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Three questions facing Minnesota 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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Minnesota Wild.

1. Can this team really contend?

At times, the Wild have looked like a really feisty team under Bruce Boudreau.

That was especially true during his debut season as coach in 2016-17, as the Wild topped the Central Division for much of that season before slipping behind Chicago. It’s far too easy to dismiss how tough it is to finish above 100 points, as the Wild have done under Boudreau in both 2016-17 (106) and 2017-18 (101).

The temptation might be to look to Boudreau’s former team, the Capitals, and say: “Hey, they seemed to take longer than expected to make that deep run, but they did it. Why can’t we do the same?”

And, yes, there’s a decent collection of talent there. That’s especially true if Devan Dubnyk can play at an elite level, as he’s managed for multiple stretches of his solid career.

That said, it’s also quite plausible that things will only go downhill from here. Could it be that Boudreau’s clever coaching helps to patch up some weaknesses that ultimately surface during the concentrated competition of the postseason?

If you put together the Central Division’s top teams, it’s tough to feel great about the Wild’s chances. Minnesota, on paper, really lacks the high-end punch of the Predators and Jets. The Blues seem like they might have passed them by, as well, after an aggressive summer. Minnesota can’t assume that the Blackhawks won’t be a nuisance once more, and it’s perfectly feasible that the Stars and Avalanche may pass them by.

2. Is it time to blow it up?

Really, this might be that moment where the Wild decide to “live to fight another day.”

Scan this team’s salary structure and you’ll see some worrisome ages, even if you want to take a break and not beat the dead horse that is the Zach Parise contract.

Parise is 34, with a contract that runs through 2024-25(!), while Ryan Suter is just a year younger with the same deal. Mikko Koivu is 35, and Eric Staal is 33. Sometimes you forget about the ups and downs of Dubnyk’s career, which is easier to recall when you realize he’s 32.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]

Should GM Paul Fenton totally flush this out? Well, assuming that Peter Chiarelli’s kept away from his cell phone at odd hours, it’s probably not particularly plausible to trade Parise’s deal. (Honestly, with his very-much-legit health issues, Parise feels sadly LTIR-bound. At some point.)

This could be just about the ideal time to move some of those deals, especially since Fenton isn’t the one who agreed to the contracts he’d want to move, anyway. (Those commitments to young talents such as Matt Dumba and Jason Zucker make total sense, and can be part of the solution.)

Staal is playing at a fabulous level, but his bargain $3.5M cap hit expires after 2018-19. If you’re a contending team, you’d do worse than to rent Staal, even if it costed some serious assets. The Wild might be wise to “sell” Suter now, while his perceived value is relatively high, as years of ridiculous ice time may finally be catching up with him.

Moving someone like Koivu could really sting for fans, but a savvy team may see him as worth the risk. Although, honestly, the extra year of term might make that a tough sell this season. Still, it’s a conversation worth having, and an opposing GM should at least mull over such a decision.

3. How long will it take to see Paul Fenton’s vision?

This ultimately all trickles back up to Fenton, who had a quiet first summer as Wild GM. As the Star-Tribune’s Michael Rand noted in late July, Fenton threw the word “tweak” around a lot when hired, but hasn’t really done that yet.

“I’ll look at small trades. I’ll look at big trades,” Fenton said. “Whatever is going to improve this organization going forward to give us a chance to win the Stanley Cup, we’re going to look.”

Apparently the Wild haven’t liked what they’ve seen just yet, so how much more will Fenton need to observe before he makes his mark?

Will Bruce Boudreau be on a short leash? How does Fenton differ from Chuck Fletcher when it comes to constructing a roster? Is there still time to win big with this core?

Fenton hasn’t really tipped his hand, and understandably so. At some point he’ll need to push some chips to the middle of the table, though, and timely such gambles correctly could end up being crucial 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.

Wild add another pricey investment in Jason Zucker

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The Minnesota Wild handed Jason Zucker a comparable five-year deal to the one Matt Dumba received, which makes a lot of sense since the situations were very similar.

While Dumba’s five-year contract comes out to a $30 million total (and $6M cap hit), Zucker receives $5.5M per year, or $27.5M overall. The team confirmed those details, along with his salary in each season, in case you needed a late-July reminder that a lockout could come in 2020-21 (throws confetti).

Like Dumba, Zucker enjoyed a true breakthrough in 2017-18, forcing a big expenditure from the Wild. Also like Dumba, his contract is mostly reasonable, and much of the grimacing comes in looking at the bigger, less promising overall salary structure.

In a vacuum, this is perfectly fair, and there was really only so much new GM Paul Fenton can do about holdover mistakes like the twin cringe contracts for Ryan Suter and especially Zach Parise.

