Minnesota Wild: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview

Minnesota Wild: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview
Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images

The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Minnesota Wild.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 35-16-5 (75 points); third place in West Division
• Postseason: Lost to Golden Knights in Game 7 of First Round.
• Offensive leader: Kirill Kaprizov (55 games, 27 goals, 24 assists).

• Free Agent AdditionsFrederick Gaudreau, Alex Goligoski, Jon Merrill, Dmitry Kulikov, Jordie Benn
• Free Agent Subtractions: Zach Parise (buyout, Islanders), Ryan Suter (buyout, Stars), Carson Soucy (Kraken expansion draft), Nick Bonino (Sharks), Brad Hunt (Canucks), Ian Cole (Hurricanes).

Biggest question for Wild

• Was last season a sign of a team on the rise, or a mirage?

Aside from the most devoted fanatics, most people weren’t expecting much from the Wild last season. A team in transition enjoyed a surprisingly strong season, even if it ended in Game 7 heartache against the mighty Golden Knights.

Truly, Kaprizov’s thrilling season, and the Wild’s general competence, made it easier to accept the team’s reluctance to truly tank.

That said, sometimes a team wins a few bets, then assumes luck will keep going that way. Is it possible that the Wild might renew their cycle of being good-but-not-quite-good-enough?

[PHT’s offseason trade tracker]

Glance up and down the Wild’s 2021-22 roster, and you can talk yourself into a number of outcomes.

Even the “fancy stats” can leave you scratching your head. The Wild were weak-to-bleak when it came to volume stats like scoring chance percentage, and Corsi For. The Wild checked the “quality-over-quantity” boxes, though, including being a top-five team in high-danger chances for (55.41-percent).

Realistically, it’s tough to picture the Wild easily topping all NHL teams at even-strength shooting percentage (11.5) again in 2021-22. Their forward group has promise … but doesn’t really scream that level of shooting skill.

To some, the signs still pointed to investing more in the future, rather than focusing on the present. Instead, the Wild seem like they’re aiming to do both. They want to bring along young players, but don’t seem committed to goosing their 2022 NHL Draft Lottery odds.

If the Wild’s 2021-22 season looks a lot like the last one, they’ll look reasonably smart walking that tightrope. That’s easier said than done, however.

What’s the salary cap situation?

In one of the most stunning decisions of an NHL offseason filled with swerves, the Wild bought out both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. In an ideal world, those buyouts would put those fraught contracts in the past.

In the reality of the NHL’s salary cap, the relief is limited.

According to Cap Friendly, the Parise – Suter buyouts will look like this on the Wild’s salary cap:

2021-22: $4,743,588 million ($10.3M savings)
2022-23: $12,743,588 million ($2.3M savings)
2023-24: $14,743,588 million ($0.3M savings)
2024-25: $14,743,588 million ($0.3M savings)
2025-26: $1,666,666 million (-$1,666,666 savings)
2026-27: $1,666,666 million (-$1,666,666 savings)
2027-28: $1,666,666 million (-$1,666,666 savings)
2028-29: $1,666,666 million (-$1,666,666 savings)

[PHT’s 2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]

Did the Wild open up that 2021-22 cap space mainly to sign Kirill Kaprizov? Was the goal to sign Kaprizov, but also do something bold, like trade for Jack Eichel?

Even after the Wild finally signed Kaprizov on Tuesday, the answers aren’t 100% clear. It’s possible that a move or two fell through. Or maybe the Wild are trying to compete while cutting certain costs?

Overall, it’s still a pretty messy salary cap situation. Cap Friendly estimates that the Wild have about $52.5 million devoted to 12 roster spots for 2022-23. For every bit of relief the Wild can anticipate (one more year of Victor Rask at $4 million), there’s a cost that could go up (Kevin Fiala‘s value can skyrocket after 2021-22). Goaltending figures to get more expensive. They’ll also need to make tough decisions with the likes of Fiala and Matt Dumba.

Is Bill Guerin skilled enough as a GM to make this all work? It certainly doesn’t look easy, at least during the most expensive years of the Suter/Parise buyouts (2022-23 through 2024-25).

Breakout Candidate

Marco Rossi/Matt Boldy

If the Wild make their way out of these messes, expect Boldy and Rossi to be a big part of that climb. Before Kaprizov finally arrived, the Wild shrewdly drafting those two forwards inspired a bump in optimism.

Considering the scary-sounding challenges Rossi endured with COVID, the Wild would be wise not to force things with him in 2021-22. As exciting as he is as a prospect, there could be additional growing pains.

Whether the leaps happen sooner or later, both Rossi and Boldy give the Wild quite a bit to be excited about. The team’s lost enough pieces to open the door for fresh faces to make an impact. If Rossi and/or Boldy can make a difference for the Wild as early as 2021-22, that’d be crucial.

Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Wild

Kaprizov shows that his rookie season was really just the tip of the iceberg. Joel Eriksson Ek continues to rise much like Sean Couturier did with the Flyers. This team mixes stingy defense, competent goaltending, and sneaky-dangerous offense to rank as the second-best team in the Central Division. From there, they make the sort of playoff run we haven’t seen since the days of Marian Gaborik breakaways.

Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Wild

Losing Parise, but especially Suter and Soucy, really throws off the Wild’s balance. As hot as the Wild were during the month of April last season, their underlying numbers fell dramatically. What if this team falters in a big way, and lands once again in purgatory? If the Wild missed the playoffs, but also settled for a middling 2022 NHL Draft pick, last season’s heightened optimism would go ice cold. It would be especially bad if $9M ended up looking too rich for Kaprizov, as well.

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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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