Wild’s Veteran Roster Balanced With Youthful Talent

Age may be just a number to some, but it can be a weakness and hockey is no different in sports. Unfortunately for the Minnesota Wild, the majority of their team is on the older side, but there is hope.

The bright side for the Wild is that their stars are quite young and look to be a solid future to rely on. Having a few older players is always a good thing when it comes to leadership and veteran experience, but the Wild may be on the verge of too many veterans and need to start looking towards a younger future.

The Wild are a very mature team, with over half being 27 or older. According to an article done by James Mirtle of The AthleticNHL back in January, the Wild were actually tied for being the second oldest team in the league with an average age of 28.8, right behind the Washington Capitals. (from “Sizing up the NHL: 2020-21 teams by age, height, weight and nationality,” The AthleticNHL, 01/27/21)

The Leadership

As stated many times before, names like Zach Parise and Ryan Suter pop up in everyone’s minds immediately when the Wild are mentioned. They are and have ultimately been the faces of the franchise for some time. However, every good thing must come to an end and it seems like Parise and Suter may have met theirs with the Wild.

Parise will be turning 37 before next season starts and with his performance this past season, it seems his age may be finally catching up to him. He’s not bad by any means, but he isn’t what he once was either. Back in 2018-19, he had a whopping 61 points that included 28 goals and 33 assists in 74 games.

Compare that to this season, he played in 45 of the Wild’s 56 games and had 18 points. He scored just seven goals and assisted on 11 others. Clearly, he and his teammates were up against some difficult odds with the shortened season and the protocols that were in place, but his drop-off was quite more than what most would expect.

Suter Struggles as Well

Up until this season, Suter had been chugging along steadily in the 40 to even 50 point range. This last season seems to have been one to forget for several players when it comes to points. Suter, like Parise, dropped off quite dramatically in point production this season.

Ryan Suter Minnesota Wild
Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

In 2019-20, he played in all of the Wild’s 69 games and scored eight goals but had 40 assists for 48 points. This season was not that plentiful, with Suter playing in all 56 games, but he scored just three goals and 16 assists. The goal total isn’t totally out of the ordinary, the assist total is pretty surprising. He typically doubled or even tripled his goal totals with assists in past seasons.

Something Needs to Change

Maybe it was just a fluke this season that the veteran leadership seemed to struggle to get on the board, but other areas of leadership need to be looked at as well. With the captaincy reins being handed over to Jared Spurgeon, it may be time for him to choose his own alternate captains as well. With all respect to both Suter and Parise, they’ve had their time as alternate captains and have done well in that role, but times change.

Suter was a pretty quiet presence all season which is his leadership style, but Parise ended up making a decision that cost him a game. Following the decision, everything seemed to calm down and all was well with everyone. However, decisions like Parise made can’t be happening especially when he is one that sets the example for the younger ones on the team.

The Young Future

Speaking of the young ones on the team, it’s time to pivot and focus on them. First and foremost, the Wild now have an official Calder Trophy winner for the first time in their history and his name is Kirill Kaprizov. Heis quickly becoming the new face of the Wild franchise and he’s only 24 years old. The Wild haven’t had a rookie of this caliber since Marian Gaborik back in the early 2000s.

He played in 55 of the Wild’s 56 games and scored 27 goals, 24 assists for 51 total points. He led the team in both goals and points and set new rookie records in goals, assists, and points for the Wild. The real impressive part is he did it in almost 20 games less than the record holder Gaborik did.

He’s not the only youth on the team that has some talent, however. Next up is Kaprizov’s power-play linemate, Kevin Fiala. The 25-year-old has really found his place with the Wild the last two seasons, he scored 40 points this season and 54 last season. 14 of those 54 points were on the power play, including six goals.

Those two are powerful goal-scoring wings that hopefully have years left for the Wild. Something else these two have in common, they both need new contracts before this next season starts. They are both listed as restricted free agents and time is getting tight for deals to be signed. The Wild will be hoping and trying to get long-term deals for both of them, and fans will have to wait and see what happens with fingers-crossed.