No doubt about it, Zucker saw a significant spike in production this season.

The 26-year-old crossed the 30-goal barrier for the first time (33 goals) and blew away his previous career-high of 47 points, collecting 63 in 82 games. Especially worrisome types might see his 14.9 shooting percentage as a red flag even beyond that huge jump in production.

On the other hand, Zucker can only take advantage of the opportunities he’s given, and his numbers are awfully interesting.

To start, he enjoyed a fairly odd (yet impressive) first leap in 2014-15. During that season, Zucker pitched a “Cy Young” ratio of goals and assists at 21-5 in 51 contests. After a tough 2015-16, Zucker bounced back in 2016-17, and has been rising since. He’s generated a least 21 goals in three of his past four seasons since becoming an NHL regular.

Beyond that, it sure seems like he could be a true two-way gem, which is a comforting thought in case his offensive production slides. Zucker generated strong possession stats relative to his Wild teammates this past season, which was the second in a row where he was relied upon to start more of his shifts in the defensive zone rather than on offense.

All things considered, this seems like a pretty fair price for Zucker, as the two sides avoided salary arbitration. It’s fairly comparable to the deal Nino Niederreiter received, so Minnesota gets some nice two-way players on term. That’s not groundbreaking stuff, but it’s solid work.

The problem is that, when you zoom out, the Wild don’t seem like the greatest value as a team spending very close to the cap.

[Pondering the Wild’s ceiling.]

Signing Dumba and Zucker to their five-year deals counts as “the price of doing business,” and the same can be said for Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund. Some of those deals will probably look like bargains, and the same rings true for Devan Dubnyk‘s affordable rate and the bargain Minnesota enjoyed with Eric Staal (though Staal’s entering a contract year).

Simply put, any misstep feels like plodding on additional Legos thanks to the difficulties of carrying $15M for Parise + Suter until 2024-25. Spending almost $3M for Marcus Foligno, risking $5.5M on an aging Mikko Koivu, and other decisions are tougher to stomach when the margin of error is small.

So such concerns tend to trickle down to guys like Dumba and Zucker. Their deals are fair, but they’re not necessarily cheap, so any stumbles get magnified. It chalks up to the negative domino effect of bad deals during the salary cap era.

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.

Wild fire GM Chuck Fletcher, who leaves behind a mess

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The Chuck Fletcher era is over for the Minnesota Wild. After employing Fletcher as their GM for about nine years, the Wild dismissed him on Monday.

“I feel it is time for a new approach,” Wild owner Craig Leipold said in the team’s official release.

The team added that they are immediately searching for a replacement.

For better or worse, the Wild have been generous when it comes to giving their general managers time to make their new approaches work.

Fletcher was GM since May 2009, while Doug Risebrough served as the first GM for about a decade (1999 to 2009). While some teams employ their top executives for multiple decades (see: David Poile in Nashville, Ken Holland with the Red Wings), there are also plenty of front offices who receive precious few opportunities to get things right. Fletcher received plenty of opportunities to break through, and ultimately, his run with the Wild ends with a whimper … and some problems for the next GM to sort out.

Let’s ponder the biggest decisions of the Fletcher days.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Decisions

Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

There’s simply no way to get around it: the dual signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter were the defining moves of Fletcher’s tenure with the Wild. On July 4, 2012, Fletcher handed Parise and Suter matching 13-year, $98 million contracts.

Just seeing the total cash and term on those deals is staggering, especially as each contract seems to look scarier every time you consider the implications for the Wild as a franchise. Both players are 33 – and showing their age at times, especially in the case of Parise’s unfortunate health – yet their $7.538M cap hits (with no-move clauses) won’t expire until after the 2024-25 season.

At the time, Parise and Suter linking up in Minnesota as free agents felt as close to the NHL would get to its version of LeBron James’ “Decision.” The biggest of many differences is that, while the Miami Heat won two titles and made multiple NBA Finals appearances with James & Co., the Wild have settled for modest gains. Sure, they’re riding six straight playoff appearances, but they’ve never gotten beyond the second round and haven’t won a division title since signing Suter and Parise.

Spending $15M in cap space on the two already seems dicey. It may only look worse going forward, and if a new GM gets the Wild out of one or both of the deals, it will come at a cost.

Mixed bag

The bad tends to outweigh the good when you consider how much Minnesota is spending on its team (a final cap hit above $75M this past season for a team that won one playoff game, according to Cap Friendly).

This is an aging group, which is disconcerting when you consider that this team doesn’t appear to have a ceiling as a true championship contender.

