Joel Eriksson Ek

Getty Images

Wild add Zuccarello, Hartman, as GM seeks more ‘hardness’

2 Comments

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Wild zeroed in on Mats Zuccarello as free agency approached, desiring his competitive drive and playmaking skills for a top-six forward group in need of a new look.

With a five-year, $30 million contract the right wing agreed to Monday when the market opened, Zuccarello has given the Wild another thirtysomething core player on a major deal. Even following their first postseason absence in seven years, though, general manager Paul Fenton was noticeably upbeat about the makeup of his roster.

”You’ve got to have a team that you’re going to field and let these young guys grow with it, so to me it’s just an insulation,” Fenton said, adding: ”He doesn’t have a ton of miles on him if you really look at it. He’s been a healthy player.”

For the fourth line, the Wild also agreed on a two-year, $3.8 million contract with right wing Ryan Hartman, who was not tendered a qualifying offer by Dallas last week. That’ll probably be the extent of the summer maneuvering, Fenton said, with the post-injury recoveries of center Mikko Koivu (knee) and defenseman Matt Dumba (shoulder) now the most important developments leading into training camp.

Zuccarello has 355 points in 511 regular season games, including a combined 12 goals and 28 assists in 48 games for the New York Rangers and the Stars in 2018-19. The 31-year-old has 42 points in 73 career playoff games. The 5-foot-8, 184-pound native of Oslo who is one of only eight players in NHL history born in Norway , according to online database Hockey Reference, played his first eight-plus seasons with the Rangers.

In his first appearance with the Stars, Zuccarello registered a goal, an assist, and a broken right arm suffered while blocking a shot . He needed surgery and missed 17 games. Returning in April, Zuccarello had four goals and seven assists in 13 postseason contests for the Stars, who took eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis to seven games in the Western Conference semifinals.

”The way that this guy competes is going to be contagious for our team,” Fenton said, adding: ”I would like our team to play with a little more hardness and passion and excitement, and I think he’ll not only do it himself, but he’ll bring people along with him.”

With left wing Zach Parise, defenseman Ryan Suter, Zuccarello and Koivu, four of the Wild’s top six salary cap charges this season will be carried by players 31 and older, but Zuccarello categorized himself as an ”in-between” guy on a team grooming an under-23 core of forwards Jordan Greenway, Luke Kunin and Joel Eriksson Ek.

Zuccarello, a self-described ”hockey nerd,” was eager to immerse himself in a hockey-savvy market with a conveniently significant amount of residents with Norwegian heritage. He could also form a uniquely alliterative first line flank with Jason Zucker around veteran center Eric Staal.

The Wild scored just 210 goals last season, the fifth-fewest in the league.

”It’s a really good mixture of players, and I think hopefully with the pieces we got this summer we can be a contender,” Zuccarello said.

What’s in store for Wild after disappointing season?

6 Comments

The Minnesota Wild need a miracle.

Without one over the next five days, their season is going to come to a bitterly disappointing end that not only snaps the team’s six-year run of consecutive postseason appearances, but also spoils the guarantee from coach Bruce Boudreau that the team would, in fact, make the playoffs.

What has to make this season so disappointing for Minnesota is where the team was coming from the previous two years, and just how wide open the playoff race in the Western Conference turned out to be.

You may not have looked at the Wild as one league’s top teams before this season, but keep in mind only three teams in the NHL recorded more points than Minnesota’s 207 during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, while they topped the 100-point mark in three of the past four individual seasons. It may have never resulted in a meaningful playoff run, but the Wild were always good enough to matter, even if they weren’t quite good enough to actually do anything that would make them stand out come playoff time.

Add in the fact that the second wild card team in the West is likely to finish with one of the lowest point totals any playoff team has had in the salary cap era and it is kind of stunning that this team is almost certainly going to fall short, even when you take into account the injuries that have sidelined Mathew Dumba and Mikko Koivu for most of the season.

They should still be better than this.

That is almost certainly going to lead to more changes for an organization that has already undergone significant change over the past year.

The first big question is probably going to be the fate of Boudreau, and given the circumstances it is worth wondering if he is coaching his final games in Minnesota this week.

