Minnesota Wild fans, you’re a tough group. The emotions you’ve had to deal with during this roller-coaster campaign are something else.
The Wild didn’t make much of a splash during the off-season, with the biggest move coming in the form of a four-year deal for Mats Zuccarello – the last big move before former GM Paul Fenton was canned. New GM Bill Guerin didn’t address any other glaring weaknesses, so the natural thing was to believe a team with no major strengths would be content with soaring head-on into a rebuild. A 7-0-3 record over the past 10 games suggests otherwise. To recap: by the end of October, the Wild sat tied for 30th with a 4-9-0 record, with the biggest slice of news coming when forward Jason Zucker called out coach Bruce Boudreau for the disastrous start to the season. It was a tire fire for the ages. But since November 1, the Wild has been the ninth-best team in the NHL with a 9-2-4 record. Since November 15, only the Boston Bruins (19 points) have more than the Wild (15). Things are looking mighty good in the State of Hockey, but it begs the question: what are the Wild trying to accomplish?
Win games, of course, but are they hurting themselves in the process? Minnesota sits fifth in the Central Division, just one point ahead of the Nashville Predators. Once the Preds figure things out again and get back to what made them a top team in October, the overwhelming skill of Nashville’s roster will surpass the Wild. The biggest source of offense has come from Zach Parise. Since Nov. 1, Parise has nine goals and 14 points in 15 games, a big boost from the three points he had in 13 games in October. When he’s healthy, he’s valuable for the Wild, but he hasn’t played in 75-plus games since 2011-12. Reliability and injury concerns are always an issue with Parise.
Kevin Fiala is finally starting to find his way after a terrible October, recording 13 points in his past 15 games for the best stretch of his NHL career – and far beyond his one-point October. Zucker and Eric Staal have done most of the heavy lifting this season, though, with 19 points each to lead the team in scoring through 28 games – not exactly numbers to write home about.
Through it all, the Wild’s pipeline still looks rather thin. Kirill Kaprizov says he plans to join the team next year, but if we’ve learned anything about top KHLers coming over to the NHL as of late – Vadim Shipachyov, Ilya Kovalchuk and Nikita Gusev come to mind – it’s that success is far from assured. Nico Sturm has just 11 points in 22 AHL games, a low output given the hype he brought as a college free agent signing last spring. Hunter Jones is on fire right now, but he won’t be the goalie of the future for at least another 4-5 years. And then there’s Matt Boldy, the team’s top prospect. With just two points through 13 games with Boston College, his transition from junior has been rocky.
If the Wild want to take this into late April, they need to be buyers. But the team can’t afford to sacrifice any of their six 2020 draft picks, so that’s off the table. If they want to focus on the future, then they need to be sellers – but who would possibly bring in considerable value? The Wild locked in defenseman Jared Spurgeon for seven more years, but had he remained a pending UFA, he could have fetched a solid return at the trade deadline. Parise and Ryan Suter on identical $7.5-million cap hits are impossible to move, no matter how well they play. Victor Rask’s five points on a $4 million AAV takes him out of the equation. Moving Fiala, Staal, Ryan Donato or Jonas Brodin is a good starting point, but the returns will vary.
The Wild have just two playoff series victories over the past decade despite a six-year post-season run. Of course, making the playoffs would be a huge boost for a fan base that’s used to mediocrity, but working towards the long-term goal of playoff stability has to be the team’s priority. The Wild has a history of being streaky and if Spurgeon misses considerable time with a suspected broken hand, that’s not going to help. The Wild are in an awkward situation where they don’t have the assets to bring in a difference-maker and they don’t have the pipeline to make any substantial gains. The last thing the Wild need to do at this point is to have a good enough run to put themselves around the 14-17th-place mark in the league and miss out on a high draft pick due to a short post-season or just missing it altogether. Teams obviously don’t want to lose, but with the 2020 draft being as good as it is, the slow, aging Wild need to consider going all-in on the rebuild at some point, no matter how fun this run is.
Want more in-depth features, analysis and an All-Access pass to the latest content? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.