Bill Guerin

These are Wild times in Minnesota

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Expectations surrounding the Minnesota Wild were pretty low heading into this year. They were old, fired general manager Paul Fenton after he was allowed to sign players last summer, and they missed the playoffs by seven points in 2018-19. So, forgive the hockey world if they didn’t expect them to play much of a role in this year’s playoff chase.

The season started off the way everyone expected. Minnesota dropped their first four games to Nashville, Colorado, Winnipeg and Pittsburgh. They also lost six of their first seven games. During that opening seven-game segment of the season, they allowed at least four goals in all six of their losses.

They managed to tighten up a little bit after that point, but their season really took off when they returned home from their West Coast road trip on Nov. 14. That day, they beat the Arizona Coyotes, 3-2. They followed that up by losing to Carolina in overtime, beating Buffalo and Colorado and losing to Boston in overtime. They suffered an OT loss to the Rangers in New York, beat the Devils in New Jersey and took down the Senators and Stars in Minnesota. They’ve hit the road for back-to-back games in Florida and managed to beat the Panthers and Lightning on Tuesday and Thursday of this week.

Add it all up and the Wild have won five games in a row and they’ve collected a point in the standings in 11 consecutive contests. Yeah, that’s an impressive accomplishment for any group, especially this one.

A lot has gone right during this 8-0-3 run. Their big free-agent signing, Mats Zuccarello, has started producing with a lot more regularity. The veteran had a three-point effort in last night’s win over the Tampa Bay Lightning and he’s picked up nine points in his last nine contests.

Who saw Alex Stalock emerging as a quality starting goalie for the Wild? Since starter Devan Dubnyk has been away from the team for personal reasons, Stalock has gone 5-0-2 and he’s held the opposition to two goals or fewer in four of those outings.

And it’s not like the Wild haven’t had to overcome even more adversity throughout this streak. For example, on Tuesday night against Florida, they were down 2-0 in the first period and lost both Mikko Koivu and Jared Spurgeon to injury. Instead of folding, they came back and won the game in regulation.

Last night, they were down 1-0 in the first period and they blew 3-1 and 4-3 leads, but still managed to take down the Bolts in the regulation.

This team clearly believes in itself right now.

“You haven’t seen that with this team for a while, but I think it’s the belief in them right at this point,” Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau said after the win over Tampa, per NHL.com. “Instead of saying, ‘Oh, woe is me,’ they’re saying, ‘Let’s go, let’s get these guys right away.’ It doesn’t work all the time. When you’re winning and things are going good, it works. They’ve dug deep and [are] really playing for each other. When you do that, good things happen.”

This lengthy unbeaten streak has allowed the Wild to climb back into a playoff spot, as they’re currently in the second Wild Card position. Sure, Vancouver, San Jose and Calgary are all breathing down their neck, but they shouldn’t care about that. They need to keep this run going for as long as they can.

One thing that jumps out when looking at Minnesota’s home and road splits, is the amount of games they’ve played away from Xcel Energy Center. The Wild have an awesome 7-1-2 record at home. They’ve also won seven games on the road, but their record away from home is 7-10-2. We’re less than three months into the season and they’ve already played nine more road games than home games. The fact that they’re in such a good position is even more remarkable when you consider all that.

After Sunday’s road game in Carolina, the Wild will get to enjoy a week at home, as they’ll take on Anaheim, Edmonton and Philadelphia before embarking on another three-game road trip.

If they can stay within striking distance of a playoff spot, does new GM Bill Guerin pull the trigger on a trade for a rental?

This will be an intriguing situation to follow.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Perry at 1,000 games; underappreciated Teravainen

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.

Corey Perry reflects on his career after reaching the 1,000-game mark Wednesday night. [NHL.com]

• The power play has garnered a lot of attention, but the Penguins’ penalty kill has been outstanding. [Pensburgh]

• Meanwhile, the Sabres’ PK is just not working. [Buffalo News]

• After a collision with Nikita Kucherov last week in Sweden, Vladimir Sobotka will be out 4-6 weeks with a lower-body injury. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

Jake DeBrusk and David Pastrnak have teamed up to be quite the video game duo. [Bruins Daily]

• It was only one win, but the Sharks’ confidence is growing after beating the Oilers on Tuesday. [NBC Sports Bay Area]

• Why Teuvo Teravainen has been the Hurricanes’ most under appreciated player, according to Rod Brind’Amour. [News and Observer]

• Meet Emilie Castonguay, the NHL’s rare female agent who has top draft prospect Alexis Lafreniere as a client. [USA Today]

• Wild GM Bill Guerin is staying patient…for now. [Pioneer Press]

• “In a notice of civil claim filed with the B.C. Supreme Court on Oct. 22, Jason Garrison claimed his advisors failed to take his circumstances into account while selling him expensive policies he did not need.” [Surrey Now Leader]

• Could the Flames be a fit for Taylor Hall? [Flames Nation]

• Breaking down the 2020 Winter Classic jerseys for the Stars and Predators. [Hockey by Design]

• Jets rallying around turbulent start to season. [Winnipeg Free Press]

• Philippe Myers is turning into an underrated favorite on the Flyers’ roster. [Philadelphia Sports Nation]

• A look back at the “Lisa on Ice” episode of The Simpsons, 25 years later. [SI.com]

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: Faith in Quick; remembering Ted Green

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.

• Todd McLellan is keeping the faith in a struggling Jonathan Quick. [LA Times]

• How an increase in cap space for the Flyers means good news for Chris Stewart, who remains on a PTO deal with the team. [Courier Post]

• How Blues’ goaltender Jordan Binnington is planning to silence his doubters. [ESPN]

• It’s early, but Ralph Krueger’s message is working so far for the Sabres. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

• The frustrations levels are rising for the Devils. [NHL.com]

• Remembering longtime player, coach, and seven-time Stanley Cup winner Ted Green, who passed away last week at age 79. [Edmonton Journal]

• Bill Guerin is eager to make his mark as a first-time NHL GM with the Wild. [Tribune Review]

• Why it’s time for the Capitals to turn to Ilya Samsonov. [Puck Prose]

• ECHL forward Daniel Perez is among the Hispanic players who see Scott Gomez as a role model. [NHL.com]

• A look at Lucas Raymond, one of the top prospects in the 2020 NHL Draft. [Draft Analyst]

• How soon will the NHL’s early season offensive boon last? [Spector’s Hockey]

• Why Rasmus Sandin heading down to the AHL is the right move by the Maple Leafs. [Sportsnet]

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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.

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

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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.