Anytime you have a team that will (again, barring a miracle) be now going four consecutive years without a postseason series win, and is likely to miss the playoffs by regressing by nearly 20 points in the standings, the job security of that coach, no matter their credentials in the league, is going to be in question. That is especially true when the team in question has a new general manager (Paul Fenton) that is almost certainly going to be looking for an excuse to bring in their own coach.

Realistically speaking, it is going to be awfully difficult for the Wild to find a better coach than the one they have now (unless they can convince Joel Quenneville to take their job, if it becomes available) so there is definitely going to be a risk there if that is the direction they go. And that is a concern.

But no matter who the coach is the future of the franchise is going to come down to the players Fenton and his staff are able to assemble.

And that is where the real red flag should be for Wild fans.

In his first full season as general manager Fenton dramatically overhauled the core of the team by trading Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, and Mikael Granlund in an effort to get younger. That also seems to have been the only primary objective because there is not much to suggest the team got better as a result of that sequence of trades.

The early returns, especially in the case of Niederreiter (traded straight up to Carolina for Victor Rask), are looking … poor.

It is not necessarily the results of the trades that is most concerning right now, but the process behind them.

In all three trades the Wild were trading core players, all of whom still had term remaining on their contracts beyond this season (meaning the Wild shouldn’t have felt pressure to trade them when they did), at what was arguably their lowest possible values.

If you are going to trade such significant players you need to make sure you are maximizing the return of that asset as best you can, and there is plenty of objective evidence to argue that the Wild did no such thing.

You don’t need to dig very far to see just how concerning the thought process was in these moves.

At the time of their trades, all of Niederreiter, Coyle and Granlund were stuck in down years that could probably best be described as unlucky.

Niederreiter, a proven 25-goal scorer that plays a heck of a two-way game and can drive possession, was getting just 14 minutes of ice-time and had what was the second-lowest PDO of his career (PDO simply being the sum of a player’s on-ice shooting percentage and save-percentage during 5-on-5 play). Everything about his season and his career should have indicated that he was due to bounce back at some point, whether it was this season or next season. The bounce back began almost as soon as he arrived in Carolina where he has been one of the Hurricanes’ best and most productive players. He looks like the player he has always been, and one that the Wild could absolutely use both this season and in future seasons.

In return for that, the Wild received Victor Rask  who is roughly the same age as Niederreiter, with a lesser resume in the NHL, and a career that seems to be trending in the wrong direction.

It was the same situation for Granlund, a forward that scored at a 70-point pace over the previous two seasons and was one of the few difference-makers the team had at forward.

And while the return for Granlund (Kevin Fiala, a long-time favorite of Fenton going back to his days as Nashville’s assistant general manager) looks better than the return for Niederreiter, it’s still worth wondering how much better it makes the team in the long-run.

The only trade that is looking overly promising at the moment and could be a decent upgrade is the Coyle for Ryan Donato swap.

Given that almost all of the Wild’s roster is still under team control for the foreseeable future (Koivu, Eric Fehr, Brad Hunt, Anthony Bitetto, J.T. Brown, and Jared Spurgeon are the only players eligible for unrestricted free agency over the next two years) it is almost a given that any other significant overhaul of the roster is going to have to come through trades, and the early look into his process there is, again, concerning.

If the Wild are going to turn things around in the short-term they are going to need to see significant steps from young players like Luke Kunin, Jordan Greenway, and Joel Eriksson Ek, while also hoping that Fenton and his staff gambled correctly on the likes of Fiala and Donato and don’t continue to sell core players at their lowest value.

Without any of that that it’s hard to see better days being on the horizon for the Wild.

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.

Quinn Hughes made quite the debut for Canucks

Getty Images
1 Comment

When Quinn Hughes joined Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser on the ice during 3-on-3 overtime for Vancouver on Thursday, you couldn’t really blame Canucks fans for thinking “The future is now.”

(Granted, they might have thought that in a less-cliched, but maybe more profanity-laced way. Depending upon the specific Canucks fan, of course.)

