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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.

Kovalchuk would be fantastic fit for Kings, Sharks

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TSN’s Darren Dreger presented a fascinating update in the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes: the 35-year-old is making a tour of California, meeting with the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks.

(Side question: does this mean Anaheim Ducks GM Bob Murray is just on vacation or something?)

Now, there’s no telling how interested Kovalchuk would be in signing with either team.

That said, it’s not that difficult to imagine both teams being of some interest to the veteran sniper. Kovalchuk is reportedly weighing winning more than getting the biggest paycheck possible, so it’s worth noting that both teams made the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs and each franchise appears to be in win-now modes. Each squad boasts lengthy recent histories of success that surely registered to Kovalchuk during his time in the NHL, too.

Oh yeah, the weather’s also nice around those areas. That cannot hurt.

Let’s consider the other vantage point, then, and daydream about how much Kovalchuk could potentially help the Kings or Sharks.

A dream combo in their twilight

The Sharks have money to burn this off-season, even with some RFAs to re-sign, such as Tomas Hertl. An unclear cap ceiling and a probable Paul Martin buyout make their exact ceiling tough to gauge, but even after retaining Evander Kane at a hefty fee, the Sharks boast a fat wallet.

Let’s assume that the Sharks a) fall short in the John Tavares sweepstakes but b) bring back Joe Thornton and sign Kovalchuk.

For hockey fans of a certain age, it would feel a lot like a generation’s Adam Oates being united with Brett Hull, albeit past their primes. (So maybe this would be akin to Hull joining Oates when the latter almost won a Stanley Cup with the Ducks?)

While you’ll get dissenters, combining the greatest passer of his time (Thornton) with the deadliest pure shooter (Kovalchuk) would feel like a fantasy hockey dream come true. Granted, that fantasy hockey dream would be from 2008, but it would probably still be a blast in 2018-19.

Hockey teaches us that those dream scenarios don’t always play out on the ice. Maybe Kovalchuk would mix better with Logan Couture. Perhaps the Sharks would rather load up Thornton with Kane and Joe Pavelski. There are probably even hypotheticals where San Jose moves the two around to try to put together three dangerous lines. And so on.

Considering how strong the Sharks looked with Thornton on the shelf, and how they have great assets including defensemen Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, it isn’t difficult to picture Kovalchuk to San Jose being mutually beneficial.

(And, hey, the Sharks have a history of landing some significant Russian players, right down to their early days.)

Speaking of delayed matches …

Speaking of Kovalchuk during his prime, it was no secret that the Kings were in hot pursuit of the winger when he hit the free agent market. Some would argue that his decision boiled down to the Kings or the New Jersey Devils.

The “What if?” scenarios are pretty fun there, as the Kings captured two Stanley Cups, including one by edging a Devils team that leaned heavily upon Kovalchuk and Zach Parise.

As much as Los Angeles hopes to modernize post-Darryl Sutter, the truth is that this franchise likely still values winning now over any true notion of a rebuild. Anze Kopitar‘s $10 million cap hit runs through 2023-24, Jonathan Quick‘s deal is only one year shorter, and they’re on the hook for multiple years of Dustin Brown still. For better or worse, they may also extend Drew Doughty to a lengthy deal this summer.

Seeking free agent fixes could very well be the Kings’ path for some time, and few opportunities seem as promising as adding Kovalchuk, even at 35.

The most enjoyable scenario if they landed him:

  • After logging around Brown and Alex Iafallo last season, Kopitar could set up reams of quality scoring chances for Kovalchuk, a player who would ideally be far more capably of burying such chances.
  • Meanwhile, a healthy Jeff Carter skates with Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli, giving the Kings a truly dangerous one-two punch of scoring lines.

Now, it wouldn’t be shocking if Carter mixed better with Kovalchuk. (The fact that they’re both such dangerous shooters could really open up passing lanes, amusingly enough.)

Either way, a productive and useful Kovalchuk would be a boon for the Kings. Honestly, I’d argue that the Kings would want Kovalchuk more than the other way around … which is consistent with their feelings a decade ago, apparently?

***

The bottom line is that all Kovalchuk talk is speculation, as he cannot sign with an NHL team until July.

So, yes, these discussions are largely hypothetical. That’s really part of the fun, though, as imagining possible outcomes sometimes ends up being more entertaining than boring old reality.

Draft weekend maneuverings could very well alter the landscape and force a single, no-brainer choice for Kovalchuk. As of this writing, there would be a lot to like about the Sharks or Kings signing Kovalchuk, though.

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’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.

Futures of Thornton, Kane among key questions for Sharks

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With long-term commitments to Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Martin Jones (not to mention some mid-term deals for less prominent pieces), the San Jose Sharks are largely “set” on defense and in net. They even have backup goalie Aaron Dell locked up through 2019-20.

