3 Wild Veterans That Could Make or Break Their Season

The Minnesota Wild proved they were building something special when they finished last season with 53 wins and 113 points. Players up and down the lineup set new personal bests in all sorts of offensive metrics, as they combined to produce the fifth-highest goals per game played in the entire league. With the 2022-23 season right around the corner, they are gearing up with the intention of improving even further. However, there are some veteran players that will need to maintain last season’s pace in order to give the Wild any shot at another leap forward. Here are three of the most crucial.

Mats Zuccarello Needs Another Point per Game Season

Mats Zuccarello had a career year in the 2021-22 season as a point-per-game player with 24 goals and 55 assists in only 70 games played. His ability to generate offense was consistent throughout the season, and he was relied upon as a first-line producer and rarely disappointed. Even with his highlight being elite offensive production, he managed to produce some solid defensive play when needed, using his comically large stick on the backcheck to offset his rather small 5-foot-8 frame.

The emergence of strong chemistry with superstar Kirill Kaprizov has allowed his game to take another step into that star-producer territory. The two wingers seem to have a sixth sense with their ability to locate each other and make mind-boggling plays on a nightly basis. Part of what makes the duo so deadly is that both players have elite playmaking skills on top of fantastic finishing abilities, thereby making it an impossible task for the other team’s defense to try to focus on one or the other.

Mats Zuccarello Minnesota Wild
Mats Zuccarello, Minnesota Wild (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Moving forward into the 2022-23 season, there is every indication that the Wild will roll out the Kaprizov-Zuccarello duo on the top line once again. The ability of that pair to draw out the opposition’s best defensive line is key to the Wild being able to use their depth effectively. Last season’s second line of Matt Boldy, Freddy Gaudreau, and Kevin Fiala was often left in a favorable matchup that allowed them to control the game. This dynamic relies heavily on Zuccarello to maintain last year’s production, as without him elevating that first line to the powerhouse it was last year, the Wild will not be able to force those preferential line changes. Combine that with the missing point production from Kevin Fiala, who the Wild traded this offseason, and a Zuccarello regression could spell disaster for the Wild.

Ryan Hartman Continues to Own His Role

When the fourth-line right wing producing 25 to 30 points a season took a pay cut to re-sign with Minnesota in 2021-22, no one expected Ryan Hartman to be a first-line center, but here we are. Hartman has obviously found his niche between Kaprizov and Zuccarello after shattering every personal goal, assist, and point record he previously held. Obviously playing with two players of such high caliber will help anyone’s stats, but 34 goals is not a fluke, and Hartman was a first-round draft pick 2013 for a reason.

Hartman’s path in the NHL has been rocky, having bounced around between Chicago, Nashville, and Philadelphia before landing in Minnesota. After playing all over the lineup for years in any spot needed, he got an opportunity and ran with it. His newly found success is completely manufactured by knowing his role on that line. He may not be the best player on the ice, but he has a great sense for getting the puck to his wingers to carry it up the ice and has an excellent ability to find open ice in the offensive zone for a drop-knee one-timer. The Wild’s success next season will depend on Hartman being able to understand and excel at continuing to do just that.

Marcus Foligno has to Reaffirm His Two-Way Dominance

Marcus Foligno didn’t just have a good year in 2021-22, he potentially had a career-altering year. Previously known as a grinding bottom-six player with a heavy hit and strong fist, the Wild had not counted on Foligno to produce a significant amount of offense. His ability to lay out opponents and bring energy to the team was his mainstay, and he did it well, but his game underwent a revolution with the “GREEF” line.

Related: 3 Wild Prospects That Exceeded Expectations at the 2022 WJC

Now and then, a trio of NHL players gets put together on a line and there is instant chemistry that allows them to produce better than the sum of their parts. The “GREEF” line of Jordan Greenway, Joel Eriksson Ek, and Marcus Foligno is a perfect example of this. Three strong, physical players in their own right, but almost unstoppable together. Their ability to shut down some of the best lines in the NHL is astounding and, in particular, Foligno’s game is on another level when playing on this line.

While maintaining his physical and defensive play, Foligno also managed to find an offensive side to his game that was just not present before. With 42 points in 74 games and his team-leading 238 hits, he had a good enough year that he has changed his role from a fourth-line grinder to a two-way power forward. His play was even good enough to garner him ninth place in the Selke trophy voting.

The Wild will need him to maintain, and even expand, that newly found offensive touch into the 2022-23 season in order to stay in contention. With their offense likely unable to maintain last year’s extraordinary pace, defensive play will be paramount in winning games. Foligno is seen as a veteran leader of the Wild and will be expected to display his skills in all areas of the game, as any regression could quickly end the all-important “GREEF” line.

Wild’s 2022-23 Season Hangs in the Balance

There is no doubt that the Minnesota Wild could have another fantastic season in 2022-23. But they are also a team that will rely heavily on players such as Zuccarello, Hartman, and Foligno to maintain their newly found success. With their cap troubles coming into effect this year, they will have a significant amount of young players on entry-level contracts or short-term deals that are unproven in a full NHL season. It is highly likely that the Wild will find the outcome of their season linked to the success or failure of their key veterans.

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