Eric Staal

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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.

Boudreau needs to get Wild turned around quickly

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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. 

Most head coaches in the NHL don’t get to stay on the job longer than two of the organization’s general managers, but Bruce Boudreau clearly isn’t “most head coaches”. Boudreau, who was hired by former GM Chuck Fletcher in May of 2016, got to stay on staff when Paul Fenton took over in the front office last summer.

Now, Fenton’s gone and the Wild are still looking for their next general manager. We know that GMs will typically bring in their own head coach, but it would be mildly surprising to see the next person replace Boudreau with someone else so deep into the offseason. That doesn’t mean that the next GM will hesitate to fire the veteran coach if the team gets off to a bad start in 2019-20.

Based on what we saw from Minnesota last season, it’ll be difficult for them to get themselves on track quickly. The Wild finished outside of the playoffs for the first time since the 2011-12 season and they were also last in the Western Conference’s Central Division.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Three Questions | X-Factor]

The other thing that won’t play into Boudreau’s favor, is his lack of playoff success since taking over in Minnesota. Since he took over behind the bench, the Wild have not made it beyond the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (they were eliminated by the Blues and the Jets in five games). Combine that with the Wild’s recent difficult campaign and their search for a new general manager, and you can easily understand why Boudreau is very much on the hot seat.

So what has to happen for them to become one of the eight best teams in the West?

“Our lack of scoring was probably the biggest difference I think, from the two previous teams we’d had,” Boudreau told NHL.com last week. “It wasn’t any one thing. You can take Jason Zucker and say he had an off year production wise, but he had as many chances as he’s had in the previous years, he just hit 13 more posts than he did the year before. Things just weren’t going in and that happens.

“A lot of people are counting us out, and that’s great. I’m really happy they are counting us out because I think we’re going to come more mad and with a chip on our shoulders. We’ve got a lot to prove to a lot of people and I think we’re going to do it.”

Technically, he has a point. The Wild ranked 11th in the NHL in CF% and third in high danger CF% behind the Vegas Golden Knights, who made the playoffs, and the St. Louis Blues, who won the Stanley Cup. Unfortunately for them, their high danger GF% was 46.39 percent, which was 24th best last season. So they clearly didn’t convert on their high number of high danger chances.

When their backs are against the wall, a lot of coaches prefer to rely on veteran players and that’s exactly what Boudreau will be able to do during the pressure-packed time. Whether you think it’s good news or not, Minnesota has a long list of veteran players that they’ll have to rely on this season.

Mats Zuccarello, who was their big free-agent acquisition this summer, will be 32 next month. They also have Zach Parise, Eric Staal, Ryan Suter, Mikko Koivu, and Devan Dubnyk, who are all at least 33 years old right now. Whether or not that helps them remains to be seen, but this is an older group with some injury concerns. How will Koivu look once he returns from a knee injury? Can Parise stay healthy? Are the Wild good enough? Can Boudreau survive a slow start?

Those questions are all legitimate (the PHT team will tackle them throughout the day).

We don’t know how things will shake out in Minnesota this year, but they’re definitely a team to keep an eye on right now.

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.

It’s Minnesota Wild Day at PHT

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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.

Hurricanes have knack for making most of rare playoff runs

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In that magical run to the franchise’s first-ever Stanley Cup victory, the Washington Capitals finally broke a cycle of fantastic regular seasons followed by heartbreaking finishes. Finally, the Capitals made good, in part because they consistently gave themselves a chance by winning division titles, if not the Presidents’ Trophy.

The Carolina Hurricanes introduce some really fun contrasts to the Capitals, including being the analytics darling while Washington often transcends those numbers.

But an even more tantalizing narrative is a “David vs. Goliath”-type underdog story, as the Hurricanes haven’t tasted the postseason since 2008-09.

(For some perspective: the Capitals have only missed the playoffs once [in 2013-14] since 2007-08.)

Give the Hurricanes this much, though: they have an uncanny knack for making the most of their rare playoff runs. It’s something to think about as the series begins with Game 1 in Washington on Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. ET (USA; live stream).

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

This is just Carolina’s sixth playoff appearance since moving from Hartford and becoming the Hurricanes in 1997-98, yet they conjured some magic in their last three appearances. Consider those three stretches, from oldest to newest:

  • In 2001-02, the Hurricanes made it to the 2002 Stanley Cup Final, falling 4-1 to the Detroit Red Wings. With 91 points during the regular season, Carolina beat out the Capitals for the Southeast Division title, but the team nonetheless felt decidedly scrappy. Current coach Rod Brind’Amour was an alternate captain.
  • After that run, the Hurricanes failed to make the playoffs for two straight seasons, before the 2004-05 season was canceled because of a lockout. The Hurricanes then won the Stanley Cup during the zany 2005-06 season. Many remember this as a weak team for a champion, but some forget that they finished the season with 112 points, the second-highest total in the East that season. Eric Staal topped all scorers with a breakthrough 100-point season, Brind’Amour was the captain and two-way beast, and Cam Ward won the Conn Smythe.
  • The Hurricanes then missed the playoffs for two straight seasons before returning to the postseason in 2008-09, their last appearance until the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Carolina won two playoff rounds before being swept by the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final. Brind’Amour was … still captain.

