The Minnesota Wild played their 28th game of the season last Thursday, marking the midway point of the season. The second half of the season is officially underway, which means it is time to evaluate each player’s contributions to the team in the first half of the season. The Wild sit third in the Honda West Division with 39 points. It has been a very respectable beginning to the season with many positives.
Before we get into the report cards, let’s look at the positives and negatives this season for the Wild. The biggest positive is their dominance at 5-on-5, as they’ve been dependent on it as a result of the atrocious power play. They have received strong goaltending from Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen after the departures of Devan Dubnyk and Alex Stalock. Another factor this season is that they are finally getting production from their youth, a huge shift from the dependence on veterans.
The biggest glaring issue so far this season has been the struggling power play that has been a barrier in their way. It continues to be a problem that needs fixing, or it could become increasingly problematic in a playoff push down the line. Another glaring problem is Zach Parise, who has struggled all season and looks lost on the ice. Hopefully, he can find his game, as it would be a huge boost for the team.
All players were placed accordingly into one of the six tiers based on their play in the first half of the season. Players were evaluated based on their analytics, box stats, expectations, and contracts.
The “Outstanding Start” Tier
Kirill Kaprizov, Joel Eriksson Ek, Marcus Foligno, Mats Zuccarello & Matt Dumba
Kaprizov might just be the best player the Wild have ever had in franchise history. His ascent to stardom has been a huge lift for a team that has lacked high-end talent since its existence. He has run away with the Calder at this point, and it would take a rough second half of the season for anyone to catch him. He has notched 10 goals, 15 assists, and 25 points in just 30 games.
The Wild have witnessed Eriksson Ek breakout this season, which has been a huge lift for a team that is thin down the middle and has a dire need for a top-line center. He has been a two-way force, and his production is finally coming up on the score sheet. The 24-year-old has 11 goals, 5 assists, and 16 points in 30 contests this season. His defensive play hasn’t taken a hit from his rising offensive play either. If you missed my midseason award ballot, he is also a contender for the Selke Trophy.
Foligno’s best start to his career came to a halt, as he’s currently sidelined for several weeks with an injury. The 29-year-old has recorded 7 goals, 9 assists, and 16 points in 23 games. He is proving he can be a strong middle-six forward after signing a three-year contract extension before the season began. It’s not just the intangibles he brings — locker room presence and leadership — but his physicality and tenacious play has truly been outstanding.
This is all without mentioning he is one of the best defensive forwards in the NHL. His 2.6 even strength defensive goals above replacement is tied for the highest mark league-wide among forwards. He has been dominant defensively at 5-on-5 and is a staple of the penalty kill. Likewise, he has allowed 1.60 expected goals against per hour at 5-on-5, which is the fifth-highest mark in the league. Looking at Evolving-Hockey’s RAPM, which is a little different, Foligno ranks second in this regard. He’s been arguably been the Wild’s third-best player behind Kaprizov and Eriksson Ek.
It is no secret that Zuccarello had an underwhelming first season with the team after signing a five-year deal in free agency. But he has been a revelation this season and has been a key factor in the Wild’s even-strength scoring. The 33-year-old has excelled on a line with Kaprizov and Rask and has been a point-per-game player with 20 points in 19 games, which has been a shock.
Dumba has regained his game after feeling the after-effects of his injury last season. While he hasn’t necessarily racked up the points (11 points in 26 games), his underlying numbers have been excellent.
Dumba ranks fourth among all defensemen in RAPM expected goals per hour at even strength. He is one of the best defensemen at generating offense while he’s on the ice. He’s been respectable offensively while still being average defensively, which is an upgrade for him, as his defense the past several seasons has been suspect.
The “Respectable Start” Tier
Jonas Brodin, Kevin Fiala, Jordan Greenway, Ryan Hartman, Carson Soucy & Jared Spurgeon
Brodin has had a very strong start to the season. It is quite fitting since he signed a seven-year extension this offseason. While his defensive game hasn’t been as strong as in the past, he has become a formidable two-way presence on the back end. He has 14 points in 28 games (0.5 points per game), and his offensive underlying numbers have vastly improved.
Fiala has had a respectable start but hasn’t produced at the rate he did in the latter half of the 2019-20 campaign. It isn’t a concern, as he has strong expected goals and Corsi numbers. He just hasn’t been finishing at the rate he did last season, and it is inevitable that he will explode at some point. He has a stat line of 9-5-14 in 27 games and is bound to continue his breakout from last season.
Greenway is finally reaching his potential. While strong underlying numbers were present last season, his work ethic and maturity were in question. Fast forward to this season, and he is finally producing. The 24-year-old winger has 5 goals, 15 assists, and 20 points in 30 games. He is starting to use his stature to his advantage too.
If Greenway continues this the rest of the season, it just complicates the Wild’s Seattle Expansion Draft plans. He almost certainly will force them to go the route of seven skaters, so this was definitely a good season for Greenway to breakout.
