The Minnesota Wild were incredibly active this offseason, which changed the landscape of the Wild’s future. In all honesty, it was inevitable as they maneuver past the barriers during this re-tool and make decisions that will affect the long-term as they look forward.
After six consecutive playoff appearances, all of which came up short, Wild general manager Bill Guerin and the staff are transforming the dynamic of the core to sustain long-term success and be adaptable in all situations. As changes continue to occur, there are many different reasons to be optimistic that the 2020-21 roster is ready for success.
This season preview will cover a multitude of different elements, including an offseason refresher, a look into the division realignment, Dean Evason’s first full-season as head coach of the Wild, the trade deadline, the opening night roster, biggest questions heading into the season, keynotes and injuries, along with realistic expectations for the Wild this season.
Looking Back at the Offseason
In case you missed what happened this offseason, let me refresh your memory quickly. The Wild sent a conditional seventh-round draft pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for Minnesota native Nick Bjugstad. This change of scenery could certainly be the element that pushes him to succeed. There is no doubt that he will be getting an elevated role on an ill-equipped roster down the middle.
The Wild extended smooth-skating defenseman Jonas Brodin to a seven-year, $42 million contract extension that will keep him through the 2027-28 season. The Wild also inked Jared Spurgeon to a seven-year, $53.025 million contract extension.
Spurgeon, recently named the next captain of the Wild, has the richest annual average value in franchise history. The defenseman’s road to a full-time NHLer, let alone captaincy, had many obstacles, but his ability to adapt to adversity is a reason why he is such an excellent hockey player and a respected member of the locker room. The Wild made the right decision in naming Spurgeon the team’s captain despite several other veteran candidates.
The Wild traded veteran center Eric Staal, one of the best free-agent acquisitions in team history, to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Marcus Johansson, who is better at wing, but could potentially play at center this season as an experiment. The duration depends on how he is able to adapt to the test if he is given the opportunity in a center role.
Another defenseman that was re-signed this offseason and flew under the radar in his rookie season was 26-year old Carson Soucy. His three-year, $8.25 million contract extension will keep him through the 2022-23 season if he isn’t taken in the Seattle Expansion Draft if he is exposed.
One of the most shocking transactions this offseason was the draft-day trade with the Nashville Predators. The Wild traded Luke Kunin and a fourth-round pick for Nick Bonino, a second-round pick, and a third-round pick.
There is no doubt that the Wild won this draft-day trade. The Wild sold high on Kunin and were able to strengthen their prospect pipeline while bringing in an established middle-six center in Bonino.
The Wild also moved Devan Dubnyk, Ryan Donato, and a 2022 seventh-round selection in two separate trades which brought back a 2021 third-round pick and a 2022 fifth-round pick. They brought in Cam Talbot who will help provide confidence in the crease. The three-year, $11 million contract extension will keep him through the 2022-23 season.
Wild in West Division & Schedule
One of the many things the NHL had to deal with in preparation for this season was division realignment and what logistically made sense. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there are temporarily realigned divisions. The Wild got lucky, they were placed in the West Division, which is arguably the weakest division of the four.
The Wild were fortunate to be placed in the West due to teams like the Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks, and Los Angeles Kings – all unlikely to have any real shot to make the playoffs. More likely than not, the Wild will be fighting with the Arizona Coyotes for that fourth spot.
The Wild went 10-9-2 against the opponents in the West Division. The Wild struggled against the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, and Kings in particular last season. The team went 3-6-1 against those three teams.
One of the interesting things about the division realignment that caused the Wild’s switch from Central to West is that it has affected the team’s schedule for the worse if you’re a fan.
Note that all times are local, so the Wild will be playing a lot of games late at night. Per Michael Russo, no whining Wild fans. The reward was the division placement that benefited the team, so part of the punishment is late game times.
Opening Night Roster
Here is the projected opening night roster for the Wild tonight against the Kings per Russo.
|L1: Zach Parise||Nick Bjugstad||Kirill Kaprizov|
|L2: Marcus Johansson||Nick Bonino||Kevin Fiala|
|L3: Jordan Greenway||Joel Eriksson Ek||Marcus Foligno|
|L4: Nico Sturm||Victor Rask||Ryan Hartman|
It looks as though Bjugstad impressed during training camp, or the Johansson center experiment didn’t go as planned. The Wild’s first line features veteran winger Zach Parise on the left side, highly-touted rookie prospect Kirill Kaprizov, and Bjugstad centering the first line. This is a very interesting combination, which I actually think could be a good line.
The second line has Johansson on the left side who flourished in his early days in Washington, Kevin Fiala, who the Wild saw breakout in the second half of last season, and Bonino centering the second line. This will be an interesting line given Bonino is a strong two-way center, and Fiala is incredible offensively. From 2014-17, Johansson had the best three-year span of his career. He wasn’t good at generating offense, but he excelled defensively and in terms of finishing.
