Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Minnesota Wild.
Want more on the Wild? Read these posts, too.
[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]
1. Can this team really contend?
At times, the Wild have looked like a really feisty team under Bruce Boudreau.
That was especially true during his debut season as coach in 2016-17, as the Wild topped the Central Division for much of that season before slipping behind Chicago. It’s far too easy to dismiss how tough it is to finish above 100 points, as the Wild have done under Boudreau in both 2016-17 (106) and 2017-18 (101).
The temptation might be to look to Boudreau’s former team, the Capitals, and say: “Hey, they seemed to take longer than expected to make that deep run, but they did it. Why can’t we do the same?”
And, yes, there’s a decent collection of talent there. That’s especially true if Devan Dubnyk can play at an elite level, as he’s managed for multiple stretches of his solid career.
That said, it’s also quite plausible that things will only go downhill from here. Could it be that Boudreau’s clever coaching helps to patch up some weaknesses that ultimately surface during the concentrated competition of the postseason?
If you put together the Central Division’s top teams, it’s tough to feel great about the Wild’s chances. Minnesota, on paper, really lacks the high-end punch of the Predators and Jets. The Blues seem like they might have passed them by, as well, after an aggressive summer. Minnesota can’t assume that the Blackhawks won’t be a nuisance once more, and it’s perfectly feasible that the Stars and Avalanche may pass them by.
2. Is it time to blow it up?
Really, this might be that moment where the Wild decide to “live to fight another day.”
Scan this team’s salary structure and you’ll see some worrisome ages, even if you want to take a break and not beat the dead horse that is the Zach Parise contract.
Parise is 34, with a contract that runs through 2024-25(!), while Ryan Suter is just a year younger with the same deal. Mikko Koivu is 35, and Eric Staal is 33. Sometimes you forget about the ups and downs of Dubnyk’s career, which is easier to recall when you realize he’s 32.
Should GM Paul Fenton totally flush this out? Well, assuming that Peter Chiarelli’s kept away from his cell phone at odd hours, it’s probably not particularly plausible to trade Parise’s deal. (Honestly, with his very-much-legit health issues, Parise feels sadly LTIR-bound. At some point.)
This could be just about the ideal time to move some of those deals, especially since Fenton isn’t the one who agreed to the contracts he’d want to move, anyway. (Those commitments to young talents such as Matt Dumba and Jason Zucker make total sense, and can be part of the solution.)
Staal is playing at a fabulous level, but his bargain $3.5M cap hit expires after 2018-19. If you’re a contending team, you’d do worse than to rent Staal, even if it costed some serious assets. The Wild might be wise to “sell” Suter now, while his perceived value is relatively high, as years of ridiculous ice time may finally be catching up with him.
Moving someone like Koivu could really sting for fans, but a savvy team may see him as worth the risk. Although, honestly, the extra year of term might make that a tough sell this season. Still, it’s a conversation worth having, and an opposing GM should at least mull over such a decision.
3. How long will it take to see Paul Fenton’s vision?
This ultimately all trickles back up to Fenton, who had a quiet first summer as Wild GM. As the Star-Tribune’s Michael Rand noted in late July, Fenton threw the word “tweak” around a lot when hired, but hasn’t really done that yet.
“I’ll look at small trades. I’ll look at big trades,” Fenton said. “Whatever is going to improve this organization going forward to give us a chance to win the Stanley Cup, we’re going to look.”
Apparently the Wild haven’t liked what they’ve seen just yet, so how much more will Fenton need to observe before he makes his mark?
Will Bruce Boudreau be on a short leash? How does Fenton differ from Chuck Fletcher when it comes to constructing a roster? Is there still time to win big with this core?
Fenton hasn’t really tipped his hand, and understandably so. At some point he’ll need to push some chips to the middle of the table, though, and timely such gambles correctly could end up being crucial for the Wild.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.