Victor Rask

WATCH LIVE: Blues visit Wild on NBCSN

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues 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.

The Blues enter Sunday’s matchup off a dominant 5-1 win over the division rival Stars Friday night. With the top spot in the conference on the line, St. Louis opened their lead to 4-0 early in the second, chasing Ben Bishop on their way to a third straight win – during their current win streak, St. Louis has outscored opponents 9-1.

The Blues have appeared to find their form following a season-worst 5-game losing streak that capped a 2-7-3 run from mid-January to mid-February. Friday’s win also opened a small gap between the Blues and their Central Division rivals (Dallas and Colorado). With the win over the Stars, St. Louis ensured they’ll be on top of the Western Conference at least heading into Sunday night’s matchup.

From Jan. 15 to Feb. 16, the Blues were 2-7-3 (seven points), arguably their worst stretch under Craig Berube. During that same period, St. Louis allowed 3.92 goals/game, the worst mark in the NHL.

The Wild are just over a week removed from firing head coach Bruce Boudreau and promoting his assistant Dean Evason to the interim head coach position, his first head coaching stint of any kind in the NHL. After losing their first game under Evason, Minnesota has now won two straight and are 2-1-0 under their interim coach.

Evason is in his second season on the Wild bench after spending the previous six seasons (2012-18) as head coach of the Milwaukee Admirals, the Predators’ AHL affiliate. Prior to that, he had spent seven seasons (2005-12) as a Capitals assistant. He played 13 seasons in the NHL from 1983-1996. A hard-nosed player who racked up 1,002 penalty minutes in his career, Evason has not overhauled the system, but has brought an accountability to Minnesota as the team looks to make a Blues-like run up the standings and avoid missing the playoffs for a 2nd straight season.

Minnesota will also come into Sunday night’s game off a big win, defeating the Oilers 5-3 in Edmonton on Friday night. That win finished off a two-game Western Canada swing, during which the Wild beat Vancouver and Edmonton.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: St. Louis Blues at Minnesota Wild
WHERE: Xcel Energy Center
WHEN: Sunday, Feb. 23, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Blues-Wild stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLUES
Jaden SchwartzRyan O'ReillyBrayden Schenn
Zach SanfordRobert ThomasDavid Perron
Alex SteenOskar SundqvistJordan Kyrou
Sammy BlaisIvan BarbashevMackenzie MacEachern

Carl GunnarssonJustin Faulk
Marco ScandellaColton Parayko
Vince DunnRobert Bortuzzo

Starting goalie: Jordan Binnington

WILD
Zach PariseEric StaalKevin Fiala
Alex GalchenyukLuke KuninMats Zuccarello
Marcus FolignoJoel Eriksson EkJordan Greenway
Victor RaskMikko KoivuRyan Hartman

Ryan SuterJared Spurgeon
Jonas BrodinMathew Dumba
Carson SoucyGreg Pateryn

Starting goalie: Devan Dubnyk

Chris Cuthbert will call the action from Xcel Energy Center alongside analyst Pierre McGuire. Sunday’s studio coverage on NBCSN will be hosted by Liam McHugh with analysts Keith Jones and Mike Milbury.

Wild return from break ready to make final push for playoffs

1 Comment

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Wild were playing at the beginning of the season like they were destined for the draft lottery, with the possibility of a high first-round pick hovering as a tantalizing prize for a franchise long mired in the middle of the pack in need of a jump.

The Wild, though, have proven time and again they’re too good to tank. With three wins in their last four games before the All-Star break and subsequent bye week, they made sure they’ll at least be in the thick of the chase for spots in the playoffs during the final nine weeks of the regular season.

”I think they’re going to put a push on. We have been pretty resilient, if we take away the first seven games of the year. We seem to play, other than Pittsburgh, pretty good against the good teams,” said coach Bruce Boudreau, recalling the 7-3 loss on Jan. 14 and the 7-4 defeat on Oct. 12 to the Penguins.

