Charlie Coyle

Getty

Wild need to hope Parise, Staal are capable of another big season

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.

Replacing Fenton, Spurgeon’s future among biggest questions for Wild

Getty
1 Comment

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. 

Pondering three important questions for the 2019-20 Minnesota Wild.

1. Who will replace Paul Fenton as general manager?

Even though Paul Fenton’s reign of error as Minnesota Wild general manager lasted just one forgettable season it was still long enough to do plenty of damage to the organization.

Among the missteps and blunders during those 14 months…

  • He traded Nino Niederreiter, one of the team’s best players, at what was his lowest possible value for Victor Rask in what might be the NHL’s worst one-for-one trade since Hall for Larsson.
  • He alienated Jason Zucker, one of the team’s other top players and an extremely popular member of the community, by repeatedly trying to trade him (why?!) and allowing the details to leak publicly every time.
  • He never seemed to have a clear long-term direction for the team, trading established veterans with term remaining on their contracts for younger, cheaper players, while simultaneously trying to acquire more veteran, big-money players (trying to trade for Phil Kessel; signing Mats Zuccarello). It was impossible to tell if it was a team trying to rebuild or still trying to compete.

Those were just some of the bigger issues, and now the new general manager has to clean up the mess that was left behind.

But who will that new general manager be?

Will owner Craig Leipold be willing to hire another first-time general manager after the Fenton debacle? If so, Bill Guerin, Tom Fitzgerald, and Bill Zito would seem to be the top names.

Or will he go to the NHL’s recycling bin and bring in a more established GM with experience? If so, Ron Hextall and Dean Lombardi have been mentioned, as has Peter Chiarelli despite his horrendous run with the Edmonton Oilers.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

2. Will any of the new young players take a big step forward?

None of the Wild’s top-eight scorers during the 2018-19 season were under the age of 26 while three of their top-four (Zach Parise, Eric Staal, Ryan Suter) were 34 years old. It is definitely an older team at the top of the lineup, and the addition of a soon-to-be 32-year-old Zuccarello only adds to that.

There are still some intriguing young players on the roster and in the organization and it would be pretty helpful for the Wild if one or two of them emerged as a key player this season.

At the top of that list are Ryan Donato and Kevin Fiala, two of the players acquired by Fenton just prior to the trade deadline this past season.

Donato had a very promising start with the Wild after arriving in the Charlie Coyle trade (the one in-season Fenton trade that had an immediate positive return) and it wasn’t really the result of percentage-driven luck. He was legitimately good and hasn’t looked out of place in his brief NHL career.

Fiala, acquired in the Mikael Granlund trade, is still only 23 years old and has shown 20-goal, 50-point ability in the NHL but regressed a bit last season, especially after the trade. His ability to bounce back from that would be a significant development for the Wild.

3. Will they get Jared Spurgeon re-signed?

Spurgeon may not be one of the biggest names among NHL defenders, but that’s not his fault. He is an outstanding top-pairing defender and should be the team’s biggest priority when it comes to their next long-term contract.

The 29-year-old defender is coming off of a career year offensively (14 goals, 43 points) and has been a rock on the team’s blue line since becoming a regular more than eight years ago. He plays big minutes against other team’s top players, stays out of the penalty box, and is consistently on the positive side of the shot, scoring chances, and goal differentials. If he hits the open market after this season he could be one of the top players available in 2020 free agent class.

He is the Wild’s best all-around defender and keeping him should be a must.

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.

It’s Minnesota Wild Day at PHT

1 Comment

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. 

2018-19
37-36-9, 83 points (last in Central Division, 11th in Western Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN
Ryan Hartman
Mats Zuccarello

OUT
Eric Fehr
Anthony Bitetto
Pontus Aberg
Nate Prosser
Matt Read

RE-SIGNED
Ryan Donato
Brad Hunt

2018-19 Season Summary

The Minnesota Wild failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since the 2011-12 season. That’s a pretty solid run, but it’s one that didn’t result in them doing much damage in the spring. In the three previous years, they had been bounced in the opening round of the playoffs. It sure looks like their championship window has been slammed shut given the age of some of their core players.

