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Have Minnesota Wild already hit their ceiling?

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Let’s talk about the Minnesota Wild for a few minutes because, well, I am still not entirely sure what to make this team under its current construction.

How do you feel about them? Do you think about them? When you hear the name “Minnesota Wild” do you think “that’s a team that I could see making some noise and going on a deep playoff run,” or do you just kind of say “meh” and not see them as much of a threat?

They have been, by definition, a pretty good team.

They finished with 101 points in 2017-18 and are one of just three teams to have made the playoffs in each of the past six seasons, joining the Pittsburgh Penguins and Anaheim Ducks. That is also — if you can believe it — tied for the second longest active playoff streak in the NHL (behind only the Penguins’ ongoing 12-year run, and tied with the Ducks).

All in all, pretty successful — right?

The thing about that success is that the past few years have at the same time been kind of a disappointment because their ceiling seems to be that of a team that makes the playoffs and then quickly disappears without much of a fight. During the aforementioned six-year playoff run they have won a grand total of two playoff series and have not been out of the second round in any of those years.

They have not been out of the first round since 2014-15 and have managed to win a grand total of four playoff games in the three years since (that coming after they swept out of the second round in four straight games in 2015. That means in their past four postseason series they have won exactly four games).

The latest postseason exit resulted in a significant change in the team’s organizational leadership when long-time general manager Chuck Fletcher was fired and replaced by former Nashville Predators assistant GM Paul Fenton. Even with a team that recorded 100 points for the second year in a row it was still a tough year for Fletcher as the Wild were one of the many NHL teams that paid too much in the expansion draft process, giving up Erik Haula and Alex Tuch to the Vegas Golden Knights.

When a team that has not achieved much postseason success changes general managers, a change behind the bench can not be far behind if results do not change for the better. That means coach Bruce Boudreau almost certainly has to be on the hot seat heading into the 2018-19 season.

That leads to another pretty big question: Are the Wild, as currently constructed, good enough to keep Boudreau employed behind the bench? And if not, is he good enough to keep squeezing more out of this roster than it should be capable of producing?

There are a lot of red flags with this team that make it seem like the whole thing could be teetering on the edge of a full-on collapse, perhaps sooner rather than later.

From a shots and possession perspective, the Wild were one of the worst teams in the NHL last season controlling just 47 percent of the 5-on-5 shot attempts. That was the second-worst mark in the NHL and had them sandwiched between the dumpster fire that was the Ottawa Senators and a New York Rangers team that was beginning to sell off half of its roster.

In their five games against the Jets in the playoffs they were absolutely steamrolled in that department, attempting just 40 percent of the shot attempts in the five games (while getting outscored 16-9, including 7-0 over the final two games of the series).

Typically, teams that get decimated like this in the shots column do not make the playoffs, and when a team is that bad it usually does not paint a promising picture for the following season. Especially when the only additions to the roster are depth players like the ones added by Minnesota this summer (Matt Hendricks, J.T. Brown, Eric Fehr, Greg Pateryn).

The one area the Wild did excel in this past season was scoring chances.

While their share of the total shot attempts was among the league’s worst, their share of the total scoring chances was, shockingly, among the league’s best.

Usually when a team finds any sort of success with poor shot metrics the argument in their favor — or the one coming from the team itself — revolves around shot quality, and not quantity. Usually that argument is bunk and the team’s success is usually because a goalie played out of their mind to bail them out, or they had a few forwards have career years to carry the offense (which kind of happened in Minnesota last year, at least as it relates to Eric Staal and maybe Jason Zucker). Then everything falls apart the next season.

In the Wild’s case, though, there seems to be at least some evidence that this was the case. How repeatable that is not only remains to be seen, but will also go a long way toward determining whether or not they are going to remain competitive or if the bottom will fall out from underneath them.

Aside from the poor shot metrics, the other concern here is that this was the second oldest team in the NHL last season and while they have some young players in Jordan Greenway, Joel Eriksson Ek, and Luke Kunin, it still figures to be one of the oldest teams in the league this season.

At the top of that list will be Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, both of whom are not only entering their age 34 seasons, but are also coming off of significant injuries.

Parise has already been mired in a steady decline across the board for about five years now in all major areas (goal and point production, his ability to generate shots, and his overall possession numbers). Suter is still a workhorse that plays close to 27 minutes per night (and still at a reasonably high level) but given the mileage on those tires you have to assume he, too, is going to start to see his play begin to decline. The Wild still have more than $15 million tied up in those two for another seven years.

Their core players are still pretty good, but they are either in a decline (Parise), likely to regress (Staal), or could be on the verge of reaching a point in their career where they start to break down (all of Parise, Suter, and Staal). They have some okay young players, but nobody that really seems to be a potential game-breaker.

