Jason Zucker

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Do Wild have short-term path back to playoffs?

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Before the 2018-19 season went sideways, the Minnesota Wild had a five-year run where they were a mostly outstanding and consistently underrated hockey team.

They had three 100-point seasons in a four-year stretch and even though they had limited success once they made the playoffs, they were at least always there.

All of that disappeared this past season when the team missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011-12 and finished with one of the worst records in franchise history (the .506 points percentage was fourth-worst in their 18-year existence). A lot of things went wrong and resulted in the shocking decision to fire general manager Paul Fenton after just 14 months on the job.

Unfortunately for the Wild, they are still stuck in a brutally competitive division with Nashville, Colorado, Winnipeg, Dallas, and a (potentially) improved Chicago team ahead of them. On top of that they were seven points back of a playoff spot last year in what was one of the weakest Western Conference playoff races ever, are relying heavily on big-money players in their mid-30s this season, still do not have a general manager to call the shots, and could probably use a rebuild that the owner does not seem to want to fully commit to.

Not exactly a great set of circumstances.

So is there a path back to the playoffs this season? Let’s take a look at three key factors that might help.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factors]

Better Health

While injuries were not a huge factor in the Wild’s regression, they did have a couple of significant ones with the loss of Mikko Koivu (48 games) and defender Mathew Dumba (only 32 games).

Koivu is one of the many mid-30 players on the roster and is not the same player offensively that he was a few years ago, but he’s still an excellent two-way player and key part of their forwards.

Dumba, on the other hand, was the big one. Losing him was a significant blow to the team’s blue line, especially since he was in the middle of a breakout season offensively at the time of his injury. Getting a 23-minute, potential 50-point blue-liner back in the lineup would be significant.

Jason Zucker is still there

Zucker was nearly traded on two separate occasions over the past year and it is probably fortunate for the Wild that both deals fell apart before they could be completed. He is still one of the best all-around players on the team and seems to be a prime bounce-back candidate. He was still a great possession-driver for the Wild last year (they had a 53 percent shot attempt share when he was on the ice) and finished with one of the lowest shooting percentages of his career. The return of a healthy Koivu and Dumba, as well as a bounce-back from Zucker, would help a lot.

Some new faces

Zuccarello is a long-term risk because of his age, but he is still an outstanding playmaker and will upgrade the roster that ended the regular season in Minnesota.

Then you have the young players acquired by former general manager Fenton at the deadline, specifically Ryan Donato and Kevin Fiala. There are a lot of reasons to question the direction Fenton sent the team in at the trade deadline, but now that they trades are done all the Wild can do is hope for the best. While there seems to be little hope the Nino Niederreiter trade can produce positive results for them, Donato and Fiala do at least have the potential to become useful.

There is absolutely something that can be salvaged there.

Donato looked promising after the trade from Boston, while Fiala is just one year removed from a 23-goal, 48-point season, is still only 23 years old, and is coming off of a tough shooting percentage and PDO (on ice shooting percentage plus save percentage) year while also posting strong possession numbers. There is potential for a bounce-back there.

More consistent performance from Devan Dubnyk

This might be the most important potential development.

From the moment he arrived in Minnesota during the 2013-14 season Dubnyk has been one of the best, most productive goalies in the league and finished with two top-five finishes in the Vezina Trophy voting. But the 2018-19 season was far from his best as he struggled with consistency, went through one of the worst slumps of his career, and faced yet another heavy workload.

If he is able to return to his previous Minnesota form that is a season-changer for the Wild.

That is a lot of “ifs,” and even if they all go perfectly it still probably will not be enough to make them a Stanley Cup contender. It could, however, get them back in the playoffs.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Wild need to hope Parise, Staal are capable of another big season

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Minnesota Wild. 

When you look at the top returning scorers for the Minnesota Wild there is a pretty common theme among almost all of them.

Almost all of them are in their mid-30s.

The group of Zach Parise, Eric Staal, Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Jason Zucker, and Mikko Koivu (the top-six returning scorers from last year’s team) will have an average opening night age of 33, while Spurgeon and Zucker are the only ones that will be under 30 (and even Spurgeon will turn 30 in November).

