Jared Spurgeon

Wild’s Spurgeon 10 seasons into size-defying career

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The defining moment of Jared Spurgeon‘s hockey career came when he was just 13: His peewee coach in Edmonton moved him from forward to defenseman.

There was no going back for Spurgeon, even though he hasn’t grown much bigger since then. Minnesota’s 5-foot-9, 167-pound stalwart on the blue line has been defying size stereotypes ever since.

”I just fell in love with the position,” Spurgeon said.

The Wild have felt the same way about him over the last 10 seasons. The 30-year-old Spurgeon, who set career highs in games (82), goals (14), assists (29), shots (152) and hits (91) during the 2019-19 season, signed a seven-year, $53 million contract extension at the beginning of training camp.

Not bad for a sixth-round pick the New York Islanders ultimately declined to sign, paving the way for a tryout with the Wild two years after he was drafted.

”Probably the best in the NHL at breaking the puck out. Unbelievable on his edges. One of the smartest players in the game,” said Buffalo defenseman Marco Scandella, who played with Spurgeon in Minnesota for seven seasons. ”He’s got a lot of things in his toolbox, and he doesn’t even need the size.”

Spurgeon, who is halfway through an expected two-week absence for a hand injury sustained while blocking a shot, has ranked over the last four years in the top 20 among NHL defensemen in goals, power play goals, blocked shots and time on ice.

”That’s one of those players that you’re just like, ‘How?’ ” Scandella said. ”You just have to watch him over a season. Play with him, and you understand how good he is.”

The ability to skate – and pass – quickly will always be critical for a player with Spurgeon’s frame. Part of that is being fast enough to elude opponents, but it also means maximizing his power by maintaining leverage and balance for the moments when he does initiate or absorb contact.

”You don’t need to be huge and massive to be strong on your skates,” said St. Louis center Ryan O'Reilly, who faces Spurgeon frequently as a Central Division rival. ”You go in and forecheck, and he is so strong. It’s like going against a big guy.”

Awareness is just as important as fearlessness to succeed as a 5-foot-9 player, of course.

Spurgeon simply doesn’t get pushed around much because he’s rarely caught off guard by a big hit. The advantage of vision from the blue line, being able to see the plays develop in front of him, was one of the benefits that immediately drew Spurgeon to defense. He tried to emulate players who came before him like Brian Rafalski and Dan Boyle, sub-6-foot defensemen who were offensive threats but never a liability in their own zone.

”The emphasis of moving the puck and getting up ice and being able to contribute offensively as well is a whole lot different than it used to be, where maybe you had one of those guys before and a bunch of a big, mean guys,” Spurgeon said. ”But I think now the game is so fast that I think it gives the ability for smaller guys to play.”

According to Sportradar data, there are 41 defensemen who have appeared in at least one NHL game this season and are listed at 5-foot-11 or shorter. That number drops to 18 at 5-foot-10 or less and to six at 5-foot-9 and under.

In the 2005-06 season after the lockout, which brought rule changes to encourage more free-flowing action in the neutral zone and increase goal scoring, there were only 29 defensemen at 5-foot-11 or shorter, 11 at 5-foot-10 or less, and three at 5-foot-9 and under. Twenty years ago, there were fewer still: 22 players at 5-foot-11 or shorter, eight at 5-foot-10 or less, and just one at 5-foot-9 and under.

The Wild have two 5-foot-9 blue-liners with Spurgeon and Brad Hunt. Boston’s Torey Krug is another standout in the club. Those lanky veterans around the league like St. Louis’ Colton Parayko (6-foot-6), Carolina’s Dougie Hamilton (6-foot-6) and Boston’s Zdeno Chara (6-foot-9) have obvious advantages with reach and strength, but there’s plenty more to sound defense than being able to poke a stick at a puck.

”We have the quickness and the first two or three strides in order to close plays so that they don’t get the possession of the puck and move on. I think it’s just using our skating abilities,” Krug said. ”I think it’s been a long time coming, especially with the real changes in the way the game is trending. It’s funny, years ago to have one of those guys on your team, people kind of scoffed at that. Now we’ve got two and sometimes three in the lineup at once, and it creates really mobile back end.”