As you’d imagine, they didn’t get off to the greatest of starts in 2018-19. The Wild had just one win in their first five games, but they managed to rattle off five wins in a row later on in October. Minnesota went 7-6 in November before things really fell apart in the month of December.

The final month of the calendar year didn’t treat the wild too kindly, as they won just four of the 13 games they played in December. Three of the four games they won came against teams that, like Minnesota, didn’t make the playoffs in 2019.

The ups and downs just kept coming for the Wild. They bounced back in January by winning eight of 12 games, but they fall apart again in February when they dropped nine of their 10 games that month. Even though they looked good at times, they clearly weren’t consistent enough to be one of the top eight teams in the Western Conference.

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

“It’s a bitter pill to swallow,” head coach Bruce Boudreau told the Wild’s website this offseason. “It’s something that I never want to happen again and I think we’re taking steps to make sure that it never does. A little bit has to do with luck and injuries, but it makes for an awful long summer, and as much as you like summer, it’s not what you want when you’re a hockey coach. I don’t know what else to say, other than I’ve hated it and it’s a feeling I don’t want to have to happen again.”

Injuries to key players certainly didn’t help their cause. Mikko Koivu (knee) was limited to 48 games and Matt Dumba (pectoralis muscle) played just 32 contests. Zach Parise, who led the Wild in scoring, only missed eight games, but he’s battled injuries over the last few seasons. There’s no guarantee they’ll be able to count on him for 74 games next year.

This team, which currently has no general manager, has a lot of work to do in order to get themselves back into the top eight. Paul Fenton’s replacement will have some good pieces to work with, but there’s also a long list of older players on the roster, too. Parise, Eric Staal, Ryan Suter and Devan Dubnyk are all at least 33 years old. Their biggest free-agent acquisition, Mats Zuccarello, is going to be 32 once the season starts. That’s an old group.

Also, the fact that Fenton traded Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund away for Victor Rask, Ryan Donato and Kevin Fiala probably won’t help Minnesota. On paper, it sure looks like the Wild would’ve been better with the three players they gave away.

How quickly can this team turn themselves around?

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

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.

Key questions for Bruins in 2019-20

2 Comments

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 Boston Bruins. 

Let’s bat around three burning questions for the Bruins in 2019-20 …

1. Is the Atlantic Division going to be even tougher?

Consider some scenarios that could await the Bruins:

  • The Lightning stand as a powerhouse again, and maybe avoid a playoff disaster this time around.
  • For all the drama, the Maple Leafs remain potent, and perhaps find another gear with Tyson Barrie giving them more defensive balance.
  • Sergei Bobrovsky stops pucks like one of the best goalies in the world, and Joel Quenneville brings together a Panthers team that already boasted considerable talent.
  • A Canadiens team that was sneaky-good last season takes another step forward.
  • The Sabres capitalize on a strong offseason and threaten for one of the top three seeds.
  • The Senators and Red Wings seem likely to struggle, although Detroit could at least be scrappy.

While the Panthers and Habs could just as easily stumble, the top-end of the Atlantic figures to be robust once again. You almost wonder if the Bruins might prefer life as a wild-card team in the Metro bracket, if possible.

[BRUINS DAY: 2018-19 in review | X-factor | Under Pressure]

2. What will they get from their goalies?

The goaltending position is about as unpredictable as it is crucial to an NHL team’s success.

On paper, Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak stand as one of the most dependable duos in the league. Both have shown the ability to put together elite, or near-elite stretches, as recently as 2018-19. If Rask falters or gets hurt, Halak’s been capable of stepping in and playing at a high level. Their career numbers are positively sparkling.

There is one thing “on paper” that’s troubling, though: their ages.

Rask is 32, and Halak is 34. It’s far from impossible for one, or both, to hit the aging curve hard, whether that comes down to suffering untimely injuries, athleticism or fatigue-related drops in play, or a combination of those factors.

I’d argue the Bruins are in a position to succeed goaltending-wise, but there are some red flags that things could also go wrong.