So, in the Hurricanes’ last three playoff runs, they’ve won nine playoff series, and lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champions both times they failed to win it all. That’s pretty good bang for your buck, huh?

It’s also worth noting that Brind’Amour has been involved in those three runs, which … *arches eyebrow*

None of this is to say that the Hurricanes will go deep during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as they’re considerable, justifiable underdogs against the defending champions in Round 1, just to begin. Still, it’s remarkable how this franchise has made the most of these appearances in the past.

Hurricanes – Capitals Game 1 from Capital One Arena will be Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. ET on USA Network. You can stream it here.

For more on these two teams, check out the series preview. Get a rundown of Thursday’s full slate of Game 1 action with The Wraparound.

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.

Josh Morrissey suspended one game for cross-checking Eric Staal

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Winnipeg Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey will be forced to sit out Game 5 of Winnipeg’s first-round series on Friday after being suspended one game for a cross-check to the head of Minnesota Wild forward Eric Staal.

The NHL’s Department of Player Safety handed down the ruling on Wednesday evening. Morrissey had a hearing on Wednesday afternoon after a dangerous cross-check hit Staal in the side of the head in the first period of Tuesday’s 2-0 win for the Jets.

Winnipeg lead’s the best-of-7 series 3-1 as the series shifts back to Winnipeg for Game 5 on Friday night at Bell MTS Place.

In the DOPS video, department head George Parros states that while sticks occasionally ride up a player’s back or shoulder while a defender is trying to box out a forward, that simply wasn’t the case for Morrissey.

“[This is] not a routine motion to box out an opponent,” Parros said in the video. “Staal is in Morrissey’s field of vision, there is no on-going battle between the players. Morrissey is in control of the play and initiates contact.

“This is a reckless strike to an opponent’s neck, with sufficient force to merit supplemental discipline.”

Morrissey has not received a fine nor a suspension in 164 NHL games.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

After Tuesday’s game, Bruce Boudreau blamed the cross-check for the Wild’s loss. On Wednesday, Boudreau stuck to his guns.

“Well, usually I’m pretty subjective in that, OK, it was a bad call, but we didn’t deserve to win anyway, or this and that,” Boudreau said. “But that had a definite, … definite impact on the whole game. if you think that it would have been 5-on-3 and he would have been out of the game, they wouldn’t have had the opportunity at the end of the first, we would have started the second on a power play, he was the one, you know, Nino [Niederreiter] had a breakaway and he made a great play defending. It had a definite, definite impact on the game. and if you can score on a 5-on-3, then all of a sudden you’re playing with the lead, you’re not chasing the game. it’s different tactics by them and everything else, so from that standpoint, it impacted the game greatly.”

Following the game, Morrissey said it was never his intention to injure Staal.

“I watched the video afterward, and we’re battling in front of the net on the penalty kill, and I’m actually looking at the puck on the wall, trying to box him out,” Morrissey said. “I got my stick up too high on him. It was a complete accident. I would never try to do that. I was glad he was able to come back and play the rest of the game.”

On Wednesday, Jets head coach Paul Maurice said he would have been surprised if Morrissey received a suspension.

“I’m not surprised there’s a hearing,” Maurice said. “You guys have been running it for a day and a half, pretty hard. There’s a penalty there and very most you might look at a fine. Based on what I’ve seen for (plays that) were either suspended or fined for a stick that didn’t hit the head, and some of these others have, there’s no intent. There’s a penalty. They missed it.

“I think they’re nervous about putting a team five-on-three because it happened to us the game before and there shouldn’t have been a penalty call and they’re aware of that. There’s no intent.

“I don’t come out and complain about the refereeing. Things get missed. We clearly felt there was intent on the (Tyler) Myers hit, there was absolutely, in my mind, intent on the hit on (Jacob) Trouba hit from (Marcus) Foligno. I know you all saw it when you weren’t looking at your phones, the (Nino) Niederreiter headbutt to (Ben) Chiarot.

Maurice backed Morrissey, suggesting there was no intent to injure on the play.

“There’s no intent on this. It got played,” Maurice said. “You’ve got a real smart coach on the other bench who has all the focus on that and not on the game now. Why wouldn’t you? Morrissey is a great defenceman for us. If you had a chance to get him out, you’d play it as hard as you could, so I don’t have any problem with that.

“There’s a penalty there and at very most you might look at a fine but thankfully Eric Staal played the rest of the game, played hard, played well, finished all of his checks, played with an edge. So he certainly was able to come back and that’s a good thing.”


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck