The 2021-22 NHL season has been a historical campaign for the Minnesota Wild. From setting a new franchise record for points as a team to Kiril Kaprizov destroying individual team records, this season has been filled with memorable moments. However, everything accomplished this season won’t matter much once the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs begin next week.
The Wild are headed for a first-round date with the St. Louis Blues and there isn’t a shortage of storylines between the two Central Division rivals. With that being said, they also have a handful of internal ones to watch out for this postseason too, ranging from who the Game 1 starting goaltender will be to whether or not a certain defenseman can have a playoff performance that will convince management to keep him on the books for the 2022-23 season.
1. Should Talbot or Fleury Open the Playoffs as the Wild’s Starting Goaltender?
The Wild opened the 2021-22 NHL season with the tandem of Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen manning the crease. While the duo looked strong at times, inconsistencies led to Kahkonen getting moved at the NHL trade deadline to make room to add reigning Vezina Trophy winner Marc-André Fleury from the Chicago Blackhawks.
Suddenly, the Wild went from having one capable starting goaltender to two and it’s paid off so far. The team has gone 16-2-3 since the March 21 Deadline, while Minnesota’s 35 points over that stretch are the most in the NHL. With two experienced veterans in goal, fans are now wondering whether it’ll be Talbot or Fleury that starts Game 1 of the Wild’s opening playoff series.
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Fleury’s presence has forced Talbot to step up his game, as he’s gone 8-0-3 in his last 11 starts with a 2.25 goals-against average (GAA) and .925 save percentage (SV%) with a pair of shutouts. On the other hand, Fleury looked really solid in his first handful of starts in a Wild uniform, but has since allowed at least four goals in three of his last four starts, resulting in a .905 SV%, 2.91 GAA and 8-2-0 record with his new team.
By looking at the above stats, it’s easy for people to say that the Wild should ride the hot hand and go with Talbot. However, it isn’t always that simple. Fleury has much more postseason experience than his counterpart, cemented by his three Stanley Cup rings. He’s also appeared in 162 playoff games compared to Talbot’s 32 and you have to imagine that general manager Bill Guerin didn’t go out and spend a conditional first-round pick on Fleury, only for him to sit on the bench.
At the same time, Talbot’s .923 SV% and 2.45 GAA in the playoffs are superior compared to Fleury’s .912 SV% and 2.53 GAA, despite the former operating with a smaller sample size. It’s also impressive when you consider that the teams that Talbot has played for haven’t been nearly as talented as some of the Pittsburgh Penguins rosters that Fleury played behind.
At the end of the day, the Wild are fortunate enough to be stuck with the “problem” of having two starting-caliber goalies. Talbot has brought the better play both recently and in terms of playoff stats, while Fleury has the championship pedigree to offset that. Regardless of who head coach Dean Evason goes with, the Wild should be confident playing in front of either goalie.
2. Can Kirill Kaprizov Continue Living Up to the Hype?
Kaprizov has been as advertised and more ever since he signed a five-year, $45 million contract last offseason. He’s played like a top-10 player throughout the course of the campaign, tallying 106 points in 80 games. But even though he’s playing better than ever, regular-season success doesn’t always translate to the postseason and no one knows that better than the 25-year-old himself.
After recording 51 points in 55 games and capturing the Calder Trophy during the 2020-21 season, Kaprizov was held to only three points during the Wild’s seven-game series loss to the Vegas Golden Knights. He averaged only 1.43 shots per game during the series compared to 2.85 in the regular season and learned the hard lesson that he must take his game to the next level if his team is to ever have a deep playoff run.
Kaprizov has since added another season of NHL experience under his belt and looks like a more mature player ahead of the playoffs. While his offensive production has increased this season, so has his physicality. He was more reserved when it came to throwing the body last season, recording 29 hits in 55 games (0.53 per game), whereas he isn’t afraid to do so this year, proven by his 72 hits in 80 games (0.90). With the action getting more physical in the playoffs, his newfound willingness to use his body will come in handy.
The former 2015 fifth-round pick is also heating up offensively ahead of the postseason, which should have a positive impact on the Wild’s playoff run. Kaprizov has a total of 25 points in his last 17 games as of April 29. For comparison, he had 17 points in his final 17 games ahead of the 2021 Playoffs and while eight points may not look like a huge difference, he’s clearly playing with a lot more confidence and determination this time around. Unless an unforeseen slump occurs, expect a stronger postseason performance from him this year.
3. Can Dumba Convince the Wild to Bring Him Back Next Season?
The offseason might still be a ways away, however, that hasn’t stopped some people from looking ahead. The Wild will be in a tough spot due to them having seven roster spots to fill with just over $8.1 million in space to spend. With players like Kevin Fiala and Jacob Middleton needing to be re-signed, one theory being floated around is the club potentially moving on from veteran defenseman Mathew Dumba.
Dumba has had his fair share of ups and downs during his Wild tenure. On one hand, he’s a beloved fan favorite who’s done a lot of great work for both the local community, as well as the Hockey Diversity Alliance. He’s also a former 50-point player and even had four straight campaigns of double-digit goal totals.
On the other hand, Dumba’s production has plateaued, due to him missing a total of 79 games since the start of the 2018-19 regular season. He’s yet to reach the 30-point mark again in any of the last four seasons and has scored seven or fewer goals in each of the last three. He’s still managed to remain physical at times, however, his lack of offensive production has some questioning whether or not he’s still a top-four defenseman for the Wild.
After the playoffs, Dumba will only have one year at $6 million remaining on his contract, making him a prime candidate to be traded. Many fans would love for him to play out the remainder of his deal in a Wild sweater, but the chances of that happening are fairly low unless the 27-year-old veteran truly steps up in the playoffs.
It’s going to be a tough task for Dumba since he hasn’t suited up since April 5 due to a wrist injury, so it remains to be seen if he’ll even be active once the postseason arrives. Still, if he manages to get healthy in time and shows that he’s re-focused after the last four weeks or so, it wouldn’t be shocking if the Wild kept him this offseason if they feel like they’re stronger contenders with him than without him.
It’s clear that the Wild have several storylines worth tracking this offseason, ranging from their goaltending situation to needing certain players to step up when it counts. If the outcome of each storyline falls in the organization’s favor, fans could have even more to be proud of when all is said and done.
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!