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Do Wild have short-term path back to playoffs?

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Before the 2018-19 season went sideways, the Minnesota Wild had a five-year run where they were a mostly outstanding and consistently underrated hockey team.

They had three 100-point seasons in a four-year stretch and even though they had limited success once they made the playoffs, they were at least always there.

All of that disappeared this past season when the team missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011-12 and finished with one of the worst records in franchise history (the .506 points percentage was fourth-worst in their 18-year existence). A lot of things went wrong and resulted in the shocking decision to fire general manager Paul Fenton after just 14 months on the job.

Unfortunately for the Wild, they are still stuck in a brutally competitive division with Nashville, Colorado, Winnipeg, Dallas, and a (potentially) improved Chicago team ahead of them. On top of that they were seven points back of a playoff spot last year in what was one of the weakest Western Conference playoff races ever, are relying heavily on big-money players in their mid-30s this season, still do not have a general manager to call the shots, and could probably use a rebuild that the owner does not seem to want to fully commit to.

Not exactly a great set of circumstances.

So is there a path back to the playoffs this season? Let’s take a look at three key factors that might help.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factors]

Better Health

While injuries were not a huge factor in the Wild’s regression, they did have a couple of significant ones with the loss of Mikko Koivu (48 games) and defender Mathew Dumba (only 32 games).

Koivu is one of the many mid-30 players on the roster and is not the same player offensively that he was a few years ago, but he’s still an excellent two-way player and key part of their forwards.

Dumba, on the other hand, was the big one. Losing him was a significant blow to the team’s blue line, especially since he was in the middle of a breakout season offensively at the time of his injury. Getting a 23-minute, potential 50-point blue-liner back in the lineup would be significant.

Jason Zucker is still there

Zucker was nearly traded on two separate occasions over the past year and it is probably fortunate for the Wild that both deals fell apart before they could be completed. He is still one of the best all-around players on the team and seems to be a prime bounce-back candidate. He was still a great possession-driver for the Wild last year (they had a 53 percent shot attempt share when he was on the ice) and finished with one of the lowest shooting percentages of his career. The return of a healthy Koivu and Dumba, as well as a bounce-back from Zucker, would help a lot.

Some new faces

Zuccarello is a long-term risk because of his age, but he is still an outstanding playmaker and will upgrade the roster that ended the regular season in Minnesota.

Then you have the young players acquired by former general manager Fenton at the deadline, specifically Ryan Donato and Kevin Fiala. There are a lot of reasons to question the direction Fenton sent the team in at the trade deadline, but now that they trades are done all the Wild can do is hope for the best. While there seems to be little hope the Nino Niederreiter trade can produce positive results for them, Donato and Fiala do at least have the potential to become useful.

There is absolutely something that can be salvaged there.

Donato looked promising after the trade from Boston, while Fiala is just one year removed from a 23-goal, 48-point season, is still only 23 years old, and is coming off of a tough shooting percentage and PDO (on ice shooting percentage plus save percentage) year while also posting strong possession numbers. There is potential for a bounce-back there.

More consistent performance from Devan Dubnyk

This might be the most important potential development.

From the moment he arrived in Minnesota during the 2013-14 season Dubnyk has been one of the best, most productive goalies in the league and finished with two top-five finishes in the Vezina Trophy voting. But the 2018-19 season was far from his best as he struggled with consistency, went through one of the worst slumps of his career, and faced yet another heavy workload.

If he is able to return to his previous Minnesota form that is a season-changer for the Wild.

That is a lot of “ifs,” and even if they all go perfectly it still probably will not be enough to make them a Stanley Cup contender. It could, however, get them back in the playoffs.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Canadiens had strangest disallowed goal of season (Video)

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The final minute of the third period in Saturday’s Montreal-New Jersey game devolved into weirdness when the Canadiens thought they had scored a late goal to gain the upper hand on the Devils.

