The Minnesota Wild are one NHL team that I can never get a firm handle on.
Are they good? Are they bad? Where exactly are they going and what is their direction?
When they’ve been good, they’ve been very good.
Probably better than they ever got credit for being because they would always get stuck in the worst possible opening round playoff matchup where they would always seemingly have to play one of the small handful of teams in the league that were clearly better than them. They have had some terrible early matchup luck over the years.
They have also regressed over the past two years and fallen into a rut where they have failed to make the playoffs each year, including this past season where they lost the qualifying round in the re-start to the Vancouver Canucks.
That two year stretch has also seen them change general managers twice (from Chuck Fletcher, to Paul Fenton, and then from Fenton to Bill Guerin) and also head coaches going Bruce Boudreau to Dean Evason.
Along with that, there has been significant overhaul to the roster (starting with Fenton’s one-year teardown) that has continued this offseason.
Even with the lack of success the past two years, I am not ready to totally close the book on this Wild team for the 2020-21 season.
Let’s take a look at a few reasons why.
Better goaltending would be significant
The Wild have a pretty solid defense on paper, at least as it relates to their top-four of Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba, and Jonas Brodin. That is a quality group. Statistically speaking, there were some signs that the 2019-20 Wild were a very good defensive group. They were the league’s best team at preventing scoring chances and expected goals (via Natural Stat Trick) at even-strength, and only allowed 30 shots on goal per game (top-10 in the league).
The issue was they did not get consistent goaltending for most of the season. The usually reliable Devan Dubnyk struggled through the worst season of his career, finishing with an .890 save percentage and 12-15-3 record.
They were 23-12-5 with a .912 save percentage in the games started by Alex Stalock and Kaapo Kahkonen.
Stalock was a huge surprise last yer and remains under contract for two more seasons at a bargain salary cap rate. To complement him, the Wild signed free agent Cam Talbot this offseason.
That contract follows a nice bounce back performance for Talbot with the Calgary Flames. If he can give Minnesota the same level of goaltending alongside Stalock, it would go a long way toward fixing a lot of the team’s problems from a year ago. Especially behind that defense.
Kirill Kaprizov is finally here
The Wild made a few additions to their forward group over the offseason by acquiring Nick Bonino, Marcus Johansson, and Nick Bjugstad in separate trades.
But the addition that might get the most attention (and perhaps even make the biggest impact) will be the long awaited arrival of forward Kirill Kaprizov.
Minnesota has been waiting five years for him to make the jump from the KHL, and it’s finally here. He is still a mystery at this point given his complete lack of NHL experience, but his skill level and KHL production offers plenty of optimism that he could be an impact player. Kaprizov was the best player on the KHL’s best team the past two years and the league’s leading goal scorer each season. There is an argument to be made he has been the best player in the world that was not currently playing in the NHL.
He is a potential young star and difference maker on a team that is lacking them. His arrival could do more to boost the team’s offense than any offseason signing or trade.
Kevin Fiala‘s breakout
The one thing from the Fenton era that worked out overwhelmingly well in the Wild’s favor was the 2019 deadline trade brought them Kevin Fiala (in exchange for Mikael Granlund).
Fiala had an outstanding season for the Wild a year ago, finishing with 23 goals and 54 points in 64 games while also driving possession. He did that while Granlund struggled to fit with Nashville and remains unsigned this offseason as an unrestricted free agent.
Fiala is just now entering what should be his peak years in the NHL and he already has a strong track record of being a top-six winger. It is not a stretch to think that he could end up being a 30-goal scorer at his peak. When combined with his ability to drive play gives the Wild a top-line player still in his prime. They don’t have many of those.
This is not a Stanley Cup contender, but it is a team that can sneak up on you and be better than you expect.
They lost a big defensive presence down the middle in Mikko Koivu, but they replaced him with another in Nick Bonino.
They lost some offense with Eric Staal, but the arrival of Kaprizov gives them a potential star.
It may only be an average offensive team, but if Talbot and Stalock can stabilize the goaltending behind a solid defense they could easily shave enough goals off to be a playoff team again.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.