Add new free agent signing Mats Zuccarello (turning 33 this season) into that mix and it is just one more significant, big-money player on the other side of 30.

That is the bulk of their salary cap space and the players they will be relying on most to carry the offense. That could be a problem because eventually every player in the league slows down and has age take a bite out of their production.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Under Pressure | Three Questions]

The big X-factor for the Wild this season will be how much their veterans have remaining in their tanks. Especially when it comes to Parise and Staal.

The 2018-19 season was a huge bounce-back for Parise as he rebounded across the board in almost every major offensive category. He generated more shots, scored more goals, was a better possession driver than he had been in previous seasons and put together what was his best season in three years.

Staal, meanwhile, had his third consecutive strong season with the Wild and continued what has been a career rebirth after looking to be finished as a top-line player at the end of the 2015-16 season. Since joining the Wild he has been one of the top-25 goal-scorers in the entire league and one of the primary drivers of the team’s offense.

But how much longer can they keep going at the rate they produced at last season? It’s an important question because unless a young player or two like a Ryan Donato, Kevin Fiala, Luke Kunin, or Jordan Greenway takes a big step forward the Wild are again going to be relying on players in their mid-30s to be the top offensive players on the team. That is a problem because players in their mid-30s don’t typically produce at a great level.

There were only 16 forwards in the NHL a season age 35 or older. Out of that group only one of them (Justin Williams) scored at least 20 goals, while only two (Williams and Joe Thornton) topped 50 points.

Over the past five seasons there have only been nine forwards (out of 63) age 35 or older that scored at least 20 goals and at least 50 points in the same season.

Staal barely topped those two numbers (22 goals, 52 points) a year ago at age 34, while Parise managed to do so for the first time in three years. There is no guarantee either one of them can do it again.

Any regression or decline from one (or both) could be even more costly because some of the younger, core players that have been top producers in recent years and helped keep the Wild competitive are now playing for different teams (Nino Niederreiter is in Carolina; Mikael Granlund is in Nashville; Charlie Coyle is in Boston).

If the Wild can not get their young players to take a step forward and become top-line players, or if veterans players like Parise, Staal, and Zuccarello do not continue to defy aging curves their offense could be in a lot of trouble this season.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Replacing Fenton, Spurgeon’s future among biggest questions for Wild

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Minnesota Wild. 

Pondering three important questions for the 2019-20 Minnesota Wild.

1. Who will replace Paul Fenton as general manager?

Even though Paul Fenton’s reign of error as Minnesota Wild general manager lasted just one forgettable season it was still long enough to do plenty of damage to the organization.

Among the missteps and blunders during those 14 months…

  • He traded Nino Niederreiter, one of the team’s best players, at what was his lowest possible value for Victor Rask in what might be the NHL’s worst one-for-one trade since Hall for Larsson.
  • He alienated Jason Zucker, one of the team’s other top players and an extremely popular member of the community, by repeatedly trying to trade him (why?!) and allowing the details to leak publicly every time.
  • He never seemed to have a clear long-term direction for the team, trading established veterans with term remaining on their contracts for younger, cheaper players, while simultaneously trying to acquire more veteran, big-money players (trying to trade for Phil Kessel; signing Mats Zuccarello). It was impossible to tell if it was a team trying to rebuild or still trying to compete.

Those were just some of the bigger issues, and now the new general manager has to clean up the mess that was left behind.

But who will that new general manager be?

Will owner Craig Leipold be willing to hire another first-time general manager after the Fenton debacle? If so, Bill Guerin, Tom Fitzgerald, and Bill Zito would seem to be the top names.

Or will he go to the NHL’s recycling bin and bring in a more established GM with experience? If so, Ron Hextall and Dean Lombardi have been mentioned, as has Peter Chiarelli despite his horrendous run with the Edmonton Oilers.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

2. Will any of the new young players take a big step forward?

None of the Wild’s top-eight scorers during the 2018-19 season were under the age of 26 while three of their top-four (Zach Parise, Eric Staal, Ryan Suter) were 34 years old. It is definitely an older team at the top of the lineup, and the addition of a soon-to-be 32-year-old Zuccarello only adds to that.

