While the Minnesota Wild have relied heavily on the veteran core in years past, its young players have taken strides towards becoming major contributors this season.
In the team’s first eight games (5-3-0), the offense is led by Jordan Greenway, Joel Eriksson Ek and rookie Kirill Kaprizov. Greenway and Kaprizov lead the team with seven points and Eriksson Ek, who had eight goals in 62 games last season, has five already. Coincidently, all three forwards were selected in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.
Kaprizov, the long-awaited KHL star, is already showing flashes of becoming a major part of the Wild’s offense. The former fifth-round pick is garnering Calder Trophy considerations as he currently leads all rookies in points, and scored the overtime winner and added two assists in his NHL debut against the Los Angeles Kings on Jan.14. Unlike other NHL rookies this year, the 23-year-old Kaprizov excelled professionally in the KHL before coming to North America, mirroring the path of New York Rangers star Artemi Panarin. During the 2015-16 season, Panarin won the Calder Trophy as a 24-year-old rookie.
Greenway and Eriksson-Ek have been mainstays on the Wild since 2017, but both forwards have taken the next steps to becoming consistent members of the top nine and can be relied on to help carry the offense.
Along with the offensive contributions is the stellar play of rookie goalie Kaapo Kähkönen, who is 3-2 with a .917 save percentage in five games. In the absence of starter Cam Talbot due to a lower-body injury, the former AHL goalie of the year has been given more starts early this season. Kähkönen’s consistency mitigates the losses of both Talbot and last season’s play-in round starter Alex Stalock, who is out indefinitely with an upper-body issue.
New Sense of Direction This Season
With Kaprizov’s arrival and the increased output from the other young players, the Wild are remaining competitive in the wake of offseason moves that did not offer much indication of either a full-fledged retool or rebuild, at least at first glance.
Two young players originally meant to be part of the core long-term, forwards Luke Kunin and Ryan Donato, were traded — Kunin in a package to the Nashville Predators for veteran centre Nick Bonino during the 2020 Entry Draft and Donato to the San Jose Sharks for a third-round pick.
Domenic Lunardo’s report card on the Wild’s offseason indicated that general manager Bill Guerin expected the team to remain competitive despite an early exit to the Vancouver Canucks in the play-in round and the significant roster restructuring that followed. Guerin wanted to build the team his way, and this included giving the young talent the opportunities to excel with the added support of a reworked leadership group and new faces.
This was evident in the departures of long-time captain Mikko Koivu to the Columbus Blue Jackets, centre Eric Staal traded to the Buffalo Sabres, starting goalie Devan Dubnyk traded to the Sharks and naming defenseman Jared Spurgeon the new team captain.
The additions of Nick Bjugstad, Marcus Johansson, Talbot and Bonino stabilize the Wild’s core, but the onus was on the younger players to finally earn full-time spots and make the most of these opportunities. What looked like an aging core is now finding the balance between the vets and the emerging talent.
Wild Continue to Develop the Prospect Pipeline
This influx of the NHL-ready youth is further proof of the team’s ability to find quality players without top draft picks. Minnesota has not drafted in the top five since selecting forward Benoît Pouliot fourth overall in 2005. Centre prospect Marco Rossi, who went ninth overall in 2020, is the team’s highest draft pick since defenseman Matt Dumba went seventh in 2012.
The emergence of Kaprizov, whose selection in the fifth round has been a steal, can soon be followed by previous draft picks Matt Boldy, Ryan O’Rourke, Alexander Khovanov and Hunter Jones on the main club in the coming years. Rossi, who was considered a lock to make the team before suffering an upper-body injury prior to the season’s start, may make his debut later in the season. The Athletic’s Michael Russo reports that the Wild’s centre depth continues to be a concern, meaning Rossi can slot into the lineup almost immediately once he heals. (from ‘Russo: Predictably, Wild’s center depth leaving more questions than answers,’ The Athletic, 01/27/2021)
These contributions from these players within the system bodes well for the Wild’s cap situation, who have $137,648 in expected cap space.
With Rossi and winger Mats Zuccarello sidelined and head coach Dean Evason still working out his line combinations, expect the young players to have more opportunities to play meaningful minutes and roles each night. Kaprizov will be on Calder Trophy watch, and Greenway, Eriksson Ek and Kähkönen will get their chances as the team deals with the injuries and become more comfortable with the lineup schemes.
The Wild are waiting on winger Kevin Fiala, one of their best young forwards last year, to find his offensive touch as well. The 24-year-old who netted 54 points in 64 games last season, has three goals in eight games this year. However, his five-minute boarding major against the Kings on Jan. 28 may lead to a suspension.
Sports journalist covering the Minnesota Wild. Currently completing a journalism degree in Toronto, Canada.