It was not to be after a review because it was determined that Canadiens forward Phillip Danault had “kicked” the puck into the net with his … leg? … Knee? … Hip? Whatever it was, it was a body part that he wasn’t allowed to use to guide the puck into the net. That ruling sent the game to overtime where Kyle Palmieri scored on the power play to give the Devils a 4-3 win after overcoming a two-goal deficit.

They have now won three out of four games.

But let’s get back to that bizarre non-goal for the Canadiens because there was a lot going on in that sequence. Including…

  • It all started with Shea Weber trying to blast a one-timer from the blue line only to have his stick shatter upon making contact with the puck.
  • The puck slowly rolled to Brendan Gallagher who was in perfect position to get a point-blank shot at the net, only to have Mackenzie Blackwood get a piece of it.
  • From there, the puck trickled along the goal crease where Devils forward Nico Hischier appeared to cover the puck which should have resulted in a penalty shot. The referees either did not see that or did not feel it was worthy of being called. There was also a trip in there, just for good measure.
  • It was at that point that Danault saw the puck sitting on the goal line and attempted to — for lack of a better word — thrust it over the line. “A” for effort, high marks for creativity and doing whatever it takes, but that is against the rules.

From NHL Rule 78.1:

A goal cannot be scored when the puck has been deliberately batted with any part of the attacking player’s body into the net.

So there you go.

You can see the entire sequence in the video above.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Maple Leafs get embarrassed as losing streak reaches 5 games

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The Toronto Maple Leafs opened an extremely important six-game road trip in Pittsburgh on Saturday night and turned to 26-year-old rookie goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo to try and snap their current losing streak.

It did not go well for him in his NHL debut as he gave up six goals on 38 shots.

That was the bad news for Toronto. The even worse news for Toronto was that even with those numbers he was by far — BY FAR! — their best player in an ugly 6-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins that extended their losing streak to five games.

With that loss the Maple Leafs are now an extremely disappointing 9-9-4 on the season, have just four wins in their past 15 games, and have allowed at least four goals in each of their past four games.

This one might have been the ugliest of the bunch as they were never competitive.

If you wanted to you could try to look for some excuses for such a lackluster effort, and you wouldn’t have to look very far.

They played the night before and had to travel from Toronto to Pittsburgh. They are without two key forwards in Mitch Marner and Alexander Kerfoot. They started a 26-year-old rookie in goal making his NHL debut.

All true. All worth noting. But it takes about a half-second to poke holes in all of them when you consider the Penguins also played on Friday night and had to travel (from New Jersey to Pittsburgh), and were playing without Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, Nick Bjugstad, and Patric Hornqvist, and were also using their backup goalie (Tristan Jarry) in net.

They still controlled the game from the opening face-off.

When asked how to fix this current mess, coach Mike Babcock went back to the same well he always goes to when things are going poorly and talked about needing to play harder.

“The number one thing is, we have to play harder, and for longer,” said Babcock (via TSN’s Kristen Shilton). And as soon as something goes bad, we can’t stop playing. Push through it. Every one of us in our life, things go bad. Dig in.”

Forget playing harder, they need to play better.

As if the pressure wasn’t already through the roof for this team things are probably about to get a whole lot worse. This is still one of the league’s worst defensive teams and has shown no real improvement in that area. If they do not get elite, All-Star level goaltending the whole thing seems to just collapse around them. In recent years Frederik Andersen was able to give them that level of play in net and mask many of their defensive flaws. This year he has not been able to do that as often, and the unsettled backup situation behind him only makes things worse (they are now 0-5-1 when Andersen does not start).

You have to feel for Kaskisuo on Saturday. He waited years for this moment and was completely abandoned by the team in front of him as the Penguins had players skating wide open throughout the neutral and offensive zones. Odd-man rushes, uncontested forwards driving down the middle of the ice, and chance after chance after chance. The play of Kaskisuo is the only reason the Penguins did not score eight or nine in this one.