The Wild, who resume play on Saturday night against Boston for their first action in 10 days, have recovered well from their 1-6 start. Though they’re in 12th place in the Western Conference, they began the day on Friday five points out of a playoff spot with games in hand on most of the teams in front of them. The problem is Nashville, Winnipeg and Chicago are ahead of them, too, in the crowd of teams on the cusp of the wild card spots.

”I actually think that’s a good side to be on, because it gives us that urgency to push and not just hold on,” left wing Jason Zucker said after practice on Friday.

The good news for Minnesota is only defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis has separated from the pack, with catching Colorado or Dallas for a top-three finish in the Central Division still an attainable feat. That’s going to require the kind of hot streak that has been in short supply for the Wild this season, though. They went 9-1-3 over a 13-game stretch from Nov. 14-Dec. 14.

Last year, when the Wild’s streak of six straight appearances in the playoffs ended, they were in third place in the Central Division during their break. They were in control of a postseason spot until mid-March and wound up 11th in the Western Conference.

”Every team has to create their own story,” captain Mikko Koivu said. ”I think for us the mentality is that we can’t worry about other teams or look the scores and how every team is doing. It’s all about us right now, and we have to get that confidence back up again.”

Blurring the outlook a bit is the NHL trade deadline on Feb. 24, but first-year general manager Bill Guerin is unlikely to make any major changes if the Wild are still in contention then. Their current collection of long-term contracts and no-trade clauses are also prohibitive of a potential tear-down.

Zucker had two goals and two assists over the last three games before the break, getting his rhythm back after a broken right leg cost him 10 games and beginning to forge some chemistry with new second-line teammates Victor Rask and Kevin Fiala.

”If we’re healthy, I’m liking a lot of the fits right now. The idea, though, is for us to win we need 19 guys. We don’t have Connor McDavid if 17 guys aren’t going, and that’s taking nothing away from our players. I love it when we have everybody playing and everybody contributing,” Boudreau said.

WATCH LIVE: Avalanche host Wild on NBCSN

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Friday’s matchup between the Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The League returns from the Christmas break with 11 games on the schedule, including this Central Division matchup – the third of five regular-season meetings between the Wild and Avalanche. Each team has won at home against the other with the Avs winning, 4-2, on Oct. 5 (second game of the season for both clubs) and the Wild pulling out a 3-2 victory on Nov. 21.

Colorado, looking to return to the postseason for the third straight year, sit second in the Central, while Minnesota is in the thick of the Wild Card hunt – two points back of Calgary for the second position – and certainly not out of the race for a division spot, just three points behind Winnipeg. The Wild missed the playoffs a season ago after making six consecutive appearances from 2012-13 to 2017-18.

Nathan MacKinnon was voted an All-Star captain for the second straight season. Having another MVP caliber season (was the Hart Trophy runner-up two seasons ago), the No. 1 pick in 2013 has played in all 37 games this season and leads the Avs in most major statistical categories – goals (21), assists (34), points (55), shots (168), power-play goals (7), power-play points (20).

Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk missed over a month with a family issue, playing on Nov. 16 and then coming back on Dec. 19. He’s played in three games since his return (two starts). He allowed five goals at Arizona in a win in his first game back and then had the shutout against Calgary on Monday.

The consistent line of Landeskog-MacKinnon-Rantanen is now fully healthy and the second line of Andre BurakovskyNazem KadriJoonas Donskoi, which is entirely new this season, has been just as productive a trio. After MacKinnon (21), it’s Burakovsky and Donskoi (13 each) and Kadri (12), who are tops on the team in goals this season.

