The 2020-21 NHL season is a go, and excitement levels are at an all-time high. For many fans, this is as good as any gift they will receive this holiday season.
Of course, this season will be unlike any other. Teams will be playing only opponents in their division for the regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs. The divisions themselves are also different to limit travel and eliminate Canada-USA border travel.
The Minnesota Wild were one of the teams not knowing which division they would be playing in for some time. They finally got their answer on Sunday, when the NHL tweeted out the upcoming season’s official divisions.
With the Wild’s opponents now finalized, they can start preparing for what is sure to be a thrilling season. There will be 56 games – eight against each team in their division in a sprint to the playoffs. Let’s look at how the Wild stack up against each team in the new West Division.
The Ducks and the Wild are similar because a significant area of strength is on the blueline. Both teams have a really solid top four on defence that does a great job at limiting high-risk offensive opportunities. The Wild’s problem with keeping the puck out of their net last season was more on the goaltending than the defenceman, an issue they hope to have addressed with Cam Talbot replacing Devan Dubnyk.
Despite not posting the best numbers last season, the Ducks will have the edge in net with John Gibson. Talbot will have to be on his game early against the Ducks, as the Wild play their best hockey when in the lead, and they get to focus on defending.
If the Wild can pressure the Ducks early in games and maybe find ways to jump out to early leads, the Ducks might not have the offensive firepower to worry the Wild about a significant comeback. Only two Ducks scored more than 20 goals last season, Adam Henrique (26) and Jakob Silfverberg (21).
The Ducks were a lottery team last year whose only substantial offseason addition was Kevin Shattenkirk. If the Wild can get a couple of goals against Gibson when they play, the Wild will have favourable opportunities to pick up valuable points when playing the Ducks.
It’s logical to assume that the eight games against the Arizona Coyotes might be the most crucial games of the entire season. With three teams in the division being some of the best in the NHL, and all three California-based organizations being lottery teams last season, the Wild and Coyotes could very well find themselves battling it out for the final playoff spot in the division.
Even with the organizational struggles off the ice, the Coyotes are still a very solid team on the ice. They work extremely hard and make opposing teams fight for every inch of ice under head coach Rick Tocchet. Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta are a solid tandem in the net and the ‘Yotes have good depth on both forward and defence lines.
Dean Evason will have to do whatever it takes to get the Wild ready and focused on playing their best games every time they play the Coyotes. The Wild have the depth to go toe-to-toe with them and need their goal scorers such as Kevin Fiala, Zach Parise and Kirill Kaprizov to deliver in these high-pressure games. Winning five or six of their matchups against the Coyotes could be the difference between the Wild making or missing the playoffs this season.
The Avalanche might be the best team in the NHL. If not, they are in the top three. From top to bottom, the Avalanche have a roster that shows all the signs of being one of the favourites to win the Stanley Cup this season.
Even with such a steady top-four defence group like the Wild have, they will have trouble slowing down an offence lead by Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen.
The Wild went 2-2 against the Avalanche last season and would surely be thrilled if they could go .500 against them again this season. The Wild defence will have to try to frustrate the Avalanche’s stars and take advantage of their mistakes. They won’t win every game against Colorado, but if they can force some games they lose into overtime, those points will be vital in the long run.
Los Angeles Kings
The Kings were not only a lottery team last season but were also 30th in the NHL in scoring, averaging 2.53 goals per game (GPG) last season. That alone makes the game plan pretty straight-forward for the Wild; score a couple of goals, and the Kings will have a tough time mounting a comeback.
The Kings are in the midst of a rebuild and don’t look to be in any position to be challenging for a playoff spot this upcoming season. Players such as Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Quick and even Drew Doughty are out of their prime, and the next wave has begun for the organization, led by second overall pick Quinton Byfield.
Overall, the Wild are the better team and should expect to win most contests against the Kings.
St. Louis Blues
The 2019 Stanley Cup champions are still one of the NHL’s best, despite losing captain Alex Pietrangelo via free agency to the Vegas Golden Knights.
The Blues were 42-19-10 last season when the league went on pause, an,d despite going 0-2-1 in the playoff bubble round-robin and losing to the Canucks in Round 1, they look to be dangerous again this season.
The Blues play a style perfectly suited for playoff hockey. They will forecheck hard and play a physical game that will wear down opponents. The Wild will need to be ready for their games against the Blues to be a physical one and not be shy to return the favour.
The Wild struggled against the Blues last season, going 0-2-1 in their three matchups. Evason will have to create more robust gameplay against the Blues to find success against the heavy-hitting Blues because their strategy last year clearly didn’t work.
San Jose Sharks
Like the Ducks and Kings, the Sharks were a lottery team and haven’t played a meaningful hockey game since last March. All those teams might need a couple of weeks to get back into the flow of NHL hockey.
Off all those lottery teams, the Sharks look to be the team that at least has a reasonable shot at bouncing back next season. The talent is there, but last season the group was decimated by injuries all season long. They finished 27th in the league in GPG (2.57) but did have the league’s best penalty kill at 87.5%.
Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns are both very offensively minded. That should create some opportunities for the Wild’s forwards. The Sharks were also 27th in league with a 3.21 goals against average (GAA).
This offseason, Devan Dubnyk was traded from the Wild to the Sharks, and it will be interesting to see how often the Sharks decide to start Dubnyk against his former team. The Wild’s forwards know Dubnyk as well as anyone in the league. They know all his tendencies in the net, from his strengths to his weaknesses.
Ultimately the Sharks are no different than the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings. If the Wild want to make the playoffs this season, they will have to take advantage of the points on the line when playing the California teams.
Vegas Golden Knights
The Golden Knights have been a powerhouse ever since they joined the NHL in the 2017-18 season. This season is looking no different for the franchise that has yet to miss the playoffs in the team’s history.
Pietrangelo’s addition gives them a great duo on defence with Shea Theodore, although it meant them heaving to trade away Paul Stastny and Nate Schmidt (and probably more) to make it all fit under the salary cap.
The Golden Knights are right up there with the Avalanche – it’s a challenge to find major weaknesses within their lineup. They have an extremely deep forward group, lots of talent on defence and possibly the league’s best goaltending tandem with Robin Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury.
The Knights won’t just be a nightmare for the Wild but pretty much every NHL team. The one area where the Golden Knights really struggled last season, though, was on the penalty kill, ranking 27th in the league (76.6%).
That seems to be the Golden Knights’ Achilles heel and the area where the Wild can put to use their power play, which was tied for 10th best in the league last season (21.3%). If the Wild can play a shutdown defensive style throughout their games and take advantage of the powerplay, they have a shot at winning some games against the Golden Knights, but it won’t be easy.
Sports writer covering the Minnesota Wild. Graduated with a degree in sport media, also working with the Oshawa Generals of the OHL.