Given all of that it seems this team has hit its ceiling. They have already made the change in the front office. If things get off to a bad start in ’18-19 it might be time for him to just hit the reset button on the entire operation because it is difficult to see this group turning things around in a meaningful way.

[Shot attempt and scoring chance information via Natural Stat Trick]

Adam Gretz is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

What would Erik Karlsson mean to Stars?

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As people set off fireworks* and grill untold tons of meats today, it’s possible that the NHL’s grand tradition of explosive Fourth of July blockbusters could continue with an Erik Karlsson trade.

In 2013, the Dallas Stars pulled off quite the Declaration of Competence by fleecing the Boston Bruins for Tyler Seguin, a move the Dallas Morning News and others can chronicle on a yearly basis. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the Stars have been tabbed as the latest frontrunners to land Karlsson’s services … for whatever that’s worth.

The Athletic’s CJ Stevenson and Sean Shapiro both report that the Stars made the best offers for Karlsson so far. Shapiro’s latest update came today, while Stevenson provided additional details about who could move, as young defensemen Miro Heiskanen and/or Julius Honka could be part of the asking price.

It’s difficult to gauge how likely Karlsson-to-Dallas really is. On the bright side, it’s opened the door for people to drop in some early analysis. One of the most interesting questions revolves around whether it would be worth it for the Stars to risk including Heiskanen (an intriguing Finnish defenseman who was the third pick in 2017) in the trade.

For the moment, let’s put the prospect discussion aside, and look big picture about how Karlsson might impact the Stars.

[MORE: Five other sensible potential destinations for Erik Karlsson]

* – Be careful!

A superstar right-handed Swede on defense almost every shift?

As much as the Stars have bumbled in drafting and development over the years, John Klingberg‘s an absolute gem they found in the fifth round (131st overall) in 2010. He drew some Norris buzz last season before cooling off, and his dirt-cheap $4.25 million cap hit runs through 2021-22.

Both Karlsson and Klingberg are right-handed defensemen, which might inspire the Stars to primarily rotate them rather than put them on the ice at the same time if Karlsson lands in Dallas.

Of course, there could be exceptions. Landing Karlsson would force some shifting as far as Dallas’ power play goes, and it would almost be silly not to have both of them on the ice when the Stars empty their net trying to score a late goal in a game.

Yet even under typical alignments, the Stars would enjoy the blissful luxury of rarely icing a defense that doesn’t include one of them.

Since 2012-13, Karlsson’s logged an average of 27:23 TOI per game, second only to Fourth of July Minnesota Wild signee Ryan Suter. John Klingberg’s 23:03 ties him for 30th during that span, and the 25-year-old averaged a career-high of 24:04 per night last season.

Over the years, it’s been frustrating to watch the Stars land big-time players like Tyler Seguin only to surround them with mediocre-to-bad supporting cast members. That’s been especially irritating on the blueline, as the Stars have seen more modern-style defensemen leave (examples: Alex Goligoski, Jason Demers) while adding sluggish types such as Marc Methot and Roman Polak.

It might not matter a whole lot if the Stars win the Karlsson sweepstakes.

While it would be better if Karlsson didn’t need to lug Methot around like he did in Ottawa, it’s not as if he isn’t experienced in carrying lesser defense partners. Consider the bewildering fact that, via Natural Stat Trick, Karlsson’s most frequent pairing was with Johnny Oduya. In 2017-18.

Simply put, few players can make the impact Karlsson can, as he isn’t just great … he can also log a ton of ice time, keeping less-great players on the bench more often.

Win now, and win later?

Here’s something that might sneak up on you: the core of the Stars is getting a little older.

Jamie Benn is 28, and there was at least mild concern that he was slowing down – by his standards – last season. Alex Radulov was great in his debut season with Dallas, yet he’s also 31. Ben Bishop is 31 too, and sometimes that’s a scary thought, as injuries have been an issue at times for the towering goalie. Recent Stars additions are largely at risk of suffering age-related decline (Methot is 33, Blake Comeau and Polak are both 32).

Karlsson, 28, remains in the meat of his prime and would push a strangely middling Stars roster to a higher level. Dallas can’t wait forever to climb the ranks.

One potentially brilliant impact could be that, in landing Karlsson, the Stars might entice Tyler Seguin to stick around.

Seguin, 26, sees his absurdly low $5.75M cap hit expire after 2018-19. He’d be a UFA if the Stars couldn’t convince him to sign an extension, and while Dallas has had its highs, it would be easy to see why he might want to leave for a clearer contender if the growing pains continue. After all, that would be his first chance to really choose his team after being drafted by Boston and traded to the Stars.