At some point the temperature under Babcock’s seat is going to start increasing dramatically, and if this thing does not get turned around soon you have to wonder how much longer management will along things to continue like this. They are now 3-6-0 on the road this season (with their only road wins coming against Columbus, Detroit, and Philadelphia) and play 11 of their next 14 outside of Toronto. Their next three are in Vegas, Arizona and Colorado so things are not going to get any easier this week.

Related: Maple Leafs, Sharks, Golden Knights entering potentially make-or-break stretches

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Seguin, Benn become difference makers as Stars keep rolling

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Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn were certainly difference makers on Saturday.

One week after being the focal point of post-game criticism from their coach (which he later apologized for), the Stars’ top duo played a massive role in a come-from-behind 5-4 win against the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday afternoon to continue the team’s recent surge up the Western Conference standings.

Trailing by two goals with 15 minutes to play, Blake Comeau started the rally with his second goal of the season and set the stage for Seguin and Benn to take over later in the game, turning what looked to be a sure loss into two more points in the standings.

Seguin scored the equalizer — his fifth goal of the season — with less than two minutes to play and then set up Benn for the winner just 1:14 into overtime.

“They’re stud players in this league and when they play like that, our team is going to be elite all the time,” Stars coach Jim Montgomery said after the game.

They were both outstanding on Saturday. Seguin finished with three points (one goal, two assists) and now has seven points in his past six games. This was also his second straight multi-point game.

Benn, meanwhile, desperately needed some kind of a break to go his way having entered the day with just a single goal on the season and riding what had been a 15-game goal-scoring drought.

Here is a look at his game-winning goal.

This year’s internal criticism of Seguin and Benn was a little more justified than it was around this time a year ago, but even with their early struggles you still had to believe things were going to turn around for them at some point. Even if their production has started to slide as they get older they are not yet totally washed up and still have the ability to be top line players and take over games like they did on Saturday.

The great news for the Stars is that after starting the season with a 1-7-1 record through nine games they are now on a 10-1-1 run over their past 12 games. And they are doing all of this lately without John Klingberg (their best defenseman) and Roope Hintz (still their leading goal-scorer this season). With the goaltending back on track, the depth players starting to produce (especially big free agent acquisition Joe Pavelski), and now a couple of big games from Seguin there is reason to believe in this team again.

More on the Stars

Seguin, Benn focal point of more internal criticism
Stars coach apologizes for criticism
Ben Bishop is back on track and so are the Stars

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Darcy Kuemper slams Matthew Tkachuk to ice, nearly sparks goalie fight (Video)

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You can add Arizona Coyotes goalie Darcy Kuemper to the lengthy list of players around the NHL that has snapped in the presence of Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk.

Late in the second period of the Coyotes’ 3-0 win on Saturday afternoon, Kuemper came to the defense of his teammate, defenseman Jason Demers, and slammed Tkachuk to the ice setting off a chaotic line brawl that nearly ended with a goalie fight.

It all started when Demers knocked Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau to the ice away from the play.

Gaudreau responded by skating up behind Demers and cross-checking him in the back, knocking him to the ice. While Demers was down on the ice, Gaudreau and Tkachuk each got in a little extra shot and it was at that point that Kuemper decided to enter the situation.

Once that happened, Flames goalie David Rittich stormed the length of the ice and tried to come to the defense of his teammate. The two goalies never actually fought, but they did both receive their share of penalties. Kuemper was assessed two roughing minors, while Rittich was given a two-minute penalty for leaving the crease to join an altercation.

Kuemper now has 20 penalty minutes since the start of the 2017-18 season which is by far the highest total of any goalie in the league. Rittich (now with 10) is the only other goalie with more than eight.

Tkachuk was also given four minutes for roughing, while Gaudreau received two minutes for cross-checking and Demers was assessed two for roughing.

You can see the entire sequence in the video above.

As for the actual game itself, it was a huge day for Kuemper as he stopped 38 shots to record the shutout and help the Coyotes improve to 12-7-2 on the season.

It is his second shutout of the season and improved his save percentage to an outstanding .937 in 14 appearances.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.