There are still some intriguing young players on the roster and in the organization and it would be pretty helpful for the Wild if one or two of them emerged as a key player this season.

At the top of that list are Ryan Donato and Kevin Fiala, two of the players acquired by Fenton just prior to the trade deadline this past season.

Donato had a very promising start with the Wild after arriving in the Charlie Coyle trade (the one in-season Fenton trade that had an immediate positive return) and it wasn’t really the result of percentage-driven luck. He was legitimately good and hasn’t looked out of place in his brief NHL career.

Fiala, acquired in the Mikael Granlund trade, is still only 23 years old and has shown 20-goal, 50-point ability in the NHL but regressed a bit last season, especially after the trade. His ability to bounce back from that would be a significant development for the Wild.

3. Will they get Jared Spurgeon re-signed?

Spurgeon may not be one of the biggest names among NHL defenders, but that’s not his fault. He is an outstanding top-pairing defender and should be the team’s biggest priority when it comes to their next long-term contract.

The 29-year-old defender is coming off of a career year offensively (14 goals, 43 points) and has been a rock on the team’s blue line since becoming a regular more than eight years ago. He plays big minutes against other team’s top players, stays out of the penalty box, and is consistently on the positive side of the shot, scoring chances, and goal differentials. If he hits the open market after this season he could be one of the top players available in 2020 free agent class.

He is the Wild’s best all-around defender and keeping him should be a must.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Boudreau needs to get Wild turned around quickly

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Minnesota Wild. 

Most head coaches in the NHL don’t get to stay on the job longer than two of the organization’s general managers, but Bruce Boudreau clearly isn’t “most head coaches”. Boudreau, who was hired by former GM Chuck Fletcher in May of 2016, got to stay on staff when Paul Fenton took over in the front office last summer.

Now, Fenton’s gone and the Wild are still looking for their next general manager. We know that GMs will typically bring in their own head coach, but it would be mildly surprising to see the next person replace Boudreau with someone else so deep into the offseason. That doesn’t mean that the next GM will hesitate to fire the veteran coach if the team gets off to a bad start in 2019-20.

Based on what we saw from Minnesota last season, it’ll be difficult for them to get themselves on track quickly. The Wild finished outside of the playoffs for the first time since the 2011-12 season and they were also last in the Western Conference’s Central Division.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Three Questions | X-Factor]

The other thing that won’t play into Boudreau’s favor, is his lack of playoff success since taking over in Minnesota. Since he took over behind the bench, the Wild have not made it beyond the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (they were eliminated by the Blues and the Jets in five games). Combine that with the Wild’s recent difficult campaign and their search for a new general manager, and you can easily understand why Boudreau is very much on the hot seat.

So what has to happen for them to become one of the eight best teams in the West?

“Our lack of scoring was probably the biggest difference I think, from the two previous teams we’d had,” Boudreau told NHL.com last week. “It wasn’t any one thing. You can take Jason Zucker and say he had an off year production wise, but he had as many chances as he’s had in the previous years, he just hit 13 more posts than he did the year before. Things just weren’t going in and that happens.

“A lot of people are counting us out, and that’s great. I’m really happy they are counting us out because I think we’re going to come more mad and with a chip on our shoulders. We’ve got a lot to prove to a lot of people and I think we’re going to do it.”

Technically, he has a point. The Wild ranked 11th in the NHL in CF% and third in high danger CF% behind the Vegas Golden Knights, who made the playoffs, and the St. Louis Blues, who won the Stanley Cup. Unfortunately for them, their high danger GF% was 46.39 percent, which was 24th best last season. So they clearly didn’t convert on their high number of high danger chances.

When their backs are against the wall, a lot of coaches prefer to rely on veteran players and that’s exactly what Boudreau will be able to do during the pressure-packed time. Whether you think it’s good news or not, Minnesota has a long list of veteran players that they’ll have to rely on this season.

Mats Zuccarello, who was their big free-agent acquisition this summer, will be 32 next month. They also have Zach Parise, Eric Staal, Ryan Suter, Mikko Koivu, and Devan Dubnyk, who are all at least 33 years old right now. Whether or not that helps them remains to be seen, but this is an older group with some injury concerns. How will Koivu look once he returns from a knee injury? Can Parise stay healthy? Are the Wild good enough? Can Boudreau survive a slow start?

Those questions are all legitimate (the PHT team will tackle them throughout the day).

We don’t know how things will shake out in Minnesota this year, but they’re definitely a team to keep an eye on right now.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Will Wild learn from the failed Fenton era?

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The Minnesota Wild made a bold, rare move on Tuesday, firing GM Paul Fenton barely one year after hiring him.

Much like Fenton’s quote about Mats Zuccarello and a lizard’s tongue, I must ask: was Fenton really that bad?

After all, Fenton was trying to dance to the beat of owner Craig Leipold’s drum: any swipes at rebuild couldn’t come at too much of a cost to playoff contention. It was a no-win situation, and Fenton lost. Let’s examine some of his biggest moves and strategies while the Wild determine what happens next.

Nino Niederreiter to Carolina for Victor Rask: There’s no sense sugarcoating this trade. It was bad the day it happened, and is the main reason Fenton was fired, beyond the weird quotes.

Wild get Ryan Donato and Kevin Fiala for Charlie Coyle and Mikael GranlundFenton’s other current-day player-for-player trades could end up being very nice for the Wild’s future.

The Wild got four years (27 to 23) younger in both cases, and probably saved money, as Coyle and Granlund are due big UFA deals after 2019-20, while Donato’s already dirt-cheap, and Fiala could follow as an RFA. The Athletic’s Ian Tulloch places both Fiala and Donato as top 10 breakout candidates for next season (sub required), and Donato earned an honorable mention on this list by PHT’s Adam Gretz, so these are players who may make big leaps soon.

Maybe the Wild still “lose” those deals overall, but it’s not as though Fenton never managed this juggling act.

Yet …

No celebration of the lizard: Signing Mats Zuccarello to a risky, long-term contract was alarming, but it was far from an unusual deal during the reckless free agent spending spree.

No, people were mainly losing their cool about the quote … and you know, it remains pretty weird.

” … I told him when I was talking to him that he’s like a lizard, the way a lizard takes his tongue and sticks it as far as it does and retrieves what it was trying to do,” Fenton said.

Two drafts: Part of Fenton’s allure was in his work with the Predators, but his two draft weekends with Minnesota received mixed reviews. One first-rounder was labeled a reach (Filip Johansson, 24th overall in 2018) while Matthew Boldly could be a bold steal at 12th overall from 2019.

Analytics exodus:  As Michael Russo reported in The Athletic in May (sub. required), the Wild parted ways with two prominent analytics-minded staffers in Andrew C. Thomas and Alexandra Mandrycky, with the latter quickly being scooped up by the Seattle expansion franchise.

Staffers like those can often pay for themselves by discouraging GMs from signing Zuccarello-type contracts and making Niederreiter-type trades, so the next GM might be wise to emphasize analytics where Fenton seemingly shrugged his shoulders.

Not too bogged down: The Wild actually have a ton of money coming off of the books in the near future. According to Cap Friendly, they only have $60M going to 16 players for 2020-21, and that number plummets to a bit less than $37.4M for seven roster spots covered heading into 2021-22.

As I’ve stated before, it’s my belief that the Wild could emulate the New York Rangers in going through a brief rebuild, but a rebuild that’s full-fledgedrather than this current “half measures” approach.

Beyond the Zuccarello contract, the biggest cap issues were installed by Chuck Fletcher, not Fenton, and Donato – Fiala could help Minnesota in a number of ways. Sure, Fenton was sometimes saved from himself (see: Jason Zucker), but it could have been worse.

***

After giving its previous two GMs close to a decade apiece, the Wild fired Fenton after 14 months. It’s still dizzying to contemplate.

However, if this is a sign that the Wild may admit that they’ve been on the wrong course, then maybe they’ll actually reach the light at the end of the tunnel. If not, then the next GM may only last a bit longer than Fenton, who will go down, tragically, as the GM equivalent to a fly trying to avoid a lizard’s tongue.

MORE:
Five potential GM replacements for Wild
• Why the Wild are better off being terrible this season
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

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.