The Wild’s third line which features Jordan Greenway, Joel Eriksson Ek, and Marcus Foligno is one of the best defensive lines in the NHL. Foligno is one of the best defensive forwards, Eriksson Ek is a top defensive center, and Greenway is above-average defensively himself. This is represented by their strong defensive goals above replacement, expected goals against per hour, and Corsi against per hour.
The Wild’s fourth line consists of Nico Sturm, Victor Rask, and Ryan Hartman. This line really sticks out as questionable because it is hard to predict what to expect from the 25-year-old rookie who made the team because of the absence of Mats Zuccarello.
It is visually weaker, Hartman is a strong defensive player, but the other two weaken the fourth-line. It will be a battle between Sturm and Rask for the final roster spot once Zuccarello is healthy. Hartman will definitely be the leader of the fourth-line and will need to help them hold their own.
|P1: Jonas Brodin||Jared Spurgeon|
|P2: Ryan Suter||Matt Dumba|
|P3: Carson Soucy||Greg Pateryn|
It is very interesting to see Brodin elevated to the top-pairing with Spurgeon. In my opinion, this was long overdue. Combining Brodin’s skating ability and superior defensive play with Spurgeon’s defensive positioning and strong two-way game is a recipe for success.
The only concern about the second pairing of Ryan Suter and Matt Dumba is the defensive side of the game. Both are excellent offensive defensemen, but Dumba’s defensive flaws and Suter’s defensive decline over the past couple of seasons is worrisome.
The emergence of Soucy last season was huge and strengthens an already elite defensive core for the Wild. Greg Pateryn has been solid defensively but took a huge decline last season, much in part to only playing 20 games due to injury.
|Cam Talbot (Starter) – Kaapo Kahkonen (Backup)|
The Wild had one of the worst goalie tandems in the NHL last season, and neither are playing at the start of the season. Dubnyk was traded to the Sharks, and Alex Stalock is out indefinitely. Rookie goalie Kaapo Kahkonen, who won AHL goaltender of the year last season, will play a good chunk of games this season. If Kahkonen establishes himself as a quality backup, it will be interesting to see if Stalock takes over the backup spot when he is healthy.
Gerald Mayhew will be the 13th forward, and Brad Hunt will be the 7th defenseman. The taxi squad will include goalie Andrew Hammond, forward Luke Johnson, forward Kyle Rau, defenseman Louie Belpediom, and defenseman Dakota Mermis according to Russo.
The Biggest Questions Facing the Wild This Season
Kirill Kaprizov – One of the biggest questions going into the season is what to expect from rookie Kaprizov. It is way too hard to predict how hard it will be for him to adapt and what kind of production we can expect from him. If he can produce in a top-six role, that would be a huge boost for the Wild and could be a difference-maker.
Kevin Fiala – The Wild witnessed Fiala breakout in the second half of last season, and he was one of the biggest reasons why they had so much success down the stretch. He was a goal-scoring machine, and it felt like he had a highlight-reel goal every other game. The Wild need him to be able to continue right where he left off. They can’t make the playoffs without his dominance.
Mats Zuccarello – While the veteran winger didn’t have a bad 2019-20 campaign by any means, it was underwhelming. Assuming he doesn’t miss too much time, can he be the top-six forward that former Wild GM Paul Fenton thought he was signing?
Center Depth – It is no secret the Wild don’t have quality center depth. Their only top-six center is Eriksson Ek, but he doesn’t produce enough offensively to garner even a low-end first-line center. This means the Wild need someone to step up from at least one of Bjugstad, Johansson, and Bonino.
Matt Dumba – After having a career season in 2018-19 that was shortened by a season-ending injury, he is primed for a breakout. The question is whether this season is his to finally reach his ceiling as he enters the prime of his career. This could be the biggest question because it will impact his trade stock and Seattle Expansion Draft plans.
Goaltending – The Wild had awful goaltending last season. Is Talbot the answer in goal? If he is even able to provide average goaltending and be reliable in the crease, that would be a big upgrade from last season.
*Evason will be coaching his first-full season in the NHL
*Zuccarello, Marco Rossi, and Stalock out indefinitely
*Kaprizov will be making his NHL debut
There are so many factors that need to play out as to what to expect from the Wild this season. Looking at the analytics models: Dom L of the Athletic has the team finishing 4th, Micah Blake McCurdy of HockeyViz has the Wild finishing 3rd, and Evolving-Hockey has them finishing 4th.
It is fair to conclude that the Wild will probably finish 3rd or 4th in the division this season.
Aaron Heckmann is a journalism & broadcasting student. He covers the Wild for The Hockey Writers & Zone Coverage’s 10krinks. His data-driven articles are focused on solving problems, telling stories, and discovering unique storylines. Find him on Twitter @aaron_heckmann.