Wild need Kaprizov, Fiala, and Talbot to be difference makers

Minnesota Wild

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.

Overall outlook

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 phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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    Sharks goalie James Reimer declines to wear Pride jersey

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    San Jose Sharks goalie James Reimer didn’t take part in pregame warmups, saying the team’s decision to wear Pride-themed jerseys in support of the LGBTQ community runs counter to his religious beliefs.

    Reimer said in a statement Saturday that he made the decision based on his Christian beliefs, adding that he “always strived to treat everyone with respect” and that members of the LGBTQ community should be welcome in hockey.

    “In this specific instance, I am choosing not to endorse something that is counter to my personal convictions, which are based on the Bible, the highest authority in life,” Reimer said.

    Reimer is the second NHL player this season to refuse to take part in warmups with Pride-themed jerseys, with Philadelphia’s Ivan Provorov declining to in January. Reimer was not slated to start in Saturday night’s home game against the New York Islanders, which is Pride night.

    Additionally, the New York Rangers opted not to wear Pride jerseys or use Pride stick tape as part of their night in January despite previously advertising that plan.

    The Sharks said in a statement that they are proud to host Pride Night, saying the event reinforces the team’s commitment to inclusiveness.

    “As we promote these standards, we also acknowledge and accept the rights of individuals to express themselves, including how or whether they choose to express their beliefs, regardless of the cause or topic,” the team said in a statement. “As an organization, we will not waver in our support of the LGBTQIA+ community and continue to encourage others to engage in active allyship.”

    The You Can Play Project, which works to promote inclusiveness in sports, said the organization was disappointed in Reimer’s actions.

    “Religion and respect are not in conflict with each other, and we are certainly disappointed when religion is used as a reason to not support our community,” the organization said. “Wearing pride jerseys, like any celebration jersey worn, is not about the personal feelings of an athlete; rather the communication from the team that a community is welcome in the arena and the sport.”

    Panarin, Shesterkin lead Rangers to 6-0 rout of Penguins

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    NEW YORK — Mika Zibanejad had a goal and two assists, Artemi Panarin scored twice and Igor Shesterkin made 33 saves as the New York Rangers routed Pittsburgh 6-0 on Saturday night for their second win over the Penguins in three days.

    Vladimir Tarasenko, Chris Kreider and Jacob Trouba also scored for the surging Rangers, who have won nine of their last 11 home games and are 12-4-0 in their past 16 at Madison Square Garden.

    Shesterkin won his fifth straight and posted his second shutout this season. He nimbly denied Pittsburgh forward Mikael Granland with a sprawling save five minutes into the third period to preserve the shutout, the 10th of his career. His other one this season was a 1-0 home win over Philadelphia on Nov. 1.

    “When you put in hard and honest work, miracles happen,” Shesterkin said through a translator. ”We played wonderfully today – scored many, many goals. Honestly, I hope the fans loved it. We’re playing for them.”

    The Penguins lost their third straight and trail the Rangers by 12 points for third place in the Metropolitan Division. Pittsburgh, still in wild-card position, is trying to reach the playoffs for the 17th straight time.

    “Tonight was a humbling experience for all of us,” coach Mike Sullivan said. ”At this time of year, you have to have a short memory. We still have control of our destiny.”

    Patrick Kane and defenseman K’Andre Miller also had two assists apiece as New York improved to 7-1-1 in its last nine home games against Pittsburgh. The Rangers are five points behind the second-place New Jersey Devils, who lost at Florida on Saturday.

    “This was a big game for our goalie and our team,” Panarin said. “If you work at playing the right way, you have opportunities for goals.”

    Since Dec. 5, when they turned around their season with a 6-4 comeback win at home over St. Louis, the Rangers are 29-9-5.

    As he did on Thursday when the Rangers beat the Penguins 4-2, Zibanejad opened the scoring. He got his team-leading 36th goal at 5:10 of the first, beating Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry. Trouba and Miller assisted.

    Panarin made it 2-0 at 19:49 on the power play, whipping the puck past Jarry from the left circle off a pass from Adam Fox.

    Tarasenko increased the lead at 3:54 of the second with his fifth goal since joining the Rangers in a trade with St. Louis on Feb. 9. Tarasenko has points in 10 of his first 18 games with the Rangers.

    Kreider made it 4-0 at 6:43 with his 31st goal and third in two games against the Penguins. Kane and Vincent Trocheck assisted on Kreider’s 260th career goal, which moved the Rangers forward within two of Vic Hadfield for fifth place on the franchise list.

    New York won Thursday when Kreider scored the go-ahead goal in the third and added an empty-netter.

    After Casey DeSmith replaced Jarry in net following Kreider’s goal, Trouba beat the replacement with a sharp-angle shot at 8:39 for his eighth to increase the margin to 5-0. Trouba has points in six of his last eight games.

    Panarin scored again at 16:38 of the second – his 22nd goal of the season – to make it 6-0, with assists to Kane and Filip Chytil.

    “We’re building chemistry, building every day and every game,” Kane said.

    Panarin has points in eight of his last 10 games and leads the Rangers with 77 points overall, while Kane has seven points in his last six games.

    “It’s nice to see that many great players on your team,” added Panarin, whose first two NHL seasons were played alongside Kane with the Chicago Blackhawks. “We’re happy tonight.”

    Zibanejad assisted on goals by Tarasenko and Trouba and has 25 points – including 14 goals – over his last 20 games.

    “It was just one of those nights when the puck goes in for us,” Zibanejad said. “And obviously Igor gives us a boost making all those saves.”

    NOTES: The Penguins were missing defenseman Jeff Petry after he was hit with an unpenalized elbow from Rangers forward Tyler Motte on Thursday. … Pittsburgh also scratched defenseman Jan Rutta and forward Dalton Heinen and played defenseman Mark Friedman for the first time since Feb. 11. … The Rangers were without injured defenseman Ryan Lindgren for the 10th straight game.


    Penguins: Host the Ottawa Senators on Monday.

    Rangers: Host the Nashville Predators on Sunday night.

    Coyotes sign Shane Doan’s son to entry-level contract

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    TEMPE, Ariz. — Josh Doan is following his father’s footsteps into professional hockey.

    The Arizona Coyotes signed the 21-year-old forward to a three-year entry-level contract, beginning with the 2023-24 NHL season. He will report to the Tucson Roadrunners of the AHL and play his first game against the Calgary Wranglers.

    Doan’s father, Shane, played 21 seasons with the franchise, many of those as captain, and followed it from Winnipeg to the desert in 1996. Shane Doan now serves as Arizona’s chief hockey development officer.

    The Coyotes drafted Josh Doan in the second round of the 2021, but he opted to play for the hometown Arizona State Sun Devils.

    Josh Doan set school records for goals (12) and assists (25) as a freshman last season. He had 16 goals and 22 assists in 39 games with Arizona State this season.

    The 6-foot-1, 183-pounder also played two seasons for the Chicago Steel of the USHL.

    Blackhawks forward Cole Guttman has shoulder surgery

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    CHICAGO — Chicago Blackhawks forward Cole Guttman had surgery on his right shoulder.

    The team said the operation was performed in Los Angeles. Team physician Michael Terry said the 23-year-old Guttman is expected “to be out of hockey activities for approximately four months.”

    Guttman had been a pleasant surprise for rebuilding Chicago. He made his NHL debut last month and finished the season with four goals and two assists in 14 games.

    Guttman was selected by Tampa Bay in the 2017 draft. He agreed to a two-year contract with Chicago in August 2022 that had a $950,000 salary cap hit.