Jonas Brodin

Getty Images

Boudreau, Wild aim to disprove belief they are on decline

1 Comment

ST. PAUL, Minn. — After their six-year streak of making the playoffs came to an end, the Minnesota Wild went through an eventful summer in which the major change was made in the front office, not to the roster.

The Wild were the fifth-lowest scoring team in the league last season. Among their top seven point producers from 2018-19, four will be at least 35 years old by midseason.

There’s no surprise, then, that the external expectations for success are scant.

”That’s good. Let them pick us to be at the bottom,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. ”But we believe in ourselves, and we’re counting on surprising people.”

With stalwarts Zach Parise and Ryan Suter coming off strong post-injury performances in 2018-19, there is precedent for Mikko Koivu (knee) and Matt Dumba (shoulder) to do the same a year later after their absences last season contributed significantly to the decline. Just as helpful toward improvement might be an extra edge the Wild have brought to the ice this fall.

”Every team that didn’t win is going to say it has a chip on its shoulder,” Boudreau said, ”but all I know is when they predict you to be 32nd in a 31-team league, it might piss you off a little bit.”

The first jolt came at the end of July when owner Craig Leipold fired general manager Paul Fenton after less than 15 months on the job. Bill Guerin was hired to take over and restore some trust from the players.

”We’ve got guys who have won in this league for a long time,” Guerin said, ”and I’m confident this group is going to bounce back.”

WHO’S HERE

The last moves Fenton made before he was fired were signing free agents Mats Zuccarello (five years, $30 million) for more offense from the top-six forwards and Ryan Hartman (two years, $3.8 million) for more toughness on the fourth line. The length of Zuccarello’s contract raised eyebrows, considering the Wild now have five players 32 or older among their eight highest salary cap charges. His experience, however, can’t hurt a team that could have as many as five players 23 or younger (centers Luke Kunin and Joel Eriksson Ek and wings Kevin Fiala, Ryan Donato and Jordan Greenway) among the top three lines.

WHO’S NOT

After Fenton traded mainstays Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund last winter before the deadline, there wasn’t much left to change on the roster in the summer. Right wings Eric Fehr and Pontus Aberg and defensemen Nate Prosser and Anthony Bitetto, all bit players, were free agents who went elsewhere.

KEY PLAYERS

To keep up in the West, the Wild will need some of those under-24 players to break out. Fiala is under the most scrutiny, an underachieving 11th overall pick from the 2014 draft who came from Nashville in the deal for Granlund. Having a healthy Dumba, one of the NHL’s most productive defensemen, and Koivu, one of the best defensive forwards in the league, will go a long way toward helping the Wild play at their potential. Dumba had 12 goals in 32 games last season.

”If I can contribute 30 toward this team, I think we’re going to be pretty well off,” Dumba said.

OUTLOOK

After leading the league in percentage of goals by defensemen last season (20.9) and finishing tied for fifth in percentage of points by defensemen (26.3), the Wild have Dumba back to skate with Suter on the first pair. Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin are next, giving them one of the deepest blue line groups in the game.

While Devan Dubnyk has been one of the most durable goalies in the NHL, he has been more vulnerable lately. Last season, Dubnyk finished 14th in goals-against average among netminders with 27 or more games and tied for 21st in save percentage. Following their lowest goal total in five years, the Wild need a strong offensive start to the season to support Dubnyk during a daunting early schedule.

Starting Oct. 3 at Nashville, the Wild play six of their first seven games on the road. Including the home opener on Oct. 12 against Pittsburgh, they face three teams that hit the 100-point mark last season.

PREDICTION

The Wild tumbled down the stretch, going 4-9-1 over their final 14 games to finish 37-36-9. They landed in last place for the first time in 13 years, when they were in a five-team division under the NHL’s prior alignment. Even if Zuccarello can provide a scoring boost, Dumba re-establishes his pre-injury productivity and the presence of Guerin brings some badly needed positive vibes, the Wild face a steep climb back to the playoffs.

The Central Division is stacked, with defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis, Nashville, Winnipeg, Dallas and Colorado all having qualified for the postseason last spring. Boudreau has the second-best record among active head coaches, behind only Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper, but a best-case scenario would be getting one of the two Western Conference wild card spots. Missing the playoffs is more likely than not, with Guerin bound to take a patient approach to building a contender.

Why Wild are better off being terrible next season

Getty Images
8 Comments

When you ponder what separates the good, the bad, and the ugly in the NHL, don’t forget the importance of self-awareness.

For all of Minnesota Wild GM Paul Fenton’s lizard tongued blunders through his first year at the helm, the Wild’s biggest problem is that owner Craig Leipold is in denial about his team.

It’s been about a year since Leipold shared this message, yet all signs point to the Wild refusing to embrace a true rebuild. In ignoring their reality, the Wild only dig the hole deeper by making more mistakes, and dragging their feet on finding better answers.

Instead of getting the best of both worlds of competing and “rebuilding on the fly,” the Wild are stuck in purgatory: too bad to credibly contend, too competitive to get the picks that help teams win championships. Leipold’s paid for a contender while the Wild have slipped to the level of outright pretenders.