Putting Karlsson in the mix could really inspire Seguin to just sign an extension. Don’t forget that NHL players have a ton of incentive to extend deals compared to, say, NBA players, as the injury risk must be a greater concern.

Such a risk might be worth taking if the Stars remain as a “bubble team,” but a future with Karlsson and Ben along with the security of an extension might be too sweet a bargain to pass up.

(Now, naturally, it would be a tight squeeze to fit Seguin and Karlsson under the cap, yet such struggles are easily worth the mental gymnastics.)

***

Few people outside of the Stars and Senators organizations know how close a Karlsson deal might be.

Even so, it’s entertaining to ponder the potential of adding another, well, star to the Stars. We’ll find out if Karlsson’s destination is revealed during this American holiday or if the hockey world will be forced to speculate deeper into the summer.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Cheveldayoff has plenty of work to do; Gallant’s old nickname

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Since 2005-06, no team has played in more Game 7s than the Washington Capitals. But only three of those 10 do-or-die games have been played on the road. Japers’ Rink looks back at some of the small details that stand out during those road games. (Japers’ Rink)

• Through six Eastern Conference Final games, the Capitals and Lightning are as evenly matched as two teams can possibly be. That wasn’t the case for the Bolts in their 2016 Eastern Conference Final against Pittsburgh. (Raw Charge)

• Now that Mark Hunter and Lou Lamoriello are no longer in Toronto, GM Kyle Dubas will get to make a lot of the big decisions in Leaf land. (Sportsnet)

• Fun fact: Golden Knights head coach Gerard Gallant used to be nicknamed “Spudsie” during his days in Detroit. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)

• Some were skeptical about Vegas acquiring Ryan Reaves, but he earned his moment of glory in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final. (SinBin.Vegas)

• Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has plenty of work to do this offseason, as he has to get Jacob Trouba, Connor Hellebuyck, Josh Morrissey and several others locked into new contracts. Paul Stastny is also scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, while Patrik Laine is eligible for a contract extension, too. (Jets Nation)

• Wild GM Paul Fenton made it clear that he’s not going to totally rebuild his new team. Instead, he’s going to “tweak the process”. (Minneapolis StarTribune)

• Two months after fracturing his right ankle, Ryan Suter says he’s been making steady progress in his recovery. He’s still a few weeks away from being able to put any weight on the injured ankle though. (NHL.com/Wild)

• The Florida Panthers missed the playoffs by one point, but they can’t be satisfied with that. They need to figure out a way to make it back to the postseason in 2019 or big changes could be on their way. (Panther Parkway)

• Sports Logos takes a look back at some of the commemorative patches that teams have used in the Stanley Cup Final. (Sports Logos)

• The NHL’s board of governors will meet in Vegas next month to talk about a number of things including the possibility of expanding to Seattle. (Sonic Rising)

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.

Wild’s new GM faces tough task in finding ‘finishing touches’

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If you look at NHL GM gigs like flipping a home, then some jobs call for a massive renovation, and it must be fun to deal with a “fixer-upper.” But what about when someone wants you to turn an already-expensive house into a mansion?

That’s essentially what’s being asked of longtime Nashville Predators assistant GM Paul Fenton as he takes over the Minnesota Wild job from Chuck Fletcher.

Wild owner (and former Predators owner) Craig Leipold at least had a sense of humor about his demands during the press conference that introduced Fenton as GM.

“Our goal is to bring a Stanley Cup to the State of Hockey. But, no pressure, Paul,” Leipold said, via The Athletic’s Michael Russo.

For those who are waiting to interject with a comment along the lines of “Yes, but every team talks about winning the Stanley Cup in these situations” … well, that’s true. Sometimes you can root out some semi-useful information in reading between the lines during these moments, though.

Take, for instance, the video clip below. On one hand, Fenton wants to “move the puck” and play an uptempo style that virtually every team discusses (aside from a relative outlier here or there, like Peter Chiarelli wanting “heavy and hard hockey”). On the other hand, there are some interesting kernels to consider. Fenton at least seems open-minded to making things work with head coach Bruce Boudreau, which is certainly a fair question since he wasn’t a bench boss handpicked by Fenton. Multiple comments also indicate that the Wild hope to ascend to the level of contender rather than going into a rebuild, as “finishing touches” indicate.

If anyone’s ready for a GM job, it’s Fenton. He’s been rising up the Predators organization since 1998, earning glowing reviews from Nashville GM David Poile. There’s a reason he’s been on plenty of GM candidate lists for years.