Eric Staal stands as one of the best additions of Fletcher’s tenure – and make no mistake about it, Fletcher’s had some nice hits along the way – and he’s already 33. Staal also will need a new contract after next season.

Staal, Parise, and Suter are all 33. Mikko Koivu is 35. Even Devan Dubnyk (another nice Fletcher find, and a guy on a team-friendly contract) is already 31.

Again, it’s not all bad. The Bruce Boudreau addition helped players old and young flourish. Fletcher fleeced Garth Snow in getting Nino Niederreiter. The franchise has done a nice job in certain drafting and developing situations, particularly with the likes of Mikael Granlund.

The whiffs have been pretty epic, though, with Parise and Suter already entering albatross territory.

Questions ahead

The next Wild GM faces a tough haul.

Do you try to move Parise and/or Suter, even if it means sweetening the deal by giving up picks? Should the Wild keep Boudreau or let him move on if the plan is a more concerted “rebuild” effort? Would the Wild be better off making difficult decisions, such as parting ways with underrated Selke-caliber center Koivu while he still has value (if he’ll waive his no-move clause, of course)? How much will useful RFAs Matt Dumba and Jason Zucker cost?

Those are some difficult riddles to answer. Fletcher faced tough calls of his own, and enough went wrong that he’ll no longer be running the show in Minnesota.

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.

Just as things were looking up for Wild, they lose Parise

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Injuries have already been an issue for the Minnesota Wild early in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and health has been a regular concern for Zach Parise. The latest bit of news only makes things worse.

The Wild announced that Parise is “week-to-week” with a fractured sternum. Week-to-week sounds a little optimistic, so the Athletic’s Michael Russo provides a more specific timeline of six-to-eight weeks.

So, the Wild essentially lost Parise for most – if not all – of a possible playoff run.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Minnesota states that Parise suffered his injury during Game 3, but didn’t specify when, exactly, that happened. Russo believes that Parise was hurt during some of the late-game nastiness that’s typified much of the series, which the Winnipeg Jets leads 2-1 after the Wild showed fire in a Game 3 win.

TSN’s Michael Remis tracked down the collision(s) Russo referenced. Ouch:

The Wild were already dealing with a significant injury as Ryan Suter is sidelined with a fractured ankle suffered late in the regular season, an ailment that required surgery.

Parise already underwent back surgery in October, pushing his 2017-18 regular-season debut to early January. If that wasn’t enough of a shame for Parise, he has been playing well lately. The 33-year-old scored three goals in as many playoff games and generated nine points in his last nine games of the regular season.

It looks like Tyler Ennis will take Parise’s spot in Minnesota’s lineup alongside Mikko Koivu and Nino Niederreiter. In the likely event that sticks, it will be the first playoff appearance for Ennis since 2010-11 with the Buffalo Sabres. Ennis recently acknowledged his frustration with being a healthy scratch, so he’ll get a chance to prove himself starting tonight.

The Parise-less Wild host the Jets in Game 4 tonight on CNBC. Puck drops begins at 8 p.m. ET. Here’s the livestream link.

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.

Jets throw weight around against Wild

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It’s early, but so far the Winnipeg Jets look like a juggernaut in going up 2-0 in their first-round series against the Minnesota Wild.

While the Wild can take some solace in the idea that the series switches to Minnesota for Games 3 and 4, falling 4-1 has to be disheartening because of the way this latest contest played out. For the second straight game, Devan Dubnyk kept them in the contest for quite some time; Winnipeg only held a 1-0 lead heading into the third period despite what was a 27-14 edge in shots on goal.

None of that really mattered as Winnipeg just wouldn’t be denied. Again.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

After Game 1, it was noted that the Wild don’t seem suited to trade blows with the Jets, and that story carried over to Friday. Some might even say that Dustin Byfuglien‘s monstrous hit on Mikko Koivu is a quicky synopsis of this one-sided start to the series.

Again, the Wild shouldn’t just roll over here. After all, they went 27-6-8 at home during the regular season. They can look to the Flyers’ turnaround from Game 1 to Game 2 against the Penguins to note how quickly things can turn in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Still, the Jets are a different animal than the Penguins, and some would argue that they are a more balanced, rugged, and frightening team. They’ve given Minnesota very little room to breath in this series, and it shows in the lopsided numbers.

Things got nasty late in Game 2. It’s evident that the Jets have no issue mixing it up, either.

Heading into the postseason, the Jets were still trying to earn their first playoff win since the dawning of the Jets-Thrashers rendition of this franchise. It’s already fair to wonder how many teams will be able to take them down in a best-of-seven series.

Game 3 takes place in Minnesota on Sunday. It airs on USA Network starting at 7 p.m. ET.

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.