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

WHAT: Minnesota Wild at Colorado Avalanche
WHERE: Pepsi Center
WHEN: Friday, Dec. 27, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Wild-Avs stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

WILD
Zach PariseEric StaalMats Zuccarello
Ryan DonatoJoel Eriksson EkKevin Fiala
Jordan GreenwayNico SturmLuke Kunin
Marcus FolignoVictor RaskRyan Hartman

Ryan SuterJared Spurgeon
Jonas BrodinCarson Soucy
Brad HuntMathew Dumba

Starting goalie: Devan Dubnyk

AVALANCHE
Gabriel Landeskog – Nathan MacKinnon – Mikko Rantanen
Andre Burakovsky – Nazem Kadri – Joonas Donskoi
Matt NietoPierre-Edouard BellemareMatt Calvert
Tyson JostJ.T. CompherValeri Nichushkin

Cale MakarSam Girard
Nikita ZadorovRyan Graves
Ian ColeErik Johnson

Starting goalie: Pavel Francouz

Kathryn Tappen will host Friday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Mike Milbury and Keith Jones. Chris Cuthbert will handle play-by-play duties alongside Pierre McGuire at Pepsi Center in Denver, Colo.

Episode 2 of the three-part docuseries “Road To The NHL Winter Classic” will air on Friday, Dec. 27, at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. The season finale will be presented on Monday, Jan. 6, at 10:30 p.m. ET immediately following Oilers-Maple Leafs on NBCSN. 

The series will chronicle the Stars and Predators as they prepare to meet outdoors in the 2020 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on January 1 at Cotton Bowl Stadium at 1 p.m. ET on NBC.

Nightmare of Niederreiter trade lingers as Rask struggles to earn Wild spot

The 2018-19 season ended up being a disaster both for Victor Rask and the Minnesota Wild, with the Rask – Nino Niederreiter trade being one of the main catalysts for the lightning-quick firing of Paul Fenton. It also seems like that nightmare will linger for Rask heading into 2019-20, at least to start.

Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau indicates that Rask finds himself behind four other centers on the depth chart, and thus might not begin the season as one of 12 forwards expected to dress for regular-season games, as Sarah McLellan reports for the Star-Tribune.

“At this moment, I would say that there are four centers ahead of him now that we’ve seen that [captain Mikko Koivu’s knee] is fine and he can play,” Boudreau said. “It makes it difficult. But this is where you become mentally strong. You wait for your chance, whether it’s Sunday in [the] preseason game and you score two or three, or the first chance you get into a game prove that you can’t be taken out of the game. That’s what it’s about.”

Boudreau added that “I gotta believe his confidence is sagging,” so at least the Wild aren’t trying to deny the obvious.

While this first serves, to some, as another victory lap for the Hurricanes’ side of the trade, and more pie on the face for Fenton, the situation is interesting for a few other reasons.

One that stands out to me is that it’s another reminder that the Wild are focused more on the absolute present than anything else.

I mention that because, from a team-building standpoint, there would be some logic in trying to goose up Rask’s value for an eventual “pump and dump” trade. Even if Rask’s less in a rut and more just a mediocre player going forward, the bottom line is that the 26-year-old carries a $4 million AAV through 2021-22. As horrendous as Rask looked at times this season in only managing nine points in 49 games between the Wild and Hurricanes, it’s not impossible for there to be some bounce-back, particularly if you put him in a position to succeed.

After all, Rask generated seasons of 48 (2015-16) and 45 (2016-17) points, and there were certain circumstantial elements that dragged his numbers down. The Swedish forward dealt with nagging injuries for significant stretches of the season, and only averaged 12:06 TOI, a massive drop from 2017-18, when he averaged 15:23 per night (which itself was a plummet from 2016-17’s career-high average of 17:18).

Now, those numbers don’t make the Rask – Niederreiter trade any easier to stomach, as there really wasn’t much pointing to Rask standing a great chance of hanging with Niederreiter, especially when you expand your view from sheer goals and assists to a player’s all-around impact, as Niederreiter has long been known as a strong play-driver, while Rask … not so much.