Minnesota could especially benefit if Fenton observed how Nashville flourished after making courageous trades such as the P.K. SubbanShea Weber swap. Not everyone has the stomach for such risks, but those gambles often separate contenders from pretenders.

There are a number of reasons why Fenton might fail, or at least could struggle. Let’s dive in.

Jumping right into the deep end

The 2018 Stanley Cup Final is nearly upon us. The draft isn’t far away on June 22, and free agency is right afterward. Wild fans have to hope that Fenton’s experience in scouting and his familiarity with the Central Division will come in handy, as this next stretch is a true “trial by fire.”

Fletcher left quite a mess of long-term contracts, most obviously in challenging deals for Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, so the Wild aren’t exactly bursting with cap space.

[A deep dive on the mess Fletcher left behind. It’s a mixed bag at best.]

It’s up to Fenton to try to land pending RFAs Jason Zucker and Mathew Dumba to team-friendly deals after each player enjoyed easily the best seasons of their NHL careers. Over the years, the Predators have piled up some really nice contracts for players they developed, most notably Viktor Arvidsson, Roman Josi, and Ryan Ellis. Bargain extensions often come down to timing, however, as you can see in Ryan Johansen getting a Getzlaf-like deal. Fenton faces two challenges in getting Zucker and Dumba signed to affordable contracts, whether that means going short-term or trying to bring the annual price down by handing out more term.

If “finishing touches” boil down to small tweaks and savvy shopping in the discount aisle, that’s fine.

Something more drastic could be highly difficult to pull off …

Central issue

… Because the Wild are in a true meat grinder of a Central Division.

Consider this: Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck was being comically hasty in discussing his team becoming a “dynasty.”

That said, when you consider how young and talented that core is, you never know. At minimum, the Jets are structured in a way where they’ll be on-paper favorites against the Wild for the foreseeable future.

Fenton will need to make beautiful music to get his Wild to outmatch his old boss in Nashville, while it’s possible that the Blues and Stars are the ones who are “finishing touches” away from legitimate contention. You can’t totally count out the Blackhawks either (what if Corey Crawford was healthy all season?) and the Avalanche seem like they’re onto something.

One could envision Fenton making the right moves and the Wild still stalling in this first-round limbo. The Central Division is that tough, and there’s a genuine fear that Minnesota simply doesn’t have a high enough ceiling to break through.

***

There’s a school of thought that the Wild might be better off rebuilding, or if that’s too extreme, maybe a brief “reload.”

Minnesota definitely has some talent, and the Wild can look like a contender on better nights. Still, that series against the Jets felt telling; you wonder if they’re doomed to be stuck at good when they need to be great.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

Paul Fenton hired as new Minnesota Wild GM

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Almost exactly one month after firing Chuck Fletcher, the Minnesota Wild have found his replacement as general manager. During a Tuesday press conference, the franchise will introduce Paul Fenton as the man who will take over the job.

Fenton, who was the first person owner Craig Leipold interviewed last month, will also oversee the team’s hockey operations department and act as alternate governor

“It is my distinct pleasure to welcome Paul Fenton as the General Manager of the Minnesota Wild,” said Leipold in a statement. “Paul is uniquely suited for this job having played 10 years of professional hockey and holding 25 years of management experience in the NHL. His gift of evaluating talent is obvious in Nashville’s roster and recent success. My relationship with Paul goes back to my early days in Nashville and I know that Wild hockey fans are going to love Paul’s infectious passion for the game and unsurpassed work ethic. He’s the right person to deliver a Stanley Cup to the State of Hockey.”

It took a while — 20 years to be exact — but Fenton finally decided to leave the Nashville Predators where he spent the last dozen years as the team’s assistant GM. He played a role in building that franchise into a Stanley Cup contender and turning around their minor league system. Now in Minnesota he’ll have his work cut out for him.

The Wild made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of the past six seasons, but could not get past the second round. This spring they were knocked out in the first round for the third straight season, costing Fletcher his job after nine years.

Fenton will have to deal with restricted free agents Jason Zucker and Mathew Dumba with this summer, as well as face plenty of challenges in carving his roster into something that could look like a perennial contender. The long-term, cap space-eating contracts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter won’t help things. According to Cap Friendly, the Wild have about $7.5 million in cap space for next season, and that’s before new deals for Zucker and Dumba and potentially a $3 million increase in the ceiling.

“We want to win a Stanley Cup,” Leipold said last month via the Pioneer Press after the Wild’s first-round exit. “That doesn’t mean that that’s going to be next year. I want someone to help me with a plan for the next three or four years to win a Stanley Cup. That’s what I’m looking for.”

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.