As the NHL season reaches the halfway point of the 2020-21 season we are taking a closer look each week at teams that are right on the line between being a Stanley Cup contender or a Stanley Cup pretender. Today we examine the suddenly exciting Minnesota Wild.
For most hockey fans the Wild are not a team that typically shows up on your radar.
In two decades of existence they have played beyond the first round of the playoffs just three times, reached a conference final only once (and that was 17 years ago) and never played for the Stanley Cup.
Even so, it is still a franchise that has probably been better than you realize over the past seven or eight years. Between 2013 and 2018 the Wild were one of the more successful regular season teams in the league, averaging around 45 wins and 100 points per season. But they would always find themselves in a situation where they would just so happen to fall into a first-or second-round series with the Blackhawks when they were at their peak. That is a tough matchup, and it always created a ceiling for what they could do. They were good. At times really good. They just were not as good as the best team in the league at that time.
But even when they were winning a lot it was never really a team that demanded your attention. They never played an overly exciting brand of hockey, and their star power has been limited to the early days of Marian Gaborik’s career, and the downside of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
Kirill Kaprizov has changed everything this season
It is rare that one player who is not a No. 1 overall pick can show up and instantly transform the vibe of an entire team.
But that is exactly what Kaprizov has done. He has not only brought top-line production to the lineup, he has brought an excitement and feeling that the Wild have not really had with an individual player since the days of Gaborik.
Keep in mind, this is an organization that has only had 12 30-goal seasons (from only six different players) in 20 years of existence. Gaborik reached that mark five times, Brian Rolston hit it three times, and Jason Pominville, Jason Zucker, Zach Parise and Eric Staal each hit it one time. Excluding expansion Vegas, the only teams that have had fewer 30-goal seasons during that stretch are Arizona, Nashville, Florida, and Edmonton.
They have only had two 40-goal seasons.
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It is just not a team that has ever really had superstar talent that would make you take notice. Kaprizov looks like he has a chance to be that sort of player. When combined with Mats Zuccarello, that line has created magic with the puck. When that duo is on the ice during 5-on-5 play the Wild are averaging 4.47 goals per 60 minutes, compared to just 2.88 when only one of them is on the ice, and only 2.85 when neither is on the ice (per Natural Stat Trick).
Kaprizov is a game-changer. A season-changer. Maybe a franchise-changer.
But there is another important element at play here: Those goal numbers even without Kaprizov and Zuccarello are still excellent. The Wild are the highest scoring 5-on-5 team in the NHL per 60 minutes this season. Some of it is shooting percentage driven, yes. But they do have some balance.
The defensive foundation is still in place
For as good as the Kaprizov-Zuccarello duo is, it is their defensive play and goaltending that is going to give them their best chance to compete.
Even though it did not always show up in their goal prevention numbers a year ago, the Wild had excellent defensive metrics across the board when it came to preventing scoring chances. The issue they ran into was their goaltending was not always up to par. It was not until Alex Stalock stepped in during the second half and solidified things that their season started to turn around.
This year the Wild remain one of the top teams in the league when it comes to shutting down scoring chances and high-danger chances. Via Natural Stat Trick, the Wild are a top-10 team in expected goals, scoring chances, and high-danger chances against. They are excellent in their own end of the ice. When you combine that with strong goaltending from both Kaapo Kahkonen and Cam Talbot, you get one of the best defensive teams in the NHL at both even-strength and while shorthanded.
Entering play on Monday, the Wild are allowing just 2.46 goals per game, the sixth-best mark in the league. Their penalty kill is converting 85.6% of the time. That is fifth best in the NHL.
Are they a contender or a pretender?
At the start of the season the Wild seemed to have the inside track on the fourth playoff spot in the West Division.
On paper, the West was a division that had two very different tiers of teams. At the top you had contenders Colorado, Vegas and St. Louis.
At the bottom you had a declining San Jose team, a flawed Arizona team, a bad Anaheim team, and a rebuilding LA team.
In the middle, you had Minnesota that did not really fit into either group. Assuming they took care business against the lower tier teams and could simply hold their own against the top tier teams, that fourth spot seemed to be belong to them. So far, that is exactly what has happened. The Wild are 13-5-0 against Anaheim, Arizona, Los Angeles, and San Jose. They are 4-3-1 against Colorado and Vegas, while they have yet to play St. Louis.
Maintain that, and they should be a playoff team.
The problem is going to be in the path. For the Wild to make a Cup run they would have to beat two of Colorado, Vegas, and St. Louis in a best-of-seven series just to get to the Stanley Cup Semifinals. That is a daunting task for any team, and they would probably be underdogs in any of those matchups.
Because of that they probably fall on the pretender side of the spectrum, but an exciting one that could potentially cause a lot of problems depending on how well their goaltending holds out.
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.