STREAKING

Pittsburgh goalie Tristan Jarry had a franchise-record scoreless run of 177:15 that ended during a 4-1 loss to Montreal on Tuesday, just the second defeat in eight starts for the backup to Matt Murray. Jarry stopped 82 consecutive shots during the streak, the longest in the league this season.

SLUMPING

The Detroit Red Wings are sliding toward a four-year absence from the playoffs after the end of their famous 25-season streak of making it. The Red Wings are on a 12-game winless streak, going 0-10-2 since Nov. 12, and have the worst record in the NHL at 7-22-3. They’ve dropped 10 straight games in regulation by a 47-16 margin.

PHT Morning Skate: Delicate line for NHL coaches; Sabres headed for collapse?

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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.

• The Devils discuss why John Hynes was fired, and the tone is pretty close to the opposite of how people discussed coaches like Mike Babcock once he was out the door. Taylor Hall talks up Hynes’ role in Hall winning a Hart Trophy, saying “I have a pretty cool trophy at home that I think he had a part in.” (The Trentonian)

• Kings coach Todd McLellan has been around, including working with Mike Babcock in Detroit. He has some interesting insight on how “delicate” it can be to motivate players without crossing the line, and compares it to how discipline has changed at elementary schools. “Ears aren’t pulled. You don’t go to the principal’s office to see or get the strap.” (Los Angeles Times)

• John Tortorella didn’t comment, but plenty of players from his various stops discuss his methods, with the overriding message being that he doesn’t cross the line. (The Athletic [$])

• A hand injury will likely keep Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon out at least a couple weeks. (Star-Tribune)

• In taking a deep dive regarding the Sabres’ underlying numbers, Travis Yost wonders if another collapse is looming. (Buffalo News)

• Manon Rhéaume, the first woman to play in the NHL, will be honored with a statue outside Quebec City’s Videotron Centre. [CBC]

• An in-depth breakdown of the Blues’ “Enter the Zone,” predictive gaming platform, which “offered a glimpse of the future of wagering on professional hockey.” (ESPN)

• Sonny Sachdeva wonders if Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl could actually maintain their paces at around 140 points, and compares their starts to some of the hottest stretches from the likes of Jaromir Jagr and Sidney Crosby. (Sportsnet)

• How defensemen are evolving to impact games more at 5-on-5 than on the power play. (Rotoworld)

• People might snicker at Alex Burrows making the Ring of Honour, or sneer at his agitating days, but Daniel Wagner explains that you won’t understand Burrows if you aren’t a fan of the Canucks. (Vancouver Courier/Pass it to Bulis)

• When will the Blackhawks break out of their current trend of mediocrity? (Second City Hockey)

• The second tier of pending free agents who might get big raises, from Jake Muzzin to Evgenii Dadonov. (Sporting News)

• There are some interesting photo choices in the latest edition of the Upper Deck hockey card series. [Puck Junk]

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.

NHL Fantasy Hockey: Olofsson, Schwartz among this week’s best adds

Welcome to our weekly Adds/Drops column, where I focus on highlighting players you should consider grabbing or be concerned about in fantasy leagues. As always, the goal here isn’t to recommend 10 players you must add and five players that need to be dropped. Context is everything and the context of each league is different. What this is instead is a guideline so that if you’re looking to make a change, you have potential players to target and if you see players I’ve suggested to drop, you can evaluate your potential alternates.

Players Worth Adding

Jared Spurgeon, Wild – D: Spurgeon might not be the best of the best when it comes to offensive production from defensemen, but he has been rather good and reliable in recent years. He’s recorded between 37-43 points in each of his previous three seasons and he’s well on his way to doing at least that well in 2019-20 with three goals and 15 points in 26 games. His production has come in waves this season, but right now he’s riding one with a goal and six points in his last five contests. If you want to grab a hot defensemen who wouldn’t look out of place on most teams throughout the year then Spurgeon should be on your shortlist. Presently he’s only owned in 25% of Yahoo leagues.

Adam Fox, Rangers – D: If you want someone who is a bigger gamble than Spurgeon, but with more upside, then you could consider Fox instead. The one thing the two of them have in common is that both of them have been producing lately. In Fox’s case, he has two goals and five points in his last five games. Fox has been flying a bit under the radar for a while now though. He had no points in his first seven games while averaging just 16:04 minutes, but more recently the rookie has settled in and become a major contributor for the Rangers. From Oct. 24th onward, he’s scored five goals and 14 points in 18 contests while averaging 18:50 minutes. A lot of people haven’t gravitated to him yet given that he’s still owned in just 27% of Yahoo leagues, but if he keeps playing like this then he’ll start getting scooped up at an exponential rate. In other words, there might not be a whole lot more time to grab the 21-year-old.

Ivan Barbashev, Blues – C/LW: Barbashev had just 14 goals and 26 points in 80 games last season, but that’s hardly surprising given that he was averaging a modest 11:31 minutes. The Blues are giving him 13:33 minutes per game this season and his production has ticked up to four goals and 13 points in 28 contests. He’s not a major offensive threat, but at this point he’s worth at least looking at as a short-term grab when he’s hot. Now is such a time given that he’s scored two goals and six points in his last three games.

Gustav Nyquist, Blue Jackets – LW/RW: The Blue Jackets had a rough summer to say the least, but the one significant player they did manage to sign was Nyquist. He was limited to a goal in his first four games with them, perhaps because he was still finding his groove with his new team, but since then he’s been a pretty reliable contributor. He has six goals and 17 points in his last 22 games. Over that span he hasn’t been held off the scoresheet for more than two games in a row. Along with his eligibility on both wings, he’s a nice player to help fill the void if you’re dealing with injury problems.

Blake Coleman, Devils – LW/RW: Coleman’s not a great long-term pickup, but he might be worth gambling on in the short-term. He’s been effectively lately with six goals and 10 points in his last nine games. That’s in stark contrast to his three goals and four points in 16 contests start to the campaign. Coleman’s long-term production will fall about in the middle of those extremes, but for the most at least he’s playing above his norm.

[For more fantasy sports analysis, check out Rotoworld]

Joonas Donskoi, Avalanche – LW/RW: Donskoi is having a pretty interesting season. He’s been held off the scoresheet of 15 of 26 games, but he still has 11 goals and 22 points. That’s because when he does have an offensive game, it tends to be a big one. He has six multi-point games this season and four contests where he’s recorded at least three points. To put that in perspective, teammate Nathan MacKinnon, who has nearly double Donskoi’s point total, has contributed just one more three or more points game. This is all to say that Donskoi has been a bumpy ride, but if you can stomach the droughts, he has averaged out to be a pretty good contributor.

Dustin Brown, Kings – RW: Brown has already endured some prolonged slumps this season, but he’s been better lately with two goals and five points in six contests. It’s entirely possible this is just a bit of a hot streak and that proves to be the case, you shouldn’t hesitate to drop him. That said, he was pretty effective in 2017-18 and 2018-19, so it’s entirely possible that he’s turned a corner and will be fairly solid going forward.

Victor Olofsson, Sabres – LW/RW: Offensive defensemen have been the highlight of this season’s rookie pool thus far, but in terms of rookie forwards, Olofsson has led the charge with 10 goals and 20 points in 27 games. He had a quiet stretch from Oct. 17-Nov. 2 where he was limited to just two assists in eight games, but he’s bounced back in a big way with four goals and 10 points over his last 12 contests.

Jaden Schwartz, Blues – LW: Schwartz was limited to 11 goals and 36 points in 69 games last season, which is the worst he’s done from a points-per-game perspective since his 2012-13 rookie campaign. He’s bounced back nicely in 2019-20 though. He has seven goals and 20 points in 28 contests, making him a pretty decent stopgap if you need an injury replacement.

Mark Borowiecki, Senators – D: If you’re picking up Borowiecki, it will be primarily for the hits. He ranks second in the league with 108 hits and leads all defensemen in that category by a decent margin. The next best blueliner is Brenden Dillon, who has 86 hits this season. Borowiecki has always been a great contributor in the hits category, but what makes this season a little different is that he’s chipping in a bit offensively too. Not a lot, but it’s enough to tip the scales a bit more in his favor. He has two goals and 10 points in 27 contests. It helps that he’s averaging 17:10 minutes, which will be a career-high if he maintains it. 

Players You May Want To Drop

Jakob Silfverberg, Ducks – RW: From Oct. 8-Nov. 14, Silfverberg was contributing like an elite forward with nine goals and 17 points in 18 contests. He’s gone cold though, recording just an assist in his last seven games. Silfverberg has traditionally been a solid secondary scorer, but no more than that. I do think he’s worth keeping a close eye on even if you do drop him, but you should still examine your other options.

Jack Hughes, Devils – C: Hughes is day-to-day with a lower-body injury, but it sounds like that’s just a minor setback. The bigger issue is that Hughes is dealing with some growing pains in his rookie season. He has four goals and 11 points in 24 contests, which is hard to criticize given that he’s just 18-years-old, but it’s not the kind of production you’d hope for out of a first overall pick, even in their rookie season. If you’re in a keeper league then it’s still worth your while to hang onto Hughes as he should eventually be a great forward, but if you’re in a single season league then you’ll want to cut your losses. Even if he does heat up to an extent in the second half of the campaign, odds are it won’t be enough to warrant holding onto him given his center-only eligibility.

Kaapo Kakko, Rangers – RW: Those hoping this season’s Calder Trophy race would be a fight between Hughes and Kakko have been left disappointed. Like Hughes, Kakko hasn’t exactly excelled in his rookie season. The 2019 second overall pick has six goals and 11 points in 23 contests. He did seem to turn a corner from Oct. 29-Nov. 20 with five goals and eight points in eight games, but he fell right back with just an assist over his last six contests. It doesn’t help that he’s a huge plus/minus liability at minus-13.

Phil Kessel, Coyotes – RW: I’ll admit to being somewhat on the fence about this one. The Coyotes acquired Kessel to lead the charge for them offensively and he certainly has that ability, but so far this season he’s been fairly underwhelming. He has four goals and 14 points in 28 contests. He also has a minus-14 rating, which is terrible in general, but especially with Arizona this season. The Coyotes only have four minus players and Kessel’s rating is by far the worst. He is making a transition to a new team so it wouldn’t be shocking to see him have a better second half, but thus far he’s been a big disappointment.

Mackenzie Blackwood, Devils – G: Cory Schneider’s struggles and eventual demotion to the AHL has made Blackwood the clear number one goaltender in New Jersey, but he still leaves plenty to be desired. Blackwood has an 8-7-3 record, 3.12 GAA, and .898 save percentage in 18 contests this season. This has been a rough season for the Devils and their goaltending situation is one that’s best to avoid entirely.

If you’re looking for fantasy hockey information, Rotoworld is a great resource. You can check the player news for the latest information on any player and insight into their fantasy outlook.

Every week Michael Finewax looks ahead at the schedule and offers team-by-team notes in The Week Ahead. I have a weekly Fantasy Nuggets column where I basically talk about whatever’s captured my attention that week. Gus Katsaros does an Analytics columns if you want to get into detailed statistical analysis. If you’re interested in rookies and prospects, there’s a weekly column on that written by McKeen’s Hockey.

NHL Fantasy Hockey: Fabbri, Pageau highlight this week’s top adds

Welcome to our weekly Adds/Drops column, where I focus on highlighting players you should consider grabbing or be concerned about in fantasy leagues. As always, the goal here isn’t to recommend 10 players you must add and five players that need to be dropped. Context is everything and the context of each league is different. What this is instead is a guideline so that if you’re looking to make a change, you have potential players to target and if you see players I’ve suggested to drop, you can evaluate your potential alternates.

