Wild Check-In: Exceeding Expectations, Early Standouts & More

The 2021-22 NHL season is now at the point where most of the 32 teams have played at least a quarter of the 82-game schedule. When it comes to the Minnesota Wild, they’ve seen their fair share of highs and lows. Fortunately, it’s been mostly the former, which is proven by their 15-6-1 record. That’s good for 31 points, putting them right at the top of the Central Division.

Keeping that in mind, let’s take a look at how the Wild have been exceeding expectations, along with seeing which players are standing out above the rest, for better or worse.

Wild Exceeding Expectations

After losing to the Vegas Golden Knights in seven games during last season’s opening playoff round, the Wild entered the 2021-22 NHL season with a different look. Zach Parise and Ryan Super were bought out, Kirill Kaprizov signed a $45 million extension, and various role players were brought in to fill the remaining holes. With the divisions returning to their original alignments, fans wondered how the team could hang in the Central Division this time around.

With that being said, few people expected the start that Minnesota had been off to. While leading the Central Division is impressive on its own, so is the fact that the team has hovered around the top five when it comes to point totals this season. A big part of that is due to the Wild going on three different four-game win streaks this season, outscoring opponents 54-30 during that stretch. Speaking of goals, they’ve scored a league-leading 83 as of Dec. 1, and Ryan Hartman has been leading the way with 12 of them.

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

Looking back at the 2020-21 season, the Wild had a 13-8-1 record for 27 points after 22 games. While that’s only a four-point difference, the club’s improvements this year go a bit deeper than that. Circling back to goal-scoring, Minnesota had scored 69 during the same span last campaign. A 14-goal increase is a pretty significant deal, especially for an organization that’s prided itself on defense in the past.

If the Wild wants to continue exceeding expectations, head coach Dean Evason and his coaching staff need to figure out how to get the special teams rolling. Make no mistake: Minnesota’s power play is in a better spot than it was last year, coming in at 14.3% as opposed to 6.9% after 22 games in 2020-21. While that’s a significant improvement, it’s also worse than the 17.6% they finished the season with. Meanwhile, the penalty kill has improved a bit (81.3% compared to 80.8% at the end of last season), however, that rating still has the Wild in the bottom half of the league.

Related: Revisiting Minnesota Wild Drafts – 2013

The good news is that there are still 60 games left in the season, leaving a decent amount of time to solve any special teams issues. Obviously, it’d be better to fix things sooner than later, so management needs to consider their options. Nevertheless, the Wild have proven that they can be one of the best teams in the league despite their power play and penalty kill issues. Only time will tell how much better they’ll look once those are taken care of.

Positive Wild Standouts

Ryan Hartman: Before the 2021-22 NHL season, Hartman’s best point total was 31 five years ago. Since then, he’s hovered between 20 and 26 points, so it’s safe to say that nobody had him becoming a top-six forward this season. Hartman is now on pace to smash his previous career-best point total, having already tallied 18 points in 22 games. If he can maintain his production, that puts him on pace to finish with 67 points. He’s proven to be a clutch player as well, leading the team with four game-winning goals. At $1.7 million for the next three seasons, Hartman is an absolute steal if he doesn’t fall off.

Kirill Kaprizov: Out of every player on the Wild’s roster, none had more pressure on his shoulders than Kaprizov. Last season, the 24-year-old Russian became a household name, scoring 51 points in 55 games en route to winning the Calder Memorial Trophy for the league’s top rookie. With him making $9 million this season, some had doubts about whether he could live up to that contact. So far, he’s done that and more. Kaprizov leads the Wild with 25 points (seven goals, 18 assists) in 22 games, which also has him inside the Top 10 league-wide. He’s also shown more physicality this year, proven by his 23 hits, which are just six fewer than he had at the end of last year. Assuming he continues on this pace, Minnesota will continue being an offensive juggernaut.

Alex Goligoski: The Wild signed veteran defenseman Goligoski to a one-year, $5 million deal to serve as Suter’s replacement on the backend. Even though he’s getting up there in age, he’s proven to be one of the team’s best defenders at the quarter mark. For starters, he leads all Minnesota defenders with 14 points in 19 games. He’s also the defenseman that the Wild trust the second-most for offensive zone starts (13.5%). Beyond his offensive capabilities, Goligoski has also chipped in defensively with 23 blocked shots, 18 hits and four takeaways. While he may not be the No. 1 defenseman he was back in the day, it’s evident that he’s been a key part of the Wild’s early success.

Negative Wild Standouts

Kaapo Kahkonen: Finnish goaltender Kahkonen played an integral part for the Wild last season whenever Cam Talbot was injured. Unfortunately, the young netminder hasn’t had as much success this year. Even though Kahkonen is 3-1-1 in his first five starts, his .885 save percentage (SV%), and 3.04 goals-against average (GAA) leave a lot to be desired. For reference, his expected GAA is 2.52, according to Money Puck, which goes to show how he’s been underachieving. It’s looking like his biggest issue is against medium danger unblocked shot attempts, where he has a .806 SV%. He’s only 25 years old, so it’s too early to write him off. With that being said, Kahkonen needs to play better so that his teammates can play in front of him with confidence.

Nicklas Bjugstad: To be clear, expectations weren’t high for Bjugstad before the current season. After all, it’s been nearly five years since he’s been a 40-plus-point player. Nevertheless, he’s had a disappointing start to the campaign. Bjugstad has just three goals without an assist in 19 games this season. He’s also seen his role diminish with the team, averaging a career-worst 9:54 of ice time. The issue has been that he only has four high-danger unblocked shot attempts, which is pretty inexcusable for a 6-foot-6 player who should be using his frame to get closer scoring opportunities.

Nick Bjugstad Minnesota Wild
Nick Bjugstad, Minnesota Wild (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Kevin Fiala: For the two previous seasons, Fiala was one of the Wild’s best scorers, recording back-to-back 20-goal campaigns. He’s struggled so far this season, netting just three goals in 22 games. While he’s too talented to continue on this pace forever, he’s projected to finish the year with just 11 goals. That would be his lowest total since he scored the same amount in 54 contests during the 2016-17 NHL season.

Fiala’s struggles aren’t due to a lack of trying since he does have 74 shots on 129 attempts. Still, he has 4.5 fewer goals and 3.8% more missed net unblocked shots than expected. At the end of the day, Fiala is supposed to be one of the Wild’s top-six forwards and the team is fortunate that they’ve found success even if the goals aren’t coming to him. He still does have 15 points on the year and that’s more than respectable, however, he’s paid to score goals. This season is a contract year for the impending restricted free agent, so he’ll need to pick up his play if he wants to get paid.

The Wild Moving Forward

Overall, the Wild have a lot of things to be proud of after their first 22 games. They’re already ahead of where they were at this point last year and seem to be a lock for the playoffs unless something goes horribly wrong. Kaprizov has lived up to his contract and has great chemistry with Hartman and Mats Zuccarello on the top line. Free-agent signings like Goligoski have come in and done their part. There have also been some disappoints as well, but nothing has been bad enough to derail the campaign. Only time will tell if the Wild can continue this success into the next quarter, however, this is shaping up to be Minnesota’s best season in a long time.

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