One other player that is quite young, also at age 24, and deserves mention is left wing Jordan Greenway, also known as “Big Rig” due to his considerable size and ability to hit quite well. He had 87 hits in 56 games for the Wild and in playoffs, he had 39 in just seven games. He has one year left on his contract before he becomes a free agent and the Wild will be looking to do everything in their power to sign him.

The Youthful Center

Thankfully the Wild do have one center who is on the younger but experienced side. Joel Eriksson Ek is also 24 years old and the Wild’s leading point-producing center. He scored 19 goals, 11 assists for 30 points, and was a plus-16. His faceoff percentage wasn’t the best on the team, but the good news is he’s been steadily improving in that area over the last few seasons.

Joel Eriksson Ek
Joel Eriksson Ek, Minnesota Wild, November 11, 2017. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

As the most youthful yet experienced center on the Wild, he’ll be expected to lead the way for any up-and-coming centers this next season. He also just signed an eight-year contract worth $42 million with an average of $5.25 million a season, something the Wild will be relieved to have off their to-do list.

The Elder Defense

The age of the Wild’s defense is in an almost worse position than their forwards. Nearly all but one or two of their defensemen are over 26, with a few right on the borderline of 26 turning 27. Their youngest player is Calen Addison at the ripe age of 21 and he’s played just six total games for the Wild, three during the regular season and then three during the playoffs, making him still very new to the Wild.

Having veteran defensemen can be good because of their experience, but it can also hinder them. The undisputed leader of their defense, Suter, is getting closer and closer to 40 years old. He’s doing quite well for his age, but it is starting to take a toll on him. Having had a number of ankle injuries in the past few seasons, it’s hard to say how much longer he’ll hold out.

Even Wild captain Jared Spurgeon would be considered older at 32, but he has quite a few years left to lead his team, especially with his lengthy contract and he’s a lot like Suter has been over the seasons. A very capable and consistent defenseman who doesn’t get a lot of notice but works hard every single game.

The Goaltending

Of course, goaltending can’t be overlooked when it comes to age. Wild starter Cam Talbot is currently 33 but will be turning 34 on July 5. That age would be considered older for most goaltenders, especially since the other goalie in this tandem is 24 and will turn 25 in August. That other goalie being Kaapo Kahkonen who has done quite well for the Wild and may be looking to start more games this upcoming season and his age, is definitely in his favor.

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Thankfully for the Wild, goaltending wasn’t really an issue this season. The tandem did quite well and Kahkonen came in strong when he had to cover for Talbot. Overall, Talbot’s age may start creeping up on him, but he looks to have at least a year or two left and he’ll have someone suitable to fill his skates when his time is done with the Wild.

The Contract Issues

Unfortunately for the Wild, having a mostly veteran team will not be on their side when it comes to contracts. Suter, Parise, and Zuccarello all have years left on their contracts, making it difficult to sign the younger players. Without getting too deep into numbers, the Wild need to make some roster changes to make room for their talented youth.

Mats Zuccarello Minnesota Wild
Mats Zuccarello, Minnesota Wild (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

They do have several free agents that could be on the move and that may be just enough room to sign all three but it’s hard to tell who will leave and who will stay. The most difficult part may be what the young forwards may ask for and if the Wild can match it.

Last Thoughts/Author’s Comments

Overall, the Wild are becoming an old team; that isn’t necessarily bad if all the players can continue to play at the top of their game. However, realistically that isn’t typically the case. If the Wild truly want to become a Stanley Cup contender, they will need to make changes to become a younger team, but they can’t give up experience either.

That’s where it becomes a slippery slope of letting veteran talent go in favor of newer but less experienced players. The other dangerous part about investing in younger players is if they’ll continue to progress or fizzle out, but that’s part of the territory.

Regardless of the risks, the Wild need to become younger and quickly. They need to find players that can play to the same caliber as both Kaprizov and Fiala. That’s this author’s biggest wish for the offseason, for the Wild to find two or three more players of that caliber and maybe a younger defenseman if we’re lucky.  

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