Ryan Suter

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Boudreau, Wild aim to disprove belief they are on decline

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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.

Defending champion Blues surrounded by tough teams in West

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St. Louis had better dig in for its repeat bid.

The defending Stanley Cup champion Blues will have their hands full in the Western Conference, which seems to have a slew of contenders. And, every team in the entire league is going to give the Blues its best shot each game.

”There’s going to be a whole different feel for us that we’ve got to figure out, ‘OK, how can we elevate our game?’ We’re not going to catch teams by surprise,” said Blues center Ryan O'Reilly, last season’s playoff MVP and top defensive forward. ”We’re going to need to make changes and grow ourselves to be better this year and to do it again.”

Dallas, Vegas, Calgary, Colorado, San Jose and Winnipeg all go into the season with a shot to knock off St. Louis and keep the Cup in the West after the coveted trophy was won by Eastern Conference teams the previous three years. And even though the Nashville Predators appears to be somewhat overlooked this season, it’s not wise to count them out in the race, especially with the addition of center Matt Duchene.

The Central Division, which may earn both wild cards again in the conference, may be the strongest in the NHL.

”It’s hard not to say the Central with the Blues being in it,” Arizona center Derek Stepan said.

SHINING STARS

Dallas seems set up for success with star players all over the place, giving the franchise a legitimate chance to reach the conference finals for the first time since 2008.

Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn provide plenty of scoring power. Second-year coach Jim Montgomery can roll four lines after the front office bolstered the team’s depth by signing 35-year-old Joe Pavelski, who was an All-Star last year with San Jose for the third time in four years.

”Getting a guy like Pavelski to us is going to be huge for us obviously with the net front (presence) and leadership-wise in the locker room,” defenseman John Klingberg said.

The 27-year-old Klingberg is potentially going into the prime year of his career and 20-year-old Miro Heiskanen is a future star on the blue line, coming off a 33-point rookie season in which he was durable enough to play all 82 games.

Goaltender Ben Bishop looks like he might be at his best at the age of 32. His save percentage led the league last year and he ranked second in the NHL in goals-against average, giving up fewer than two a game for the first time in his career.

THIRD TIME A CHARM?

The Golden Knights are hoping their third year is more like their first, when they reached the Stanley Cup Final, and not like their second season that ended in the first round with a Game 7 loss to the Sharks. Vegas returns its top nine scorers and three-time Stanley Cup champion goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury as the franchise makes another run with familiar faces. Talented forward Mark Stone starts his first full season with the Golden Knights after signing an eight-year deal in February.

”We have something to prove to show that we are a top team in the NHL,” Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault.

GROUNDED JETS

Winnipeg’s chances may hinge on when, or possibly if, restricted free agents Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor sign to stay with the franchise.

”If we don’t have those two guys for the whole season, which I don’t think is going to happen, then it does change our team a little bit because then we’ve lost a lot of players,” Winnipeg Jets winger Nikolaj Ehlers said.

MAYBE NEXT YEAR

Connor McDavid is one of the game’s greats and teammate Leon Draisaitl is a 100-point scorer, but the Edmonton Oilers might be relegated to playing only in the regular season for a third straight year and 13th time in 14 seasons.

Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews may not have enough talent around them to avoid missing the playoffs a third straight year in Chicago for the first time in more than a decade.

– The Minnesota Wild signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to 13-year, $98 million contracts in 2012 and they may miss the playoffs two straight years for the first time since then.

– The Los Angeles Kings hired former San Jose and Edmonton coach Todd McLellan, but he will have a hard time stopping the franchise from falling short of the postseason in two straight years for the first time since a six-season drought that ended in 2010.

– Under first-year coach Dallas Eakins, the Anaheim Ducks may miss the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2000-2002.

– The Arizona Coyotes have failed to make the playoffs for seven straight years, a drought that trails only Buffalo’s in the NHL, and probably will extend the run this season. The Vancouver Canucks could sit out a fifth straight year, which would be a franchise record.

Previewing the 2019-20 Minnesota Wild

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or worse: If we are comparing the Wild right now to where they were at the beginning of the 2018-19 season it would be difficult to argue that they are better following the in-season trades of Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, and Charlie Coyle. But if we are comparing them to where they were at the end of the 2018-19 season they might be a little better. Mats Zuccarello is another big-money player on the wrong side of 30, but he is still good. Mikko Koivu and Matthew Dumba are returning after missing significant portions of the 2018-19 season. There is also some potential with younger players to maybe take a step forward. The important question is whether or not those improvements are enough to get them back in the playoffs and help them return to contention in the Western Conference.

