Last year was the year. Then it wasn’t. But this year was definitely the year. Wrong again.
In the pages of The Hockey News, we predicted the Minnesota Wild would slip to the playoff bubble last season after a quiet summer, the result of their many expensive veteran contracts hamstringing their ability to improve their roster in the hyper-competitive Central Division. Minnesota defied expectations and fought its way to a playoff spot only to get tossed aside quickly by the Winnipeg Jets in five games.
This past off-season, with Paul Fenton taking over for Chuck Fletcher as GM, the forecast looked even blander. Minnesota counted stay-at-home blueliner Greg Pateryn as its splashiest upgrade. Key members of its core, from captain Mikko Koivu to Eric Staal to Ryan Suter to Zach Parse, crept deeper into their 30s. Suter’s season had ended with a major, career-threatening ankle injury requiring surgery. Parise, who endured back surgery that cost him the start of last season, fractured his sternum in the playoffs.
We thus didn’t see much reason for optimism making our 2018-19 season predictions. We nudged the Wild into a sixth-place projection, putting them out of the playoffs.
Here we are, approaching the American Thanksgiving juncture, known for predicting the final playoff picture, and the Wild are doing what they always do: defy expectations. Even after a consecutive losses, they’re 12-7-2, good for the Western Conference’s third-best record, though the top two teams are their divisional neighbors Nashville and Winnipeg, which is the most Central Division thing ever.
“We are surprising a lot of people,” Parise said. “I don’t think a lot of people thought we’d be where we are right now. I know it’s early. We’ve played 20 games. But we’ve had a good start. We’re playing pretty good team hockey. We’re playing smart. Our goaltending has been really good. But we’ve been getting some pretty spread-out scoring that has helped us. (Devan) Dubnyk has played really well, (Alex) Stalock has played really well, and we’re playing a solid team game right now.”
Parise more or less summarizes things correctly. The 2016-17 Wild didn’t have a single 30-goal scorer. Last season’s team got a franchise-record-tying 42 goals from Staal and a 33-goal breakout from Jason Zucker, but the depth disappeared, with only one other player reaching the 20-goal plateau. Early this season, the Wild have a blend of high-volume goal scoring and depth. At the 21-game mark, five players have six or more goals, putting the Wild on pace to boast five 20-goal scorers, while Parise, Mikael Granlund and blueliner Mathew Dumba are scoring at 30-goal clips. Dubnyk has been his usual dependable self in goal, particularly in October, when he posted a .937 save percentage.
Flourishing health among the Wild’s two most expensive stars and longtime buddies has been a crucial factor, too. There were questions over whether Suter’s healing ankle would allow him to log his typically gargantuan minute totals. In 470 games since debuting with the Wild in 2012-13, he’s averaged an incredible 27:58, tops in the NHL. Here he is at the 21-game mark, logging 25:53 night, tied for third-most in the league, and he’s 33.
“I feel good,” Suter said. “Some days are better than others when you’re dealing with something like I have, but I feel really good, and I feel like it’s getting better every game for sure.”
Parise was perhaps an even bigger question mark entering 2018-19. The back troubles had aged his body to the point it was fair to wonder if he’d ever play at a star level again. With nine goals and 18 points through 20 games, he’s averaging his most goals per game since 2014-15, his most points per game since 2009-10 and still getting his customary three-plus shots per game. At 34, he looks like the young Parise again.
“Ever since I got the surgery, it’s just gotten better and better and better,” Parise said. “It was a rough couple of years when my back started to go out a little bit. It was a struggle. But now that’s all in the past. I feel really good. I’m back to playing the way I’m capable of playing.”
But what do Parise’s and Suter’s warm and fuzzy recovery stories mean in a larger context? Can the Wild sustain what they’ve done so far this season? Parise and Suter admit things were ugly in the first few games of the year, but right now this team does a lot of little things right. The Wild rank top-five in penalty killing and faceoff percentage. They rank middle of the pack in terms of overall chances allowed per game, but only two teams allow fewer high-danger attempts per contest in 5-on-5 play. The sneaky-exciting factor behind the Pateryn signing was that he’d proven adept at suppressing shot quality. So far this season, among the 173 blueliners with at least 200 minutes played at 5-on-5, Pateryn is on the ice for the fourth-fewest high-danger chances per 60.
The Wild are playing relatively disciplined, fundamentally sound hockey. That, coupled with surprisingly good news on the health front this far, looks like it’ll keep them once again in the playoff hunt this season. The broader question is what that really means. Do Wild fans want to see this team make the playoffs a seventh consecutive year only to bow out in Round 1, which it has done in four of the past six seasons? For Minny to really make noise, it needs the youth movement to show signs of busting out. Unless the light switches on for the likes of Jordan Greenway and Joel Eriksson Ek, this team’s ceiling will stay relatively low.