In catering to Leipold, both Chuck Fletcher and current GM Paul Fenton created quite a mess. The Wild’s Cap Friendly page might as well include a horror movie scream mp3 every time you load it up.

Allow this take, then: the Wild would be better off bottoming out in 2019-20, rather than battling for mediocrity.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Changing perceptions?

Most directly, an epic Wild collapse would help them get higher draft lottery odds.

The indirect benefits are considerable, if not guaranteed. Most importantly, Leipold may finally realize that the current plan isn’t working. Failing to even be “in the mix” may also inspire the Wild to trade away certain players, and for those players to make the process easier by waiving various clauses.

  • To start, there are players who are more or less in their primes, but may slip out by the time the Wild can truly compete. Jared Spurgeon is the biggest example with his expiring contract, but it continues to make sense to shop Jason Zucker, and Jonas Brodin heads the list of other considerations.
  • If the Wild end up cellar dwelling, it might be easier to convince Mikko Koivu and Devan Dubnyk to accept trades, and perhaps even to part ways with Eric Staal. (Trading Staal would be awkward since he gave the Wild a sweetheart deal, but sometimes things have to get awkward before they get better.)
  • Via Cap Friendly, the Wild’s commitments for 2020-21 go down to $59.46M, and really open up in 2021-22 (just $37.36M to seven players). So, if the Wild are too stubborn or cowardly to trade some of the above players, Fenton could get something close to a clean slate if they merely let them walk or retire. This thought makes a Spurgeon decision especially important.

On Parise and Suter …

Speaking of money regrets, the Wild should try to get Parise and Suter off the books, even if it’s tough to imagine them actually pulling that off.

  • Honestly, if Parise went on LTIR, I’d view it as far more credible than plenty of other cases. He’s had significant back issues, and those don’t tend to go away, particularly for 34-year-olds with a lot of mileage.
  • Suter seems impossible to trade, but we’ve seen other seemingly impossible trades actually happen.
  • Maybe there’d be a hockey deus ex machina, like expansion draft creativity, or a compliance buyout?

Not the best odds, yet Fenton would be negligent if he didn’t explore many avenues to ease concerns.

Hope can come quickly

A long rebuild would be a tough sell, but maybe Fenton could sell a Rangers revamp to Leipold: going all-in for a short period of time to bring in picks, prospects, and generally gain flexibility.

[More on the Rangers’ rebuild]

While I doubt that many teams can recreate the Rangers’ mix of wisdom and luck, the bottom line is that the Wild have gone a long time since they focused on getting blue chip prospects. Look at the Wild’s draft history and you’ll see how rare high first-rounders have been lately, and how often they’ve lacked higher picks altogether.

To sweeten the deal, the 2020 NHL Draft crop is getting quite a bit of hype, too.

Imagine the Wild landing a lottery pick, some picks and prospects through trades, and Kirill Kaprizov’s long-awaited NHL leap. If they hoarded cap space, they could strike for their own answer to Jacob Trouba and/or Artemi Panarin. Suddenly, the Wild go from drowning slowly in quicksand to seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.

***

Things can change quickly in sports. The Wild could make their “poor, sad, dejected, beaten down” fans far happier with some bold changes, but they must sway their most important fan: their owner. If a truly lousy season is the only way for Leipold to clue in, then it might just be worth it for the Wild.

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.

NHL on NBCSN: Wild flirting with playoffs, but big picture should be GM’s focus

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

While Bruce Boudreau is still believing he can guide his Wild team into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, his boss is focusing on reshaping a roster that he inherited that’s been quite inconsistent with results.

As NHL trade deadline approaches, Paul Fenton is in listening mode, having already moved Charlie Coyle, which brought in Ryan Donato from the Boston Bruins. There’s still more he can do before 3 p.m. ET Monday. Eric Staal, who owns a modified no-trade clause, is on an expiring deal, as is defenseman Brad Hunt, who was acquired in January from the Vegas Golden Knights. Beyond those two pending unrestricted free agents, there could be value in moving a Mikael Granlund or Jonas Brodin (both signed through next season) or a Jared Spurgeon (tied up until 2020), but are those pieces the GM wants to build around or use to bring back future assets?

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

Following two straight wins heading into Sunday’s meeting with the Blues, the Wild are a point out of a Western Conference wild card spot and seven points behind St. Louis in the Central Division. Fenton has said he’s been waiting for his players to dictate what he’s going to do before Monday afternoon.

The handcuff on a major clean out is, of course, the contracts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Both are signed through the 2024-25 season and eat up nearly $16M in cap space a season, which hampers things even with a cap ceiling that has been rising every year. The current roster hasn’t cut it, so changes will have to be made.

There is certainly opportunity in the wide open bottom portion of the West. But as a new GM, Fenton has to think of the long-term picture of his team. This is also a roster that will be without Mikko Koivu and Matt Dumba for the rest of the season. A reset is needed, and even the owner is behind whatever moves are necessary, even if it costs them a playoff spot.

Chris Cuthbert (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’) will have the call from Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. Pre-game coverage starts at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen with Keith Jones and Anson Carter.