Hughes made his NHL debut during Vancouver’s 3-2 shootout win against the Los Angeles Kings, and showed why fans were chanting “We want Hughes!” before his first shift. The 19-year-old didn’t disappoint, either, showing why people think he was a steal as the seventh overall pick of the 2018 NHL Draft.

Hughes grabbing an assist in the game wasn’t promising merely because he already produced offense. Instead, it really encapsulated a lot of the reasons people think he’s going to be a big deal. During the play, he absolutely bamboozled Trevor Lewis with his excellent skating and anticipation, banking the puck to himself, and then letting go a shot that created a juicy rebound. Brock Boeser then fired it home, so this was very much a primary assist by Hughes:

And that 3-on-3 OT sequence seemed like a portal into a future — a future where Pettersson, Boeser, and Hughes give opponents fits.

Hughes’ skating and scoring ability seem like they’ll translate incredibly well to the modern NHL game, and that showed on Thursday.

It’s also a reminder that, while this ranks as another painful season for the Canucks, it’s tough to dismiss the feeling of hope in Vancouver. For all GM Jim Benning has done wrong – and the list isn’t necessarily small – it sure seems like he’s hit it out of the park multiple times with draft picks, at least in the first round.

And while the Canucks dynamic duo/tremendous trio weren’t exactly lingering in the late rounds of drafts, these weren’t necessarily layup picks like, say, selecting Sidney Crosby first and Evgeni Malkin after Alex Ovechkin.

  • Boeser, 22, went 23rd overall in 2015. The Canucks’ hated foes the Bruins had three opportunities to pick Boeser. Also, Boeser was selected after the likes of Pavel Zacha, Evgeny Svechnikov, and Joel Eriksson Ek. (Sorry, fans of the several teams who whiffed especially badly there.)
  • It feels strange to call the fifth pick of the 2017 NHL Draft a “steal,” especially this early … but Pettersson already looks like a star at 20. If there was a re-draft, Pettersson would go ahead of Nico Hischier, Nolan Patrick, Miro Heiskanen, and Cale Makar … right? He certainly would last as long as fifth.
  • Hughes, 19, went seventh. The opening picks of that draft have made remarkable impacts already, from obvious guys like Rasmus Dahlin and Andrei Svechnikov, to players who maybe had to scrape for their positions in Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Brady Tkachuk. Hughes might not be a “steal” like the other two, but the Canucks would still prosper if he merely ends up being a really useful player.

It’s tantalizing, then, to wonder how much the Canucks may skip in line if they hit another homer in the first round, this time in the upcoming 2019 NHL Draft.

From a fun headlines standpoint, you wouldn’t be able to top the Canucks getting projected top pick Jack Hughes to join his brother Quinn. That’s possible, although unlikely — via the Push for the Playoffs, you can see that Vancouver’s draft lottery odds currently stand at just six percent.

In the likely event that Vancouver doesn’t win the draft lottery, the Canucks have shown that they can make the most of a first-rounder, even when it’s not at the absolute top of a draft. (At least lately, as the jury’s still out on players like Olli Juolevi, who went fifth in 2016.)

Honestly, even if the results are more modest this time around, the future seems brighter every time a new gem is added to the mix, and Hughes looks like he might continue that trend. This trio should also make the Canucks a lot more fun to watch in the present while they build toward that future.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Wild visit Predators on NBCSN

Getty Images

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Tuesday night’s matchup between the Minnesota Wild and Nashville Predators. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This is the second half of a home-and-home series after the Predators defeated the Wild 3-2 in a shootout on Sunday in Minnesota. This is the third of four regular season meetings this season after Nashville won the first two. They will meet a final time on March 25 in Minnesota.

It was a momentous win for the Predators, who had lost three of their previous four games in regulation, all of them to Central Division opponents. The Predators are just one point behind the Jets for first in the Central, but Winnipeg has three games in hand.

After the loss on Sunday, Minnesota still has a six-game point streak (5-0-1) and occupies the second Wild Card spot in the West. Still, they do not have much breathing room with Arizona (two points back) and Colorado (three points back) nipping at their heels.

