The last year has been a bit of a rollercoaster for everyone, including the Minnesota Wild. With the NHL back from their pause for the holidays, the New Year is here, which means the popular trend of New Years’ Resolutions. The Wild have their minds occupied with the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day, but they have plenty of things to put on the resolutions list. Not all of them will be discussed in this article, but the high-priority ones will. This includes the center ice position, their special team’s issues, and lastly, a combination of play and getting a certain player to be productive.
Wild Resolution #1: Find A Consistent Center
The center ice position for the Wild has been messy from the start and has been discussed for what feels like forever this season. Some fans may have even given up hope on it, but this has become a more pressing matter with the injury to Joel Eriksson Ek. Before he was injured, it was pretty clear he was not the right fit to be the top-line center. He’s a great center, and it was no fault of his own; his style of play goes much better when he’s on the second line matched with Marcus Foligno and Jordan Greenway. Eriksson Ek being the center on that line has been the glue that has made that line work.
The top line struggled, to begin with, they had minimal success with different centers but only for fleeting moments. Frederick Gaudreau had some success on the top line, but it didn’t last, and he flipped between center and wing. They’ve switched between Victor Rask and Ryan Hartman as of late and again had success with both. Rask held the spot quite often last season and did decently this season, however, it seems like Hartman belongs in that spot.
Hartman’s season has surprised many, he’s had the most points out of the three seasons he’s been with the Wild. He’s five away from a career-high in both goals and points and had four game-winning goals that tied his career-high from a prior season. It could and should be argued that Hartman should keep his top spot with this success. He’s definitely earned it, and the line seems to get along well with him.
The problem remains that even if Hartman is given the top spot permanently, that leaves Gaudreau, Rask, Bjugstad, and the often forgotten Nico Sturm. Eriksson Ek has proven he’s earned the second-line spot, and Sturm has quietly been plugging along on the fourth line. While those two have been comfortable in their spots, Gaudreau, Rask, and Bjugstad play musical chairs. However, this season, Gaudreau and Bjugstad switched between the wing and center while Rask stays mostly in the middle. This could be why both Gaudreau and Bjugstad have struggled a bit this season regarding points.
The Wild need to find an all-around center, preferably one that could take Hartman’s spot so he can go back to being a wing, however, if his production stays where it has been, that may not be necessary. If they can’t find a top-line center, someone who could fit in on the third line would work as that line is without a permanent center. As stated at the beginning of this section, the center ice position is messy for the Wild. They have plenty of centers, but they switch them around quite often to get production. Getting an all-around center that can play anywhere and give the Wild the chance to move other players is what they need to look into in this new year.
Wild Resolution #2: Take Care of the Special Teams
This has been another issue that has bothered the Wild most of the season and has to be a resolution. On and off all season, the Wild have had a problem where they take too many penalties, including some out of frustration. They sit in the top 10 of most penalized teams in the league, with an average of ten minutes in the penalty box per game. They’ve also tallied 10 major penalties through this still-young season.
All of these penalties have damaged their penalty kill slightly. Their percentage isn’t horrible, but for Wild standards, it could be better. The same can be said for their power play which has been far worse than their penalty kill problems. Out of 97 power-play chances, they’ve scored on 17 for a dismal 17.5%. Things could be far worse, but they could also be far better if their power play started converting on the many chances they’ve had. The main problem with their power play is they try to be too cute with their passes and make the fancy plays.
It’s great to see the chemistry and their ability to make crisp, clean passes, but by the time they shoot, the goalie is in a position to make the save. They need to take quick shots, and hopefully, their power play will start to succeed. As for the penalty kill, they need to take fewer penalties out of frustration and instead keep drawing them to get more power-play chances.
Wild Resolution #3: Play All Around Game & Get Fiala Scoring
This has been an issue more than just this season, but part of their losing streak is they don’t play the whole 60 minutes. There’s always one period where they let up, and it’s not just their play. It sounds like a broken record and has been stated numerous times over the season, but their inconsistency with shots on net has become a problem. They’re still scoring goals, but they can’t seal the deal. They’ll climb out to a lead and give it up or get behind a few goals and not be able to mount a comeback.
The second half of this section belongs to Kevin Fiala. He’s had an up and down season, and the only consistency he’s had is his absence of goals, but it’s not for lack of trying. He’s one of the few players who’s had steady shot numbers with 97 on the season in 30 games played, but he’s scored only six times. Unfortunately for him, he’s hit a lot of posts this season, and at some points, it seemed like he was forcing shots to try to score instead of taking a little longer to take a more accurate shot. It’s almost the opposite of when they’re on the power play. The power play needs more shots, but Fiala, during even-strength, needs to get the right shot instead of just a shot.
He’s struggled even on the shootout, some of which could be due to the pressure. Kirill Kaprizov was under similar pressure at the beginning of the season, but he eventually found the net and has been more often. Thankfully between the two of them, they’ve recorded many assists to keep their point totals up and contribute to the team apart from goals.
Wild’s New Year
There’s more that could be added to the list, but these were the ones that needed the most improvement. The Wild have quite a few games to make the fixes they need to get back to the team they were on their winning streak. A new year means a fresh start, and that’s exactly what the Wild can do in the Winter Classic and start the rest of their season. A win in a big game like that can give them momentum for quite some time, and that is just what the Wild need.
Mariah Holland is a contributing Minnesota Wild writer for THW as well as a cohost on the THW Youtube show Chicks & Sticks which produces a new show every Friday. She’s been covering the Wild at THW for just over eight months and has been on Chicks & Sticks since it started in early May. She is always looking for different angles to cover the Wild and dig deeper into the stories surrounding the team.