As the 2020-21 regular season comes to an end, Nico Sturm’s emergence as a scoring-depth centre for the playoff-bound Minnesota Wild is one of the team’s many success stories.
The Clarkson University star and 2018-19 Hobey Baker Award finalist is cementing himself as the team’s fourth-line centre, adding secondary scoring and anchoring another efficient line for head coach Dean Evason to deploy in multiple situations. While his defensive, two-way game translated from college to the NHL smoothly, the scoring needed time to emerge. Now, as the Wild enter the playoffs with renewed enthusiasm and a legitimate chance to make a run, Sturm’s breakout in the second half of the regular season was a timely addition for Minnesota.
Pegged as one of the most sought-after NCAA free agents in 2019, a combination of prolonged development in the minors and injuries kept Sturm off the main roster, but it appears he is finally making the most of his opportunity to showcase his skillset and become a long-term fixture.
With the Wild clinching third place of the Honda West Division and in the midst of a first-round match-up against the Vegas Golden Knights, Sturm’s first full season deserves a closer look. He does not attract the same attention league-wide as teammates Kirill Kaprizov, Kaapo Kähkönen and Joel Eriksson Ek, but that fits his understated game and the type of depth production his team greatly appreciates.
Anchoring the Scoring Fourth Line
Sturm finishes the regular season with 11 goals and six assists in 50 games, with his offensive capabilities truly shining after the April 12 trade deadline. He scored six goals in a 14-game stretch, which include highlight-reel finishes with Nick Bonino. In about 11 minutes per game, Sturm is making the most of his shifts, generating offense and giving the Wild production beyond the top scoring lines.
“You guys always call them the fourth line. They don’t believe that, we don’t believe that,” Evason said in a post-game presser on April 17.
Essentially, Evason wants Sturm and his line to go out and play, pay no attention to traditional lineup schemes and focus on team success — a defining attribute of this season and the changed culture in the locker room. Coupled with his growing confidence offensively, Sturm’s increased role on the penalty kill has been evident, often blocking multiple shots per kill.
This balance of skill and grit is providing the Wild with the internal depth production that general manager (GM) Bill Guerin wanted from his organization, especially after an expected quiet trade deadline. Guerin’s sole trade this season was trading Greg Pateryn for Ian Cole on Jan. 21.
Determining Sturm’s initial fit in the lineup went through several phases. Along with his early-season injuries, constant lineup shuffling due to COVID-19 protocol lists and determining the team’s longstanding search for centre production, he was out of the lineup or played the left side. Finding chemistry with Nick Bonino (and Zach Parise for a short time) on the fourth line further solidified his role with the team, as the two veterans adjusted to their new roles as well.
Room for Improvement
“I know I’m going to have to earn my spot here. You look at the lineup and there are some pretty good players in here,” Sturm told The Athletic after signing with Minnesota in 2019. (from Russo: ‘For me, it was a great fit’: Why Nico Sturm chose to sign with the Wild,’ The Athletic, 04/02/2019)
While former GM Paul Fenton’s enthusiasm, who viewed Sturm’s signing as landing another first-round pick, may have not matched his initial NHL production so far, other scouts were more realistic. They placed Sturm’s ceiling at bottom-six centre with offensive upside. Sturm though, considers himself a late bloomer, according to Russo’s article, who was also an over-ager when he entered his first year of college. Even at 26, and as a college free agent, he is still somewhat of a recently graduated prospect whose game can continue to grow.
With the emergence of the Wild’s youth movement and arguably the deepest prospect pool in franchise history, Sturm finds himself in a winning environment where he can develop at his own pace. In two short years since he arrived, the Wild have gone from a roster laden with costly veterans to one that is finding the balance between experience and a necessary youth overhaul.
The offensive output is always welcome, but finding his fit and chemistry with linemates were already successes. Sturm may have the opportunity to move up in the lineup, but it is undeniable that the Wild’s depth is performing well as is, and with the momentum of the team’s return to the postseason, things should stay put for now.
His numbers to end the season were not flashy and will not make headlines like Kaprizov, but Sturm is finally finding his place in the Wild’s youth movement going forward. At the moment, the potential is there for him to be a meaningful contributor in this year’s playoffs, especially with the Wild’s trust in rolling out four lines with scoring potential.
Again, he does not solve the Wild’s centre depth issue on his own long-term. He is not a first-line centre, but he never came to Minnesota with that expectation. The two-way approach makes him more of a complementary piece on any line. Similar to how his college career panned out, Sturm should continue to show glimpses of taking on more responsibilities and finding success on his own timeline.
Sports journalist covering the Minnesota Wild. Currently completing a journalism degree in Toronto, Canada.