A Non Model Based Minnesota Wild Season Preview

Okay Wild fans it’s that time of year. The time of year where we look at our roster, put on a brave face, and convince ourselves that this team can win a playoff series. Will it happen? Almost certainly not, but Marian Gaborik ain’t walking through that door any time soon, so we might as well reach deep into our hearts and minds and force ourselves to believe that we have enough talent up front to be a relevant NHL team in the 2018-2019 season. Is our top returning goal scorer turning 34 this month? Maybe he is, maybe he’s not. Age is just a number. Is the average age of our top two centers over 34? See above answer. Do we have almost exactly the same team we’ve had for the last six years? The team that has made it to the playoffs each of those last six years and won two playoff series? More or less, yes we do. None of this sounds good on paper, but as Minnesota Sports Fans it is our duty to ignore all signs of disaster and forge ahead with the most positive, if not delusional outlook we can manage. The general consensus amongst hockey pundits and fans is that the Wild will be one of, if not the, most boring team this year–and honestly, I don’t disagree. There is nothing about the Wild that screams “must watch.” Their best players aren’t exactly show stoppers. The closest things they have to gamebreakers are probably Zucker and Granlund and there are about 15 guys in the Central Division alone that I’d rather watch in a vacuum than those two. I don’t think anyone is paying top dollar to watch Koivu and Staal slow the game down (although Stubhub shows otherwise) and Suter might be the hardest top tier defensemen to watch in NHL history. It’s the same goddamn team they’ve trotted out for the last six years for christ’s sake. Sure those six years have all been playoff years but there is absolutely nothing about this team that should make anyone expect a legitimate playoff run this year. That being said, the Wild should be competitive in a very deep Central division. They don’t have the dynamic players that some of the top end teams have but they have a shit ton of depth at forward and defense and they’re experienced in terms of regular season success, so who the hell knows. They only thing I know for sure is that it’s going to be a long, long season, regardless of whether it ends after 82 games, or like 87 games…

Forwards

This is where the Wild just aren’t in the same conversation as some of the teams that will be competing for the Stanley Cup. I like to say that the Wild have four really good 3rd lines but that’s not entirely fair. It’s more like a really good 2nd line, two really good 3rd lines, and a solid 4th line. Regardless, they don’t have what I would consider a top NHL forward line. They are led up front by Eric Staal, Mikael Granlund, and Jason Zucker. Staal has been an awesome addition since picking him up in free agency two summers ago. Last year was his most productive in terms of points since 2010-11 and the most goals he’s scored since he put away 45 in his second year in the league on the way to winning a cup with Carolina. I’ll be honest, when they signed Staal I wasn’t happy. Seemed to me like Chuck Fletcher was adding a North American Koivu to a team that desperately needed a number 1 center not named Koivu. As they say, hindsight is 20/20 and I’m very happy to accept the egg all over my face on that one. Staal put up legitimate number 1 center numbers last year with 42 goals and 34 assists for 76 points in 82 games. Now, if Staal can repeat those types of numbers this year the Wild will have a very good shot at returning to the postseason and losing in the first round. The problem is, I just don’t see that happening. I’d love eat my words again, but I have a hard time believing a 33 year old guy not named Alex Ovechkin is going to be putting up back to back 40 goal seasons. Last year was great but I’m pretty sure Staal scored on the most wrist shots from the blue line since goalies were allowed to wear masks. It just seemed like he had an unnatural amount of puck luck last year and those things usually level out eventually. Not saying it can’t happen this year; what I’m saying is it won’t happen this year.

Granny and Zucker are the two guys that need to produce at the “all star” type of level. If I were a betting man (and I am, in fact, a betting man) I’d bet that Zucker leads the team in goals and Granny leads the team in points this year. Zucker is the closest thing to a natural scorer the Wild have and if they are going to have any kind of sustained success over the next several years, Granlund has to solidify himself as the Wild’s best player. He’s had moments where he looked like he was ready to take the torch from the Koivus, Staals, and Parises of the team but has yet to really put together a full season at what I believe to be his full potential. Zucker is a really nice player who a lot of teams would love to have for secondary scoring. It’s tough when he’s who you have to count on to put the puck in the net when it counts (as we all saw in the playoff series against Winnipeg), but that’s where we’re at with this team. That’s the crux of the problem with the top line when you get down to the nuts and bolts. Whoever of these three you think is the Wild’s best forward, we have the worst “best” forward out of any team in the Central. If you’d take any one of these guys over the best forward or two (or in some cases three) on any other team in the division, you’re a certified moron. Chicago has Kane. St Louis has Tarasenko. Dallas has Benn and Seguin. Winnipeg has Scheifele, Laine, and Wheeler. Nashville has Forsberg and Johansen. And Colorado has Mckinnon and Rantanen. Every team in the Central has a certified stud up top except the Wild. That is a problem that will likely not get fixed until (if) Karill Kaprizov escapes Putin’s clutches and swims across the Atlantic Ocean. Fingers crossed for 2020.   

As for the rest of the forwards, it’s really more of the same shit, different year. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: If the Wild want to actually compete, they are going to need more out of Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter. Sure feels like we’ve been saying that for the last decade. Now, to be fair, both guys were battling injuries all of last year but at some point it’s gotta be a “shit or get off the pot” type of situation with these two. Maybe they’ll both be healthy and give us the 25-30 goal seasons we’ve been dying for but I’ve been hurt before and my heart is officially guarded against them. Koivu is still a shutdown center but you just can’t expect him to play disciplined in the defensive zone and put up 2nd line center offensive numbers at 35 years old. Joel Eriksson Ek was really very solid in mostly a 4th line center role during his first full season in the NHL but he’s going to have to produce more in the offensive zone than the 6 goals and 16 points from a year ago. He may never be a 20 goal scorer, but I think something in the 15 goals and 20 assists range is definitely possible. This is especially important as the Wild prepare for the inevitable declines of Staal, Koivu, and Parise. Speaking of Parise, honestly I just want him to be healthy for a season. To me, Parise has always been a third liner at heart who just willed his way to top six production. I don’t mean that he’s not talented enough to be a true top line scorer but I just always felt like he’d be more comfortable in a role where he wasn’t counted on to put up 30 and 30.  He’s not a natural goal scorer but he works so damn hard he finds a way to be extremely effective when he’s on the ice. This was evident towards the end of the season and the first few games of the playoffs when he was just about the only forward with any kind of productivity. If he can stay healthy all year, maybe he can produce the top six type of offense the Wild desperately need, but I’m not going to bank on it. Finally, I hope like hell that Jordan Greenway can turn into the kind of power forward that everyone thinks he can. Boudreau has been high on him this preseason and the potential is obviously there, but he looked a little slow and out of place at times in the playoffs and I have my doubts.

Defense

The Wild still have one of the better top 4’s in the league and I will fight anyone who says otherwise. Suter, although frustrating to watch at times, is still a top end defensemen who eats minutes and makes life easier for the rest of the D core. Spurgeon is one of the most underrated and underappreciated defensemen (and perhaps players in general) in the league and when he and Suter are paired together they make one of the best pairs in the West (although it is looking like Boudreau is going to start the year with Suter/Dumba and Brodin/Spurgeon as the top two pairs). Obviously there are a lot of great defensemen in the NHL, and Suter and Spurgeon aren’t in the same conversation as the Karlsson’s and Hedman’s and Doughty’s, but they certainly aren’t what’s holding the Wild back. Suter is getting older (a common theme) and there is bound to be regression but I expect that to come slower than for Koivu and Staal. Dumba and Brodin are two of the guys that leave me with the most mixed feelings on the roster, and for entirely different reasons. Dumba is an absolute roller coaster of a defenseman. Prone to bad turnovers and positioning, he has probably gotten me the closest to breaking my television out of any one player on the team the most often. He also has a very real shot at putting up 20 goals from the blueline this year. If he can shore up some of his deficiencies in his own zone he could really make a difference. Brodin is basically the opposite. Solid as my shits when I take a weekend off of drinking in the D zone, but gives you almost nothing on the other end of the rink. 73 games and only 21 points while playing over 21 minutes a game is just not going to get it done. Would love to seem him contribute a little more offensively/on the power play but it’s possible that’s just not who he is.

The bottom pair looks like it’s going to be Nick Seeler and Greg Pateryn to start the year. Seeler is a local kid and a fan favorite and was also at a wedding I attended this past weekend (not a big deal). The wedding thing probably isn’t as important in terms of production this year but he looked pretty nimble on the dance floor (I actually don’t even remember seeing him but I know he was there). Pateryn is a big body and a solid NHL bottom pair defenseman. Between him and Seeler they have a more than serviceable last pair that will play valuable minutes 5 on 5 and shorthanded.

The defense as been a strong point in the Wild roster for the past several years and I don’t expect that to change this season. Obviously the injuries to Suter and Spurgeon hurt last year but if those two can stay healthy I think they are actually going to be a much improved unit. Dumba and Brodin are both really close to putting it all together and if they can both take another step in the areas they need to improve on the Wild’s top 4 will be one of the best in the league.

Goalies

I’ve argued in defense of Devan Dubnyk more times than I’d like to count but the truth is I don’t really know how I feel about him. His numbers have been great since joining the Wild halfway through the 2014-15 season. Like top 5 in nearly every important statistical category good. That doesn’t really tell the whole story though. Every Wild fan will tell you that he’s prone to give up bad goals at the worst time. There isn’t really a stat that can properly chart how important that can be to a team. He’s also been shaky in the playoffs. Around the league Dubnyk is generally considered and above average goalie, but not in that top tier. I’d say that’s pretty fair. In 2015 the Wild sign him to a 6 year, $26 million contract with an AAV of $4.33 million. They’ve gotten some heat for that deal but honestly their hands were tied. I view NHL goalies a lot like I view NFL quarterbacks. There are only a handful of really good ones, there are a bunch of pretty good ones, and there are bad ones. Dubnyk is in the “pretty good” category and it could get a hell of a lot worse than that. Obviously there are a lot of goalies that I’d rather have on my team but I think there are more that I’d rather not have. That about sums up my feelings on Dubnyk; I don’t love him, but it could be worse.

Predictions

Here’s the thing with the Wild; they are going to be a relevant hockey team this year. It’s probably not going to be very fun to watch at times but they are going to win some games. Will they make the playoffs? I don’t know, they might. Pretty much every team in the West besides the Blackhawks and the Wild got better this offseason. The Central is stacked. Winnipeg and Nashville aren’t going anywhere. Dallas and St. Louis will almost certainly be better than they were a year ago. Colorado is a little bit of a wildcard but I expect them to be competing for a playoff spot. Chicago is actually a mess and that makes me really happy. There are enough good teams in the Pacific this year that, considering the race in the Central will likely be very tight, with teams splitting games and wearing each other down, I have a hard time imagining 5 playoff teams coming from the Central division. That leaves 4 spots and 6 teams capable of taking one of those spots. If you compare roster to roster, I think most people would have the Wild on the outside looking in but this team is set up to compete in the regular season. They spread their scoring out which limits the chances for long cold stretches and they consistently play strong in all three zones on a night to night basis. Being tough to play against every night during such a long season is an underrated part of winning, at least regular season games, in the NHL. Winning in the dog days of the 82 game NHL season is what the Minnesota Wild are built to do. The problem is they don’t have a second gear to get to when the playoffs do start. Honestly, I’d rather they blow it all up and start over but that’s just not going to happen. I get it. Winning seasons make money. Playoff seasons make money. It just sucks starting a season knowing that there is almost no chance of winning it all in the foreseeable future but that’s just how it is. Until the Wild get lucky on a couple of draft picks or Kaprizov comes over and turns out to be the next great Russian scorer, they are going to be stuck in NHL purgatory for awhile. Everything tells me this team won’t make the playoffs but they probably will get to like 95 points, grab the 7th or 8th seed, and lose to Winnipeg or Nashville in 5 games. Saddle up Wild fans, it’s time to lie to ourselves.

Final Record: 43-30-9, 95 pts

Leading Goal Scorer: Jason Zucker

Leading Point Scorer:  Mikael Granlund

Biggest Losers: Minnesota Sports Fans