Six straight seasons of making the playoffs but never taking the next step meant inevitable change.
At some point, the roster needed to be “tweaked” – the 2018 off-season’s popular word after Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold instructed new GM Paul Fenton not to make mass changes. But a season-ending injury to Matt Dumba changed everything. The team struggled and the result was an overhaul as Fenton traded key forwards Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle in just over a month’s span.
The Wild finished last in the Central Division and now look much different than a year ago. A lot of responsibility will be bestowed upon youngsters Luke Kunin, Jordan Greenway and Joel Eriksson Ek, as well as Kevin Fiala and Ryan Donato.
But this is no rebuild. Leipold expects a return to the playoffs. If not, there could be even bigger changes in the suddenly fretful State of Hockey.
Showing the Wild aren’t committed to a full rebuild, they signed veteran playmaker Mats Zuccarello to a five-year, $30-million deal. The highest-scoring Norwegian in NHL history will help a team that was blanked 11 times last season.
Eric Staal, who scored 42 goals two years ago, and Jason Zucker, who scored 33 two years ago, will be relied on to bounce back after combining for 43 goals last season. The Wild also need Fiala and Donato to produce. And they’ll need Dumba, who was leading all NHL defensemen in goals when he tore his pectoral muscle, back at 100 percent. Finally, they’ll need Zach Parise, who led the team with 28 goals despite knee and foot injuries, to stay healthy.
The blueline is still the Wild’s bread and butter. They boast one of the best top-fours in the NHL with Dumba, Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin. Suter, despite a career-threatening ankle injury late in 2017-18, was ready for the start of last season but admittedly wasn’t the same all year long. He vows to get back there this season.
Dumba has racked up double-digit goals for four straight seasons, and Spurgeon remains one of the league’s most underrated players. No NHLer has logged more ice time since 2011-12 and has fewer penalty minutes than Spurgeon. Nick Seeler, Brad Hunt and Greg Pateryn round out the defense corps.
Devan Dubnyk enters his sixth season with the Wild after an up and down 2018-19 that ended with a .913 save percentage and 2.54 goals-against average. He had a magnificent start but was toppled by Tom Wilson in the Washington bruiser’s November debut. Not coincidentally, Dubnyk’s game faltered in the month following the blow. Now 33, Dubnyk could benefit from more rest as long as backup Alex Stalock can handle more starts.
Last season’s power play was middle of the pack while the penalty kill was seventh – a ranking that would’ve been higher if not for a dreadful mid-season stretch. Zuccarello will help the power play, and it’ll be interesting to see if new arrival Ryan Hartman plays the penalty kill after not doing so a lot over his career. With captain Mikko Koivu coming off a torn ACL and coach Bruce Boudreau tasked with giving the 23-and-under crowd more ice time, the casts of both units will be something to watch in training camp.
The Wild’s vets began to pull in different directions the past few years, creating headaches in the dressing room. After the season, Boudreau made it clear that missing the playoffs wasn’t acceptable, and Fenton went as far as meeting with Koivu, Parise and Suter to discuss leadership issues.
AHL Iowa’s leading goal-scorer Gerry Mayhew signed a two-way NHL deal, but after Hartman’s signing it’ll be hard for him to make the team. Nico Sturm got a two-game taste after signing out of Clarkson University, but it’ll be difficult for him to crack the roster because the Wild are saddled with Victor Rask’s contract (three years left at $4 million per season).
If a few of Kunin, Fiala, Donato, Greenway and Eriksson Ek can break out, the Wild will exceed expectations. They’ll also need to figure out why they stunk at home. Last season, they bizarrely won a league-low 16 games in St. Paul.
Boudreau enters the final year of a four-year deal after the team wouldn’t entertain a contract extension. It is only Fenton’s second year as GM, but he too is under pressure after last year’s roster detonation failed to immediately improve the club. This will be an important season for both of their futures.
– Michael Russo
Stanley Cup Odds: 66/1
Projection: 7th in Central
Top pick Matthew Boldy is the type of high-end scorer the Wild desperately crave. His size, shot and ability to dominate down low are calling cards, but he needs more consistency. He’s headed to Boston College. Meanwhile, Minnesota continues to wait on Kirill Kaprizov to come over from the KHL in 2020-21 while young pros such as Luke Kunin, Jordan Greenway and Ryan Donato begin to establish themselves as NHLers. Undrafted D-man Brennan Menell is a good find.
1. Kirill Kaprizov, LW
Age 22 Team CSKA Moscow (KHL)
Offensive machine ranked 13th, 11th and 8th in Future Watch past three years. One season to wait.
Acquired 135th overall, 2015 NHL ’20-21
2. Matthew Boldy, LW
Age 18 Team U.S. NTDP (USHL)
Big-time threat with puck – has a good shot and can set people up. He’s seeking consistency.
Acquired 12th overall, 2019 NHL ’21-22
3. Vladislav Firstov, LW
Age 18 Team Waterloo (USHL)
Has great tools on offense with a big shot. His skating and overall intensity are question marks.
Acquired 42nd overall, 2019 NHL ’23-24
4. Louie Belpedio, D
Age 23 Team Iowa (AHL)
Mobile defender with an edge to his play. Got a few games in the NHL and looked comfortable.
Acquired 80th overall, 2014 NHL ’19-20
5. Kaapo Kahkonen, G
Age 23 Team Iowa (AHL)
Took on the No. 1 role as a rookie in the AHL and excelled. He just has to do it again now.
Acquired 109th overall, 2014 NHL ’21-22
6. Filip Johansson, D
Age 19 Team Leksand (Swe.)
Steady and responsible in his own end. Can handle the puck a bit but offense needs to grow.
Acquired 24th overall, 2018 NHL ’21-22
7. Connor Dewar, C
Age 20 Team Everett (WHL)
Do-it-all center took off after going undrafted. Captained his WHL Team in final year.
Acquired 92nd overall, 2018 NHL ’21-22
8. Jack McBain, C
Age 19 Team Boston College (HE)
Year thrown off by illness, but he’s a big sophomore who can grow into a power forward.
Acquired 63rd overall, 2018 NHL ’22-23
9. Mason Shaw, LW
Age 20 Team Iowa (AHL)
Rebounded well after a bad knee injury. He has good playmaking instincts and high energy.
Acquired 97th overall, 2017 NHL ’21-22
10. Hunter Jones, G
Age 19 Team Peterborough (OHL)
Has strong physical tools but wore down on a struggling Team. Competitive and poised.
Acquired 59th overall, 2019 NHL ’24-25