Bruce Boudreau

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Things are so bad for Wild, even Bruce Boudreau’s getting called out

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The Minnesota Wild suffered through a miserable and embarrassing offseason, and things really haven’t gotten much better through the first two weeks of 2019-20.

Thursday presented a buffet table of badness for the Wild:

  • They fell 4-0 to the Montreal Canadiens, and didn’t muster much of a fight. Carey Price only needed to make 17 saves for the shutout. You’d think there would have been more of a pushback being that Montreal went up 3-0 during the first period, yet the Habs generated an 18-11 SOG advantage through the final 40 minutes despite holding a chunky lead.
  • Minnesota is now 1-6-0. The Wild’s only win was a 2-0 snoozer against the lowly Ottawa Senators.
  • The Athletic’s Michael Russo reports that the Wild held a 10-minute players-only meeting, often a telltale sign that tensions are mounting.
  • In a truly rare and juicy moment, Russo points out Jason Zucker is asking more from everyone … including head coach Bruce Boudreau.

“I think more than (a meeting’s) going to have to jumpstart us, to be honest with you,” Zucker said. “It’s going to be each individual guy from Bruce on down. Bruce has got to be better. We’ve got to be better. Everybody’s got to be better. That’s it.”

Walking off the ledge in a few ways

So, yeah, the Wild are pretty miserable right now. In falling to 1-6-0, the Wild have been outscored by 15 goals through this young season.

But it is early. The Wild have 74 games remaining on their regular season schedule. They’re not even really alone in the Central Division, either, as the Dallas Stars came into 2019-20 with bigger expectations (and more dollars spent) and find themselves sputtering to a 1-6-1 start.

There’s also the matter of it possibly being better, in the long-term, for the Wild to be really bad in the short-term.

You can also consider context. The Wild have played six of their first seven games on the road, and while they beat a bad team for their lone win, Minnesota’s faced stiff competition overall. Five of their sixth losses came against teams that made the playoffs in 2018-19, and the Canadiens weren’t that far from doing the same.

Those excuses might not do much for a team with frayed emotions. Boudreau and his players would probably roll their eyes at such comments.

Yet, for a team who would probably need some luck to be more than a bubble team, factors like quality of opponents and tough road trips could really make the difference. Especially when you stagger into the season after a bewildering and humiliating summer, and didn’t exactly gain a lot of confidence in the way 2018-19 ended, either.

Things are bleak for the Wild, and it’s possible that they stay that way.

It’s also early, though, so this is a good time for the Wild to gather themselves, and maybe get back on track.

There also still could be a lot of nights like these, although you won’t see Boudreau’s name mentioned like this very often — assuming he can survive the peaks and valleys of this season as Wild head coach, in general. In other words, feel free to break out your cringe-inducing puns about this being a “wild” ride.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• 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.

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.

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.

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Top storylines entering training camp

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In this week’s NHL Power Rankings we take a look at some of the biggest storylines across the league that are worth watching throughout the 31 training camps. The top issue throughout the offseason has been the ongoing RFA standstill, but that has been discussed so much and is starting to resolve itself with signings trickling in that we are going to focus on topics outside of that.

Included among them, a major goaltending competition that could impact one team’s entire season, new coaches in new places, coaches on the hot seat, and whether or not a recent league MVP will want to re-sign with his current team.

What else are we keeping an eye on this preseason? Let’s get to the rankings to find out!

1. Columbus’ goalie competition. It might be the most interesting and important competition in any camp across the league. The Blue Jackets are getting fed up with being told how bad they will be this season, and while they still have a lot of reasons for optimism on the roster the ability of either Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins to adequately replace Sergei Bobrovsky will determine what the team is capable of doing.

2. Joel Quenneville’s impact in Florida. It has been a long time since Panthers fans have had a reason for optimism at the start of a season. This might even be the first time since they came off a Stanley Cup Final appearance all the way back in 1996 that they have reason to believe better days are ahead. They had a huge offseason that was kicked off with the addition of a future Hall of Fame, three-time Stanley Cup winning coach.

3. Taylor Hall‘s future in New Jersey. Ray Shero was one of the NHL’s busiest general managers this summer with the additions of P.K. Subban, Wayne Simmonds, Nikita Gusev, and the drafting of Jack Hughes with No. 1 overall pick. His biggest move, though, will be convincing his best player to stay in New Jersey and sign a long-term deal. Hall missed most of the last season due to injury and the Devils were never able to recover from that. Now that he is back the pressure is on New Jersey to get back to the playoffs. If they can’t do that after all of their summer additions, what motivation is there for Hall to want to re-sign?

4. Connor McDavid‘s health. This could probably be even higher on the list, but it seems like he is going to be ready for the start of the season. Still, he is coming back from a pretty significant injury at the end of the last season and there is reason to believe he may not quite be 100 percent at the start. He is the league’s best player and if the Oilers have any hope of competing they not only need him to be healthy, they need him to put the entire franchise on his back and carry it. Tough ask.

5. Coaches on the hot seat. Bruce Boudreau has to be pretty high on this list. He has already done the impossible for an NHL head coach and outlasted two GMs in Minnesota, but how long of a leash will he get under new GM Bill Guerin? Winnipeg’s Paul Maurice also has to be near the top of this list. The Jets badly regressed a year ago and have a ton of question marks entering the season and a slow start could lead to a change behind the bench.

6. The Colorado hype. They have what might be the best young core in the NHL, addressed their biggest depth needs at forward with the additions of Andre Burakovsky, Joonas Donskoi, and Nazem Kadri, and have a couple of young stars on defense in Cale Makar, Sam Girard, and 2019 No. 4 overall pick Bowen Byram. They already took a huge step a year ago by reaching Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and with the roster they have entering this season (as well as the salary cap space at their disposal) there is going to be plenty of pressure to take the next step.

7. First-round picks competing for roster spots. Jack Hughes (New Jersey) and Kaapo Kakko (New York Rangers), the top two picks in the 2019 NHL draft, seem to be locks to make their respective rosters, but are there any other 2019 first-round picks that can find their way onto a roster this season? Kirby Dach with the Blackhawks? Byram in Colorado? Maybe Dylan Cozens in Buffalo?

8. Craig Berube and Jordan Binnington in St. Louis. The hiring of Berube and call-up of Binnington were the two turning points for the Blues on their way to a Stanley Cup. What will the duo be capable of for an encore when expectations will undoubtedly be higher than they were when they made their Blues debuts? The biggest question probably rests with Binnington’s ability to duplicate his 2018-19 performance over a full season.

9. Ralph Krueger in Buffalo. The Sabres’ head coaching position has been a revolving door of mediocrity over the past eight years. Can Krueger be the one break the cycle that has seen them make a change every two years? Or will his tenure be more of the same for an organization that has given its loyal fans nothing but grief for nearly a decade now?

10. Will it be another lost season for the Southern California teams? The Kings were terrible from the start a year ago, while the Ducks eventually cratered in the second half after goaltending carried them as far as it could early in the year. Is there any reason to expect anything different this season? The Ducks already lost veterans Corey Perry (buyout), Ryan Kesler and Patrick Eaves (injury) and did not really add much to their roster over the summer. The Kings still seem stuck in limbo in what direction they want to take as an organization and will be relying heavily on bounce-back years from veterans. Instead of fighting for a Stanley Cup, this intense rivalry might be about draft lottery odds.

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.