3. Will the Bruins’ offense be more versatile, or remain top-heavy?

Charlie Coyle‘s cold puck luck right after being traded to the Bruins made it seem like Boston would be as top-heavy as ever entering the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Coyle’s lot then turned red-hot for stretches there, allowing him to form a nice supporting duo with Marcus Johansson, and that was crucial during the rare lulls for the Bruins’ dominant top line of Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, and Patrice Bergeron. Supporting players like Coyle, Jake DeBrusk, and Sean Kuraly picked up the slack during the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, as the Blues found ways to solve the Bruins’ top line.

As discussed in the x-factor post about the Bruins battling the aging curve, it’s possible that Bergeron (34) and Marchand (31) may both decline because of all of their mileage, and sometimes those drops are sudden and huge, rather than gradual.

In some cases, the Bruins’ top line might just suffer because of specific matchups, particularly during the playoffs, where a team like the Blues can break down tape and negate some of their strengths with comparable two-way players.

In other cases, like the dog days of the regular season, especially back-to-back sets, it might just be smarter for the Bruins to strategically choose nights to rest veterans like Bergeron.

Younger and/or supporting players can make that feasible if they show that they can handle bigger roles. That’s a pretty big “if,” though.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

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.

Bruins face plenty of salary cap pressure

6 Comments

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 Boston Bruins. 

The Bruins have been a contender for quite some time in the NHL. Inevitably, that comes with the price tag of salary cap headaches.

On the bright side, they’re in a better spot than many of their peers. Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, and Brad Marchand don’t just comprise arguably the best all-around line in the NHL; they’re also all getting paid far less than market value. Those values are the headliners, yet they also have other team-friendly deals with Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug, and Charlie Coyle.

Yet, as fair as it is that Don Sweeney won GM of the Year, he faces some tough work ahead — during the rest of this offseason, and also through the next one.

[MORE: 2018-19 in review | X-factor] | Three questions]

By Cap Friendly’s estimates, the Bruins have approximately $7.294M in cap space heading into 2019-20, but that number is misleading, because key RFA defensemen Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo still need to get paid.

Bruins legend and exec Cam Neely spoke of what Sweeney and the team are currently going through in an interview with NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty.

“Across the league, [negotiations with RFAs] has been like sweeping mud. Unfortunately, it’s still status quo [with Carlo and McAvoy],” Neely said. “The history since Don [Sweeney] has been here is that when we negotiate, we do it from a position of fairness. We do a lot of work at comps around the league and try to get a deal done that’s fair. We start with initial offers that are fair and that’s been no different with Brandon and Charlie.”

One can debate McAvoy’s value – he’s a star in my opinion, while the Bruins argue that injuries hurt his case – but the bottom line is that a defenseman of his caliber could eat up close to $7M alone, even without the (dubious) threat of offer sheets.

Recent history shows that the Bruins have deftly found ways to use their own limitations and leverage to get bargains. The dream is probably for McAvoy to sign the sort of relatively cheap bridge deal Torey Krug did, as Krug signed for just $5.25M per year when things were tight in 2016.

The downside of bridge deals is that they only buy you so much time, and the bill is coming for Krug, as he’s entering a contract year. So, beyond finding immediate answers for McAvoy and Carlo, the Bruins must also ponder their approach for 2020-21.

For all of Sweeney’s many wise decisions, contending teams feel the sting of mistakes.

  • David Backes struggles to even crack the top 12 forwards, and while his contract only lasts for two more seasons, it comes at the whopping cost of $6M. If his rugged career isn’t enough to eventually land him on LTIR, then he’s the biggest headache going forward. Maybe the expansion draft would save Boston, even if it meant bribing Seattle and convincing Backes to waive clauses?
  • John Moore would be another bribe case, although his $2.75M AAV lasts through 2022-23, which is tough to fathom.
  • Moving Kevan Miller seems the most doable, as his $2.5M cap hit expires after 2019-20.

Chances are, the Bruins will find a way, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Will they eventually need to wave goodbye to Charlie Coyle, whose bargain $3.2M cap hit evaporates after 2019-20? Could we see David Krejci trade rumors crop up again?

It’s one thing to get under the cap, yet the Bruins also want to contend, making this a challenging juggling act. To the Bruins’ credit, they’re at least not juggling chainsaws like peers who are in even bigger binds, but they’ll need to exhibit serious skill (and enjoy some serious luck) if they’ll end this exhibition with the crowd going wild.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

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.