ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Wild get to play a full schedule again, in front of a full house.
The crowds coming back after the pandemic-altered, empty-arena season will this time have a main attraction: Kirill Kaprizov.
“He’s kind of got that ‘it’ factor, and it’s not something that you can just teach or learn,” said Wild general manager Bill Guerin, who finished a five-year, $45 million contract last week for the Russian left wing. “Big personality. Always smiling. Always working hard. He’s brought guys together, and then he goes out on the ice and he performs at such a high level. That’s leadership.”
Kaprizov had 27 goals and 24 assists in 55 games as a rookie last season to win the Calder Memorial Trophy in a landslide. Now he’ll be even more of a marked man by opponents, asked to carry the scoring load with major contributions from Joel Eriksson Ek and Kevin Fiala.
“Very much looking forward to having fans in the building and the excitement that they bring,” Kaprizov said through his translator. “Last year with the half season, it just wasn’t the same.”
After losing in the first round of the playoffs to Vegas, an intense matchup that went the distance but still went down as a sixth straight year for Minnesota without winning a postseason series, the Wild have returned largely the same roster. Frederick Gaudreau is the only new forward, with only a couple of spots open for competition in training camp.
There’s been a big change in vibe, though, after the buyouts of left wing Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter.
“I think we’re in a really good place right now. We’ve got a lot of new faces. Players want to be here,” Guerin said. “They love playing here. It’s a great market.”
The Wild locked up Eriksson Ek for the long term, too, with an eight-year, $42 million deal. The 2015 first-round draft pick started the preseason centering the first line with Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello. Already an ace defender, Eriksson Ek made a significant stride on offense in 2021 and is aiming to replace some of the gritty goals that Parise frequently produced.
“Just trying to bring a little bit of that to my game, and just being around the net and getting those rebounds,” Eriksson Ek said. “I hopefully can get to those areas this year too.”
The departure of Parise and Suter meant that two new alternate captains needed to be appointed. Defenseman Matt Dumba and right wing Marcus Foligno were bestowed the honor by captain and defenseman Jared Spurgeon in a brief ceremony in the locker room after practice on Saturday.
“We want everyone to have a voice. That’s the way we want the culture to be in this room, starting now,” Foligno told the team.
Dumba has begun his ninth NHL season, after being drafted seventh overall by the Wild in 2012. He won the King Clancy Memorial Trophy in 2020, given annually to a player in the league who best exemplifies leadership on and off the ice. Foligno has entered his 11th season in the NHL, his fifth with Minnesota after arriving in a trade with Buffalo.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had such a close-knit crew,” Dumba said. “I think it’s just very exciting to see what we can do this year.”
Ian Cole and Carson Soucy are gone from the blue line, too, leaving Jonas Brodin and Dumba as the only intact pair from last season. Alex Goligoski has joined Spurgeon in a lead duo with a combined 25 years of experience in the league. Free agent additions Jordie Benn, Dimitry Kulikov and Jon Merrill will vie for a spot in the third pair, with prospect Calen Addison also under consideration.
The Wild have returned to the Central Division after the NHL’s temporary realignment to ease COVID-19 complications, putting Chicago, Dallas Nashville and Winnipeg back in heavy rotation on their schedule after not playing them — or any other team outside of their eight-team group — at all last season. Arizona is now a permanent division opponent, having been replaced by expansion team Seattle in the Pacific Division.
The Wild play nine of their first 14 games on the road, including two visits to face the Kraken at Climate Pledge Arena. The home highlight is the Winter Classic against St. Louis at Target Field on Jan. 1, the first time the league’s annual outdoor showcase will be played at night. The Wild also play five of their last six games in Minnesota at Xcel Energy Center.