The 2021-22 NHL season is just days away and the Minnesota Wild is one of the many teams looking to take things to the next level. The Wild qualified for the playoffs for the eighth time in nine years last season, however, they have yet to make it beyond Round 1 since 2014-15. With a decent mixture of new and old faces on this year’s roster, Minnesota hopes to have its postseason fortunes change when all is said and done.
Nevertheless, there’s a lot of hockey to be played for the playoffs to arrive, and it all starts with Game 1 of the 2021-22 regular season. The Hockey Writers‘ Wild writing staff of Devon Platana (DP), Mariah Holland (MH), Justin Walters (JW) and Jeff Middleton (JM) have come together for this roundtable edition to discuss the Wild’s upcoming season, with topics including how the goaltending duties should be split, what the best offseason move was and whether or not Kirill Kaprizov can live up to his contract extension.
Question #1: What was the Wild’s Best Offseason Move?
Between some buyouts, extensions and a few free-agent signings, the Wild were moderately active this summer. What do you think was the Minnesota Wild’s best offseason move when it comes to helping with their success in the 2021-22 NHL season?
JW: The most impactful addition the Wild made this offseason was also their biggest in Alex Goligoski. The Wild mainly just added depth players to round out the edges of their roster, but he will be playing a prominent role on this team. They had a clear hole on their top-four after buying out Ryan Suter, and they are banking on Goligoski to come in and help keep their top-four among the league’s best.
DP: For me, I also think the Wild made some good moves this offseason. I believe that buying out Zach Parise and Suter was the best move for the long-term situation, but this is about this year’s success. I’m going to have to go with bringing in Goligoski on a one-year deal. Not only does he bring nearly 1,000 games of NHL experience to the table, but he should also help out the power play. The Wild had the eighth-worst power play (17.6%) last year, and even though it looked more promising towards the end, there’s no guarantee that the same success will carry over into 2021-22.
With that being said, Goligoski has 141 career power-play points and has already been tested on Minnesota’s second unit during training camp. He might move the puck like he used to and hasn’t had a double-digit assist total on the man advantage since 2013-14, however, I still think that his experience can provide a boost on the power play. Besides, his being on a one-year contract is a low-risk, high-reward situation, so I think his deal will be worth it when all is said and done.
MH: Obviously, I would go with signing Kaprizov, but since that wasn’t really “new,” I’d have to go with signing Goligoski. I’ll be the first to admit I was highly skeptical of this signing at first because of the amount of money, plus his age, however, I think he’ll be an excellent addition for the Wild’s defense. I have seen some say he’s Suter’s replacement, but I don’t believe that’s a fair statement because every player is different. They bring different attributes to the game, and that’s putting a lot of pressure on Goligoski.
JM: It’s a tricky question because there wasn’t a ton of crazy moves made. However, I would say that buying out Parise and Suter could help their season from the standpoint that they got to use that money elsewhere and still have some left over in case they need to use it. They have flexibility, which is incredibly important in a flat cap era.
Question #2: Can Kaprizov Meet Expectations?
A lot of attention will be on Kaprizov after signing his five-year, $45 million contract. With only one year of NHL experience, do you think he can immediately live up to his new deal? Or do you think it will take more time?
DP: First of all, $9 million per season is a lot for any player to live up to. With that being said, I think Kaprizov has all of the tools to be one of the league’s best players this year. Do I think he’s going to play like a $9 million player every single shift? Probably not, especially since we only have one season of NHL action to go off of. Still, I think he’ll prove his value more often than not when you consider that Minnesota is a small-market team, and that was the necessary price they had to pay to get him locked down. As he gains more experience and contract prices begin to rise, even more, I think we’ll look at Kaprizov’s deal and see that it’s more than fair as long as he continues to follow his upward trajectory.
Keeping that in mind, I think fans shouldn’t get upset if he doesn’t look like a Top-10 right out the gate. Like I said, $9 million is a lot for most to live up to, so patience will be needed every now and then. At the same time, Wild fans waited a long time for Kaprizov to sign his contract, so it’s also up to him to show up and quiet any doubters to prove that he’s worth every penny.
JM: I absolutely think he can. He has tons of talent, and the box score and analytics point to him being one of the best players in the league this season. It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest.
JW: If anyone can live up to a salary of $9 million after only one season of NHL experience, it’s Kaprizov. He’s not your average second-year player; he’s already 24 and has been playing against grown men for years before coming to the NHL. He knows he is now the face of the franchise, and I do believe he is ready for that and will put up some jaw-dropping numbers in his first 82 game season in the NHL.
