock and Devan Dubnyk, general manager Bill Guerin expects his starter to perform well and give the team a winning chance.
LB: I’m going to exclude Kaprizov because he’s the obvious choice. My pick is Talbot due to his reliable play and veteran presence. Fiala is another safe bet. Opponents will likely hard-match against Kaprizov’s line, which should open up advantageous scoring chances for the young winger. Lastly, I think Matt Dumba is going to bring the energy and scoring touch from the blue line. Everyone’s important, but keep an eye out for these three players.
Question #5: Pending Free Agents
How much of an impact do you think playoff production or play down the stretch by the pending unrestricted free agents (UFA) will impact their chances of getting a contract extension? (Marcus Johansson, Nick Bjugstad, Nick Bonino, Ian Cole & Brad Hunt)
AH: It won’t have an impact on Johansson because there’s no room for him for next season. I think it could impact the other three aside from Hunt who would be re-signed as a seventh defenseman. If the Wild do decide to bring back a center, they will have to pick between Bjugstad and Bonino, there isn’t a spot for both.
In my opinion, Bjugstad and Bonino’s playoff performances could affect their chances of getting an extension. As for Cole, I think he has proved his worth, so I don’t think the playoffs will affect his ability to get a new contract. That will solely depend on the potential cost for an extension.
MH: If their play helps the Wild nail down the playoff spot that would definitely help them in hopes of signing a contract. Their production in the playoffs will also be key to them getting contract extensions. The team wants to get farther and snatch that elusive Stanley Cup and to do that they need solid playoff production from everyone, but especially the ones who are not locked into contracts. They want them to prove their worth and they deserve to have that roster spot going forward.
DP: I think management is always assessing these situations. Even if the Wild don’t make a deep playoff run, you still have to assume a solid effort by some of the pending UFAs could earn them a one- or two-year contract. It’s also a different time where the salary cap isn’t really moving, so the Wild may be more selective of who gets signed and for how much. If they think they can get similar production or play from another free agent or a prospect in the system for cheaper, odds are they’ll let that UFA walk.
JW: The short answer is yes; playoff performance is where the money is really earned. For pending UFAs such as Bonino, Johansson, and Bjugstad, having a strong performance in the playoffs can be what earns them a nice contract extension. A bad regular season can be forgotten about quickly with a great playoff performance.
DC: With Ryan Hartman extended, I think there is less pressure on the team to assess their UFAs during the postseason. Johansson and Bjugstad are most likely not returning, and Bonino might if he takes a deep pay cut, but his production is replaceable on the open market. The only consideration could be Cole, who has fit in seamlessly since being traded from the Avalanche.
LB: Bonino and Cole were both brought in to help establish a winning culture, so I anticipate that they will be leaned on heavily in the postseason. Skaters like Bjugstad and Johansson are wildcards, but will get massive opportunities to earn a contract offer from the Wild.
Question #6: Rookie Kirill Kaprizov
How do you think Kirill Kaprizov will do in the playoffs?
AH: I don’t think Kaprizov will have any problem producing in the playoffs and making an impact like he has done all season. There’s a difference between a strong impact player and a talented player. The Wild have had many good impact players, but none of them held the talent and star power Kaprizov has who will easily go down as the best player in franchise history.
MH: With Kaprizov’s success so far this season, I believe he’ll do well in the playoffs. He’s able to step up when the Wild need him most and he tends to do well in high-pressure situations. He has 38 points so far and two of those are considered game-winning goals.
That doesn’t count in how many times he’s helped change the momentum of games and helped teammates score goals as well. I predict and hope that he will continue his success and help the Wild do well in the playoffs. He’s had points against both the Golden Knights and the Avalanche, so in terms of his capability it won’t really matter who the Wild will face coming playoff time.
DP: Kaprizov’s already proven that he can produce at similar rates in the NHL as he did in the KHL. Just a quick look at his KHL playoff stats shows that he had 31 points in 47 games (0.66 points per game). Now, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are a totally different monster, but it would be encouraging if Kaprizov could showcase similar production. He’s also won his fair share of international medals, including gold at the 2018 Olympics, so you can’t doubt his pedigree.
JW: Kaprizov will be fine; great players figure it out in the playoffs. Maybe the first game will be a little bit of a shock, just experiencing the different nature of playoff hockey. However, he is a determined player and will battle alongside his teammates. He’s an elite player and he will remain elite in the playoffs, as well.
DC: As stated earlier, I think Kaprizov’s transition to postseason hockey will be seamless. With playoff games becoming slower and more defensive, he should be able to adjust, and the team is getting contributions from every line, which should alleviate the pressure on him to be “the guy” every night. As a friendly reminder, this is not Marian Gaborik leading the Wild to an improbable conference finals appearance during the 2002-03 season. Kaprizov has the support and the Wild have better depth compared to that Gaborik-led team.
LB: Kaprizov is all about winning, so I can’t imagine him shying away from the moment. Still, it will be interesting to see how he reacts to teams hyper-focusing on him in a seven-game series. It could take an adjustment period but I’m sure he’ll make a massive impact overall.
The matchups down the stretch against the Blues and Golden Knights are very important for gaining momentum going into the postseason. The Wild have several elements they need to work on, including their 5-on-5 play, getting stronger in the faceoff circle, and being more disciplined, among other things.
The most important players down the stretch are going to be Kaprizov, Fiala, Parise, Foligno, Eriksson Ek, Brodin, Spurgeon, Dumba, and the goaltending tandem of Talbot and Kahkonen. While there are few players who might need a good playoff performance to get an extension, for the most part, it will depend on the cost and positional need rather than their play in the postseason. The consensus is that Kaprizov won’t have any problems being able to be the impact player he has been so far this season.
Aaron Heckmann covers the Wild for The Hockey Writers & Zone Coverage. His data-driven articles are focused on solving problems, telling stories, and discovering unique storylines. Find him on Twitter @aaron_heckmann.