Strengths: The top half of their defense is really good with Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, and Dumba leading the way. Suter is the biggest name and the one that gets most of the attention because he never seems to leave the ice, but don’t overlook the other two. Spurgeon just signed a seven-year contract extension to remain with the team and has been a criminally underrated player for most of his career. Dumba, meanwhile, brings a ton of offensive potential from the blue line and was in the middle of a breakout season until an injury sustained in a fight sidelined him for most of the season. Behind them they have an above average goalie in Devan Dubnyk serving as the last line of defense. When he is on his game, he can carry the team and has been one of the league’s most productive goalies since joining the team in them middle of the 2014-15 season.

Weaknesses: The Wild have a lot of really good veteran players and some young players that could become really good players. What they are lacking is great players. They don’t really have anyone that can be a difference-making, impact player that puts the team on their back for a game (or a stretch of games) and carries it. That kind of limits what your team’s ceiling is among the league’s hierarchy of contenders. The other concern is the age of the core. With Spurgeon now re-signed, they now have six players over the age of 30 signed for at least two more seasons. Several of those players are signed beyond the age of 35. How will all of those players hold up during those contracts?

[MORE: Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Bruce Boudreau is entering his fourth season as the Wild’s head coach and is already going to be working with his third different general manager. That is kind of shocking, not only because the Wild have gone through that much change in their front office, but that the head coach has outlasted all of it. We will put his hot seat rating as a 6 out of 10. He does not have one foot out the door, but he is probably not totally secure, either.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Jason Zucker, Zach Parise, and Kevin Fiala are the three players worth keeping a close eye on this season.

One of the more bizarre aspects of Paul Fenton’s one year of error in Minnesota was his apparent burning desire to trade Zucker. He has not only been one of the team’s best two-way players and a popular member of the community, but Fenton was also trying to sell him at what was probably his lowest possible value. A similar move with Niederreiter went about as poorly as could have been expected, and repeating the same mistake with Zucker would have been crushing. As it stands now, Zucker is back in Minnesota and should be poised to have a bounce back year offensively.

Speaking of bounce back years, Parise went through one of his own during the 2018-19 season and saw pretty significant improvements in his production across the board. He is almost certainly never going to be a 40-goal, 90-point player again, but was his bounce back a one-year outlier in what has been a steady decline in recent years? Or can the Wild expect similar production this season?

Of all the players Fenton acquired during the 2018-19 season the one that seems most intriguing is Fiala. He is still only 23 years old, has already shown 20-goal ability in the NHL, and has some fairly promising underlying numbers to his game. He is a better player than what he showed immediately after the trade.

Playoffs or lottery: There is a short-term path back to the playoffs for this team, but a lot of things need to go right in order for that to happen. Realistic outcome is this looks like a team that finishes somewhere between 7th and 11th in the Western Conference. Not good enough to truly contend, but not bad enough to play its way into the highest draft lottery odds.

More
Do Wild have short-term path back to playoffs?
• 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 sign Jared Spurgeon to 7-year, $53 million extension

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One of Bill Guerin’s first big moves as general manager of the Minnesota Wild was to make sure one of his team’s top defenders will remain with the team for quite a long time.

The team announced on Saturday that it has signed veteran defender Jared Spurgeon to a seven-year, $53 million extension. The contract, which begins at the start of the 2020-21 season, will run through the end of the 2026-27 season and carry a cap hit of $7.575 million. That salary cap hit is the largest one ever handed out by the Wild, just barely topping the cap hits belonging to Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.

Spurgeon was set to become an unrestricted free agent this upcoming season and would have almost certainly been one of the top players on the open market. Instead, he remains in Minnesota where he will continue to play for the only team he has ever known.

In the short-term, Spurgeon is worth every penny to the Wild. He may not be a household name among the NHL’s elite defenders, but he is an excellent top-pairing player that excels in both his own end of the ice and offensively. The only potential downside to the deal is that Spurgeon turns 30 in November and will be turning 31 in his first year of the new contract.

That is an expensive investment in a player on the wrong side of 30, something the Wild already have a lot of. With Spurgeon’s contract in place the team now has more than $38 million committed to seven players next season that will be over the age of 30. That number would only increase if they re-sign Mikko Koivu.

How Spurgeon’s career holds up will go a long way toward determining how this works out for the Wild.

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.