Things get almost as fuzzy as Joe Thornton‘s beard when it comes to the futures of their forwards, though.

Plenty of questions lingered as members of the Sharks addressed the media on Tuesday.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

For one thing, it’s more than reasonable to wonder about how viable Thornton can be. This isn’t as much about his age alone (38, turning 39 in July), but how much can be expected of “Jumbo Joe” after tearing up each of his knees.

In 2016-17, Thornton dealt with a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee. It turns out that his 2017-18 season was derailed by a torn ACL and MCL in his right knee, as he told reporters including the Athletic’s Kevin Kurz. Yikes.

On the bright side, it sounds like Thornton is willing to be flexible when it comes to making things work with San Jose. The Mercury News’ Paul Gackle is among those who report that Thornton said he’d be willing to a) take a one-year deal and b) accept a cut from the $8 million he received last season.

And that’s where things get fun, at least if you’re a nerd for armchair GM/”franchise mode” discussions. Via Cap Friendly, the Sharks have about $60.49 million committed to their 2018-19 cap as of this moment. With next year’s ceiling expected to be somewhere between $78-82M, that’s ample room for the Sharks to make some interesting moves.

Joe and Evander

On one hand, that could open the door for the Sharks to bring both Thornton and Evander Kane back while also making some other, smaller moves.

There’s a scenario where that could really work for the Sharks. Considering the chemistry Kane developed with Joe Pavelski, the Sharks could have Thornton carry a line, roll with Kane – Pavelski, and then ask Logan Couture to exploit some matchup issues. They could also load up in different ways, maybe putting Pavelski and Kane with Thornton.

The most tantalizing thing for San Jose is that there’s another scenario that could work out even better, at least on paper.

The inevitable Tavares talk

Now, just about any NHL team with a shot at John Tavares should pursue him. It’s a stance that we might as well copy-and-paste at this point. Still, the Sharks hold some key advantages over other pursuers, and they’ve earned specific mentions as an interested party.

Heck, the connection’s been made for more than a year.

They have ample cap space not only to sign Tavares, but also to make some other moves to supplement their group. If Tavares leaves the New York Islanders – a big if, by the way – he’d likely justify such a decision by trying to give himself the best opportunity to win a Stanley Cup. The Sharks stand among the better “win now” teams who also have space to add Tavares. They don’t need to make trades to clear up space for him, either. That’s rare.

It’s to the point that, to some Islanders fans, it might become an irritating meme.

If the Sharks believe they have a real chance at Tavares, they might find themselves delaying other decisions. That’s what happens when you can add the sort of player who not only has a chance to change your fortunes, but perhaps one who could take up close to 20 percent of your cap space.

There’s some precedent to bigger name free agents taking at least a few days to make their big choices. Brad Richards did it, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter added some suspense, and there were even times when things dragged out months when contract details needed to be ironed out, such as when the Devils loophole’d their way to Ilya Kovalchuk. Tavares might want a few nights to sleep on a decision.

Along with that, the Sharks will probably want to really get an idea of how much Thornton has left in the tank. If Evander Kane believes he can get a great deal on the open market, that might mean that his days with San Jose are numbered, even though there were signs that there was a good fit (especially for Kane).

The ripple effects could go beyond 2018-19, too.

Extensions possible

The Sharks also get their first chances to make extension decisions/offers regarding Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture. The two forwards will see their matching $6M cap hits expire after next season, so if San Jose wants to lock them up long-term, they can do so as early as July.

The relief is that Thornton’s willing to go one year, so those decisions would not need to clash.

A possible Tavares addition makes that more complicated, though such an addition may also help the Sharks to convince one or more parties to take a little less money. Maybe.

(We’ve seen Connor McDavid take less than the max, so hockey players make that call at times, whether they actually should or not.)

San Jose does have to mull over the risk/reward regarding a roster that could get old fast, however. Couture turned 29 in March, so he’d be 30 before an extension would kick in. Pavelski is already 33 and will turn 34 in July. Burns is 33 and Vlasic is 31. Kane is relatively young compared to that group at 26, but sometimes snipers age that much more dramatically.

***

These are all situations for GM Doug Wilson to mull over, although the Tavares situation would be a rubber stamp for any executive even halfway worthy of having the gig.

If Tavares is an unrealistic dream – and, again, it’s very dangerous to assume that he won’t stick with the Isles – then the good news is that the Sharks still have space to bring back some key players, maybe dabble in free agency, and maybe even try to make a splashy trade or two.

Falling to the Vegas Golden Knights in the second round might be the sort of thing that gets the Sharks in a Twitter squabble with the Kings, but there could be some really interesting possibilities in this franchise’s future. Wilson just needs to make the right moves … and maybe enjoy some good luck.

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.