But if the Wild were looking more toward trying to optimize for the future, they might want to boost Rask’s numbers to make it possible to trade him for something, rather than having him be a potential $4M black hole and healthy scratch.

That risk is much higher in this current alignment, but that doesn’t mean the Wild are totally in the wrong. Frankly, with the way Rask played in 2018-19, there’s evidence that the team might have 12 better forward options. That’s relevant for a team that still seems eager to try to compete, whether you agree with that stance, lean toward the belief that a more fully-formed rebuild would be the smarter course, or not.

The Wild are continuing to choose “or not,” which means that Rask will need to make a convincing argument to get reps. Apparently Rask still has some convincing to do.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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 get strong value with Fiala signing

Getty Images
1 Comment

The Minnesota Wild checked off the final box on their offseason to-do list on Wednesday, signing winger Kevin Fiala to a two-year, $6 million contract ($3M AAV).

While former Wild GM Paul Fenton justifiably gets roasted for the Nino NiederreiterVictor Rask trade, Fiala for Mikael Granlund should be graded as “Incomplete.” Fiala, 23, is younger than the 27-year-old Granlund, and comes at almost half the price, as Granlund carries a $5.75M cap hit through the final season of his current deal. When it comes to Granlund vs. Fiala, it’s relevant to wonder if the Wild were always going to walk away from Granlund, making Fiala a logical replacement being that he’s cheaper and younger.

The most interesting question is: how much better can Fiala get?

In some ways, the situation reminds me a bit of the Montreal Canadiens acquiring Max Domi, and then giving him a two-year deal. It turns out that Montreal probably wishes it could have signed Domi for longer, as he enjoyed a breakout season in 2018-19. Fiala might be primed for something similar in 2019-20, at least if the pieces fall the right way.

We’ve seen flashes of brilliance over the years from Fiala, who brings considerable speed to the table.

Fiala scored a number of big goals during his Nashville Predators days, including this one that clinched a double-overtime win against the Winnipeg Jets:

The Swiss scorer also overcame what looked like a devastating leg injury, one that’s still difficult to watch:

Even so, the Predators lost patience as Fiala’s potential didn’t always translate to production.

As with a lot of players who get traded, Fiala’s lack of puck luck stands out. He only scored on 7.6 percent of his shots last season with Nashville, and that cold shooting continued in 19 games with the Wild, where he only converted on 7 percent of his shots on goal. You can understand why excitement is a little more muted for Fiala following a 13-goal season in 2018-19 after he managed a career-high of 23 goals in 2017-18.

Again, though, consider potential parallels with Domi.

Domi’s final season with the Coyotes was a disaster, as he only managed nine goals (and 45 points) with a miserable 6 shooting percentage in 2017-18. A year later, Domi scored 28 goals (and 72 points), with his shooting percentage skyrocketing to 13.8.

Now, I’m not saying Fiala is going to flirt with 30 goals and 70 points in 2019-20, but he was on a trajectory where 25 goals wouldn’t be totally out of the question, and like Domi, Fiala has the pedigree of a first-rounder (Fiala was picked 11th overall in 2014).

One could fear Fiala being Another Mason Raymond: a speedy player who doesn’t have the skill to make the most of that skating. But I’m not alone in thinking that Fiala could move the needle; The Athletic’s Ian Tulloch listed Fiala at No. 5 on his list of breakout candidates for next season (sub required):

He isn’t one of those speedsters who just gains the zone and fires a low percentage shot from the outside (e.g. Kasperi Kapanen or Jake Virtanen). He’s consistently been one of the better players in the league at making a pass after gaining the zone, which Harman Dayal helped show is an extremely important aspect of generating offence in the modern game.

I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if Fiala at $3M ends up being a steal for the Wild … especially if he can get some bounces.

 

For a Wild team that could use some value contracts, and a new GM in Bill Guerin, this is a solid win.

Now we just need to convince people to start calling him “The Fiala Bear.”

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.