Hartman is turning into one of the most underrated players on the Wild. He brings a physical presence and has been an effective option defensively. He ranks 44th in even-strength defensive GAR, which is impressive for the 26-year-old winger in the bottom-six. He has 4 goals, 7 assists, and 11 points in 25 games, so this turned out to be a really good free agent acquisition by former Wild GM Paul Fenton.
Soucy is likely the victim of the Seattle Expansion Draft. The Kraken will most likely choose him because he is versatile and has term on his contract at the age of 26. This season so far is just a reminder of this because of how efficient he is on the blue line. He has 9 points in 24 games but has been a reliable option on defense.
Spurgeon hasn’t produced in terms of point production (7 points in 29 games), but he has still been a very impactful defenseman this season. After a slow start, he is regaining his elite status and getting back to form. He continues to be a calming and reliable first-pairing defenseman on the back end for the Wild.
The “Biggest Surprises” Tier
Nico Sturm, Ian Cole & Victor Rask
Sturm has been really good for the Wild this season. He’s been one of the hardest-working forwards, and his work ethic is evident night in and night out. The rookie center has 6 points in 27 games, but his job is to be a hard forechecker and a reliable presence; nobody expects him to be a point producer.
The Wild acquired Cole in the trade that sent Greg Pateryn to the Colorado Avalanche. He has been a huge boost to the Wild’s already top defensive core. One has to wonder if he will get an extension in the offseason to reward him for his strong play because he’s been a strong two-way force on the third pair.
Rask is likely the biggest surprise this season. After a very underwhelming 2019-20, he has solidified himself as a quality middle-six presence. He has 12 points in 28 games and has really flourished with Kaprizov and Zuccarello as his wingers.
The “Average Start” Tier
Nick Bjugstad, Ryan Suter, Kaapo Kahkonen & Cam Talbot
The Wild acquired Bjugstad for a conditional seventh-round pick, and it has turned out to be a masterful trade by general manager Bill Guerin. While his play hasn’t translated to the scoresheet necessarily (12 points in 30 games), he has really been a steady force for the Wild down the middle. He has brought stability and has turned out to be an effective middle-six center.
Suter probably gets some unwarranted criticism from me and could have been placed in the respectable start tier. His defense has been suspect this season, and he hasn’t been the shutdown defender he has been in the past, but he’s still getting it done offensively. His 10 points in 30 games are well below his average, but his offensive underlying numbers have been strong, so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
While it is fair to give me criticism for placing Kahkonen in the average start tier, it is due to his early-season struggles. He has been excellent in the past several weeks and has displayed flashes of his ability to be a starting number one goaltender. It does look like he will be the Wild’s goaltender for the future.
He has a .921 save percentage (SV%) and has saved 5.38 goals above average. However, he has allowed 2.24 more goals than expected based on the quality of the shots he has faced. While that isn’t bad, he has been below average in this regard. Specifically, at the start of the season, he struggled but has excelled in the past ten games or so. There is no doubt he will rise as the season progresses as he gets even more comfortable between the pipes.
There is an argument that Talbot deserves to be in the respectable start tier too. He has been the calming force between the pipes that the Wild needed this season. In 14 games, he has a .918 SV% and has saved 4.76 goals above average when taking into account the number of shots he faces. Most importantly, he has a -0.05 goals saved above expected, meaning he has basically stopped all the shots he was expected to based on the quality of the shots he faced.
The “Concerning & Problematic” Tier
Zach Parise & Nick Bonino
In one of my recent articles, I broke down Parise’s declining play this season. He hasn’t been great by any means and looks a step behind. His underlying numbers display he’s been a defensive liability, which has become problematic. He’s been below par offensively, too, and part of that is because he just looks lost on the ice. The 36-year-old forward has an underwhelming stat line of 3-6-9 in 28 games.
The Wild acquired Bonino in the Luke Kunin trade, and there was hope he could fill the gaping hole down the middle. While he’s been excellent in the faceoff circle, the veteran center has struggled in every other aspect of his game. After a strong 2019-20, he looks like he has taken a step back, and regression is in full force.
The “Healthy Scratch & Injury” Tier
Marcus Johansson & Brad Hunt
Johansson has been limited to just 12 games this season due to an injury, but he has been very underwhelming in the games he has played. He has just 3 points and hasn’t flourished after it was hopeful that a change of scenery could help him reclaim the success he had in his days with the Washington Capitals.
After the trade that sent Greg Pateryn to the Colorado Avalanche, Brad Hunt has been a healthy scratch, as Ian Cole has been a regular on the back end. Like Johansson, Hunt hasn’t done anything special this season. While it isn’t necessarily fair to evaluate his game with just 9 games under his belt, he hasn’t stood out nonetheless.
The Wild have had a strong start to the season, which has featured dominant play at 5-on-5 and drafting paying dividends, as the youth have taken over this roster. If the Wild can solve the question mark surrounding the power play, they could become a very underrated team that could make noise in the postseason.
Another X factor could be veteran Zach Parise because they have had a successful start to the season despite their perennial 25-goal scorer on pace for around 10 goals.
(All Data Via Evolving-Hockey, Natural Stat Trick & Hockey-Reference)
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.