MH: I think Kaprizov will live up to his potential and more so. He’s already proven what he can do as a rookie, but now that he’ll be even more comfortable in an NHL atmosphere, it’ll be interesting to see what steps he can add to his game. I believe he has more to give and can’t wait to see it. Everyone says there’s a “sophomore slump,” and while I do think that’s possible, with him, I think it’s different. He seems to always be working on ways to get better and continue to improve.
Question #3: Who Fills Ryan Suter’s Role?
Ryan Suter averaged the third-highest time on ice of all Wild defensemen last season (22:11). Now that he’s no longer on the team, which blueliner do you want to see step up to fill his void?
MH: I would say Jared Spurgeon, but he’s already stepped up his game a lot with becoming captain and all. I believe he’ll stay on that path as well. As far as a player I would like to see fill Suter’s void, I would say Jonas Brodin. He’s a veteran on defense now, and he doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. He does a lot for the team behind the scenes and is a very underrated defenseman, it would be great to see him step up even more and fill the void Suter leaves behind.
DP: Without reiterating too much what I said about him, I think it has to be Goligoski. He might only be on a one-year contract, but the Wild aren’t paying him $5 million to be a bottom-pairing defenseman. He’s averaged at least 23 minutes played per game in seven of the last eight seasons. He’s proven that he can play both the power play, and even though he’s far from an elite penalty killer, he can still contribute when needed. He is also about the same age as Suter too and considering how they bring similar roles to the table at this stage of their careers, I think the former is more than a suitable replacement.
JW: The obvious answer is Goligoski, as he was the man brought in to replace his spot in the lineup. However, the correct answer is by committee, with everyone stepping up just a bit to replace his ice-time. Spurgeon, Brodin, and Matt Dumba will likely all see their ice-time rise a bit this season. Forwards such as Joel Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno, who are already great defensive forwards, will also be given even more responsibility in the defensive end.
JM: I have a soft spot for Spurgeon. He’s one of my favorite defensemen to watch because he’s smart with the puck, and it’s very rare that you watch a Wild game and see him make a mistake. No player is perfect, but if I’m head coach Dean Evason, that’s the guy I want on the ice for most of the game.
Question #4: Will Minnesota Go On a Lengthy Playoff Run This Year?
The Wild haven’t won a second-round playoff game since 2013-14. What’s one thing Minnesota has to work on from last season to improve their odds of going on a deep playoff run in 2021-22?
JM: Special teams is my answer. They ranked 23rd overall in powerplay percentage (tied with Nashville) at 17.6%, which frankly isn’t good enough and is something that young players like Marco Rossi, Adam Beckman, and (when he’s healthy) Matthew Boldy can aid.
MH: I know everyone seemed to contradict this idea but take more shots. They’ve taken more shots over the last few seasons, but it still doesn’t seem to be enough. They need to hammer that point home with their forwards. It’s great to pass and try to set up that “perfect” goal, but it’s also okay to rip a shot if they see an opening. If they don’t take the shot, there’s no chance of rebounds and, therefore, no chance of goals. They need to take more shots and pepper these goaltenders.
JW: The Wild will have to find more ways to score to start winning more games in the playoffs. It sounds like a simple answer, but the Wild only scored 13 goals in their seven playoff games last season against the Vegas Golden Knights. Star players like Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala will have less time and space on the ice, and they will need their bottom-six to chip in with an ugly goal from time to time. The Lightning won the Stanley Cup averaging 3.80 goals per game; the Wild averaged 1.86 goals per game in their series against the Golden Knights, which isn’t good enough.
DP: I agree with my colleagues that the Wild need to find a way to keep the goals coming in the playoffs. However, I’ll elaborate a bit further because this goal-scoring issue doesn’t pertain just to last year’s playoffs. The last time Minnesota made it beyond Round 1 of the playoffs was in 2014-15, and they had to score 17 goals in the first round to do it. For comparison, here are the Wild’s postseason goal totals in their subsequent playoff appearances: 17, 8, 9, 10 and 13. As Justin said, the best teams in the league can keep their offensive totals high into the playoffs, and Minnesota needs to figure out a way to get over that hurdle.
Question #5: How Should Talbot and Kahkonen Share the Crease?
Due to injury, Cam Talbot split most of the starts in goal with Kaapo Kahkonen last season. Now that he’s healthy, do you want to see Talbot as the sole starter until proven otherwise? Or do you think it should be more of a 1A/1B situation?
JW: If he is healthy and performs like last season, Talbot is the clear number one goalie for the Wild. Kahkonen’s time will come when he’s given a chance to be the number one goalie, but Talbot has earned that title right now. Now, that doesn’t mean Talbot can’t start like 55 games, and Kahkonen still gets 27. It would take a significant recession from Talbot for him to lose the starting job in Minnesota. I know fans love it when young players are given big responsibility, but for the time being, this is still Talbot’s net.
DP: I think Talbot is also the clear-cut starter and it’ll probably be that way for most of the season. With that being said, there were times when Kahkonen looked promising last year, but he was also equally inconsistent. For every stellar performance he had, it seemed like there was one with a sub-.900 save percentage (SV%). If he can figure out how to string together successful starts, I think he could certainly cut into Talbot’s crease time. It’s also important to note that Talbot hasn’t played more than 33 regular-season games since the 2017-18 NHL season (67). Only time will tell if he’s up to the task to carry that much responsibility this season.
MH: As far as goaltending, I firmly believe it should be a 1A/1B situation that way, both goalies know they’re relied on, and it doesn’t cause one to be a “cold” goaltender who’s sat on the bench all season. It’s great to have a capable starter you can rely on game in and game out, but it’s even better to have two that you know are ready to go and can start at a moment’s notice, especially in a game where injuries are common, and goalies tend to get run over.
JM: I like the 1A/1B approach. Talbot is the more proven of the two, so you know if it doesn’t work out, there’s someone to rely on. However, Kahkonen is the goalie of the future right now. If he doesn’t get the majority of the starts towards the beginning of the season and onward, there could be a massive roadblock in his development as a goaltender for a team that needs it.
Question #6: Will a Wild Skater Win an NHL Award?
Lastly, only three skaters (non-goalies) have won individual awards in Wild history. Do you think that changes this year? If so, who do you think has the best chances at taking home individual hardware?
DP: It’s not a secret just how hard it is to win an individual award in hockey, let alone at the NHL level. I think if any single Wild player can take home a trophy next season, I believe that Eriksson Ek has a decent shot at winning the Frank J. Selke Trophy. The 24-year-old Swede proved last season that he has the potential to be one of the league’s top two-way forwards, as demonstrated by him finishing fourth in Selke voting. He set a career-high in takeaways (21) in 2020-21 despite playing the fewest games (56) since his rookie season. He also ranks as one of the best players in the league when it comes to even-strength defense, according to JFresh Hockey. Considering how this will be just his sixth season in the league, I feel we’re only beginning to see what he’s capable of.
JM: I don’t think anything changes this season, but if it did, I think it would start with Eriksson Ek capturing a Selke Trophy. His body of work over the last couple of seasons has been outstanding, and I am looking forward to seeing what he can do both offensively and defensively this season.
JW: This is a tough one, but I find it unlikely that we see someone win an individual award on the Wild this season. Kaprizov is among the league’s best, but it’s tough to ask him to win something like the Art Ross, Maurice “Rocket” Richard, or Hart Trophy. Spurgeon would need an exceptional season even to be considered for the James Norris Memorial Trophy. That doesn’t mean they aren’t all terrific players, but individual awards are tough to win. The best chance the Wild have might be Eriksson EK and the Selke Trophy. He finished fourth in voting last season, and maybe him signing his new $42 million extension is all it’s going to take for enough people to realize just how amazing he is defensive as a forward. I still don’t think it will happen in 2021-22, but the best shot the Wild have at an individual award will come from Eriksson EK.
MH: I’m not sure if we’ll add any new names to the list, but I believe Kaprizov could take home the Hart Memorial Trophy as the Most Valuable Player for his team. He’s shown he’s very valuable. As far as a potential new name, Eriksson Ek could be a hopeful for the Selke, but it’s hard to say being he’s a very underrated player in his position as well. Dumba always has a chance to win the King Clancy Memorial Trophy once again or the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for all the work he does off the ice. Spurgeon could also snatch up the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy for having the best sportsmanship.
Final Thoughts on the Wild in 2021-22
With the way things are shaking up, the 2021-22 NHL season could be a big one for the Wild. Minnesota seems to have all the pieces to be a Top-10 team in the league, however, the team still needs to figure out how to put said pieces together. While the team’s defense has usually been solid, the Wild’s success this season will depend on if its forwards and goaltenders can play consistently. Fortunately, Minnesota plays in a relatively weak Central Division, and this could finally be the break that the organization needs to take the next step to become Stanley Cup contenders.
As a lifelong hockey fan and recent Master of Journalism graduate, it’s always been my dream to write about the sport. That’s why you can find me here on THW covering the Minnesota Wild! You may also see my work on FanDuel, the Ottawa Citizen, and various sports betting sites. Follow me on Twitter @devplat!