The Wild are tied with the Ducks for the second longest active playoff streak in the league. Right now, it is highly unlikely Anaheim makes the postseason and Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes, the only team ahead of them, are still in doubt in the East.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Minnesota Wild at Nashville Predators
Where: Bridgestone Arena
When: Tuesday, March 5, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Wild-Predators stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

PREDATORS
Filip ForsbergRyan JohansenViktor Arvidsson
Mikael GranlundKyle TurrisCraig Smith
Rocco GrimaldiNick BoninoWayne Simmonds
Frederick Gaudreau / Brian BoyleColton SissonsCalle Jarnkrok

Roman JosiRyan Ellis
Mattias EkholmP.K. Subban
Matt Donovan – Matt Irwin

Starting goalie: Pekka Rinne

WILD
Jordan GreenwayEric StaalJason Zucker
Zach PariseLuke KuninKevin Fiala
Ryan Donato – Joel Eriksson EkPontus Aberg
Marcus FolignoEric Fehr – J.T. Brown

Ryan SuterJared Spurgeon
Jonas BrodinBrad Hunt
Nick SeelerAnthony Bitetto

Starting goalie: Devan Dubnyk

2017 NTT IndyCar Series champion and Nashville Predators fan Josef Newgarden will be an ‘Inside-the-Glass’ guest tonight during the first period of Wild-Predators. He will join Pierre McGuire and John Walton (play-by-play), who will have the call from Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Keith Jones and Jeremy Roenick.

* * *

NBC Sports will take fans inside the sounds and passion of hockey with a one-hour special – “Wired: Stadium Series – Penguins vs. Flyers” – that will utilize audio from players, coaches and referees from the 2019 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers on NBC. It airs March 5 at 11 p.m. ET on NBCSN here.

WATCH LIVE: Predators visit Wild on NBCSN

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Nashville Predators and Minnesota Wild. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Nashville has lost two straight in regulation after dropping a 5-3 affair at Winnipeg on Friday. The Preds come in having lost three of their last four (1-3-0) but very much look headed towards their fifth straight playoff appearance. They are currently one point back of the Jets for first in the Central Division as Nashville could win consecutive division titles for the first time in franchise history – a year after winning its first division crown and the club’s first Presidents’ Trophy.

The Preds rank fifth in the league in goals against/game (2.64) and have the second-most points by defenseman (172) this season, behind San Jose. Roman Josi leads this charge with 51 points (second on team), followed by Matthias Ekholm (42 – third on team).

The Wild will return home to play the Preds and then head back out for a three-game road trip (Nashville, Tampa, Florida). Minnesota beat the Blues in its most recent home game snapping a six-game home losing streak. The Wild have not won two straight home games since Dec. 11 and 13.

It’s been the youngsters coming through for the Wild recently. Newly acquired Ryan Donato (age 22) scored a goal last night against Calgary. Donato has recorded a point in each of his first five games with the Wild (2G-5A). Only one player in franchise history has posted a longer such streak: Pavol Demitra (six GP in 2006-07). Donato had just nine points (6G-3A) in 34 games with Boston this season.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Nashville Predators at Minnesota Wild
Where: Xcel Energy Center
When: Sunday, March 3, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Predators-Wild stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

PREDATORS
Filip ForsbergRyan JohansenViktor Arvidsson
Mikael GranlundKyle TurrisCalle Jarnkrok
Brian BoyleNick BoninoColton Sissons
Rocco GrimaldiFrederick GaudreauWayne Simmonds

Roman Josi – Ryan Ellis
Mattias EkholmP.K. Subban
Matt IrwinYannick Weber

Starting goalie: Pekka Rinne

WILD
Jason ZuckerEric StaalJordan Greenway
Kevin FialaLuke KuninZach Parise
Ryan Donato – Joel Eriksson EkPontus Aberg
Marcus FolignoEric Fehr – J.T. Brown

Ryan SuterJared Spurgeon
Jonas BrodinNick Seeler
Anthony BitettoBrad Hunt

Starting goalie: Alex Stalock

John Forslund (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. Pre-game coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones.