Could…could this actually be the Wild’s year? The Minnesota Wild?
The franchise that has been largely mediocre since its inception in the year 2000? The organization that has exemplified the mushy middle – where you’re good enough to not land the best odds at the first overall pick in the NHL draft, but you’re also bad enough that you’re out of the playoff picture more often than not – in the NHL? That Minnesota Wild team?
The Wild definitely have started the season strongly, winning five of their first six games and reeling off six wins in their past eight games. They currently sit tied with Winnipeg atop the Central Division, with an 11-6-0 record. Minnesota has the league’s fifth-best offense, with an average of 3.47 goals-scored. Wild head coach Dean Evason has ridden veteran goalie Cam Talbot, who has played in 14 games and posted a 9-5-0 mark over that span. If they had any luck replacing a couple of those four regulation-time losses with an overtime or shootout loss, giving them another loser point or two, Minnesota’s lead in the Central would be bigger than it is.
And that’s the point where you can see the possibilities the Wild may not be able to play at their current pace for the grand majority of the season. For one thing, Talbot may have put up terrific numbers at a couple of points in his career, but there’s a reason why the 34-year-old has bounced around to tend goal for five NHL franchises: he hasn’t been able to play consistently well. It’s true Talbot had solid numbers for the Wild last season, and the Calgary Flames the season before that. But in 2018-19, he had a save percentage of .887.
If Talbot falters, the Wild don’t have a proven performer in net to come in and stop any bleeding. His present-day backup is Kaapo Kähkönen, a 25-year-old Finn who has only 32 games of NHL experience to his credit. According to CapFriendly.com, the Wild have approximately $2.9 million in salary cap space to address any goaltending deficiencies, but there are few goalies who are both above-average and on the trade block with their current team. Help beyond Kähkönen will be a-wing-and a-prayer.
Up front, the Wild have been gifted by the hockey gods with some genuine offense-minded talent to build around. Russian sniper Kiprill Kaprizov headlines that list, but Minnesota’s surge in goals-scored can also be attributed to the fact the entire team is chipping in on offense. Fifteen of their players have scored two or more goals this season. Eight of them have at least one game-winning goal this year. How long can that continue? You’d have to expect some regression there, don’t you think?
I’m not here to be a wet blanket for the Wild. I have long said I think their tremendous fan base deserves to enjoy a season in which Minnesota wins more than one playoff round. That hasn’t happened since the 2002-03 campaign. And that’s just not good enough.
I hope the Wild continue to defy expectations. I hope Wild fans have a season to sink their teeth into. I’m just trying to point out their current ride at the top of the Central may not continue long-term. Are they a playoff team? Sure seems that way. But the difference between first-place in the Central and fourth place is only three standings points. That means you could have only one bad week and find yourself in fourth place, trying to fend off playoff contenders rather than preparing for home ice advantage in the playoffs. You have to be incredibly good, incredibly consistently, to be an elite NHL team, and thus far, the Wild don’t have a history of being truly elite.
That doesn’t mean it can’t happen. But this is a show-me business, where teams and players have to prove themselves. Up until now, the Wild haven’t done that. Let’s be patient to praise them until they do.