Players Worth Adding

Nick Paul, Senators – C/LW: Paul has gotten tastes of The Show for years now, but coming into this season he was far from established as a regular in the NHL. In 2018-19, he had a goal and an assist in 20 games while averaging a mere 8:28 minutes and the season prior to that he had a goal in 11 games while averaging 7:54 minutes. However, when he played in the minors, he was developing into a serious offensive threat, to the point where he scored 16 goals and 39 points in 43 AHL contests last season. Now he might finally be ready to apply those skills to the NHL. Over his last six games he’s scored two goals and six points in six games while averaging 17:03 minutes. The rebuilding Senators have given him a chance to prove himself and he seems to have taken advantage of it. Obviously, he’s still a significant risk, but it’s also worth noting that he’s only owned in 2% of Yahoo leagues, so if you’re feeling aggressive, you can scoop him up now in the hope that this is just the start of something bigger.

Cal Clutterbuck, Islanders – RW: Clutterbuck is a bit of an interesting one from a short-term perspective. He’s spent his entire career as a bottom-six forward who makes his presence known physically and can chip in a bit offensively, but he’s logged over 16 minutes in each of his last six games. To put that in perspective, his average playing time over his entire 457-game tenure with the Islanders is 13:18 minutes. He’s done more offensively while his playing time has been up, scoring two goals and four points over those six games, which is pretty nice given that he’s also one of the best sources of hits in the league. His uptick in playing time is probably not going to last and it is worth noting that the Islanders have dealt with more than their fair share of forward injuries lately. Still, for now he’s an interesting pickup.

Tony DeAngelo, Rangers – D: DeAngelo had 30 points in 61 games in his 2018-19 breakout campaign and he’s been building off that this season. He has five goals and 13 points in 13 contests and he’s hot right now with at least a point in each of his last four games. If you look at his average ice time this season, you’ll see it’s at 17:58 minutes, down from 19:20 minutes in 2018-19, but that shouldn’t be taken as a warning sign. He only logged 8:09 minutes on Oct. 18th and that’s skewed down his average. From Oct. 10th onward, he’s averaged 18:49 minutes in 10 contests.

Jared McCann, Penguins – C/LW: McCann wasn’t a major offensive threat when he was with the Florida Panthers, but he was a young forward with upside. When the Penguins acquired him during the 2018-19 campaign, it offered him a fresh start and even the potential to play alongside Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Malkin missed a major chunk of the season due to injury, but since returning on Nov. 2nd, McCann has been getting minutes with him. In fact, McCann has a goal and four points over his last two games with Malkin factoring in on three of those points. As long as he’s playing with Malkin, McCann should have some fantasy value.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Senators – C: Pageau isn’t exactly a major offensive threat most of the time, but he’s red hot right now. He’s on a four-game goal streak and five-game point streak. That’s brought him up to eight goals and 12 points in 16 contests this season, but don’t expect him to come close to maintaining that pace. Once he starts to cool down, you’ll want to re-evaluate owning him.

David Krejci, Bruins – C: Krejci had 20 goals and 73 points in 81 games last season, which made him a pretty compelling player to own in most fantasy leagues. What it didn’t do is convince fantasy owners that he would be a great option this season. Krejci was only drafted in 6% of leagues and his average draft position was 164.1. Now a lot of that has to do with him only having center eligibility and in fact, Krejci is a good example of just how deep that position is. Nevertheless, after shaking off an early season upper-body injury, he’s gotten on track with two goals and six points in six games. Even as a center, he should be good enough to be a factor on a lot of teams. He’s currently owned in 24% of Yahoo leagues.

[For more fantasy sports analysis, check out Rotoworld]

Jared Spurgeon, Wild – D: Spurgeon set a career-high last season with 43 points, but that was hardly an anomaly for him given that he had 38 points in 76 contests in 2016-17 and 37 points in 61 games in 2017-18, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that this season should produce more of the same. Certainly he’s on that track with two goals and 10 points in 17 contests. Even if that’s not enough to appeal to you, he’s still worthy of consideration as a short-term pickup given how hot he is. He’s scored a goal and six points in his last seven games.

Tyler Bertuzzi, Red Wings – LW/RW: The Red Wings are a terrible team this season, but there are a few silver linings on this squad. Bertuzzi is one of the main ones. He had six goals and 16 points in 19 games while averaging 19:32 minutes. He’s owned in 52% of Yahoo leagues, so the window on scooping him up is closing, but if you still have the option to grab him, you should seriously consider doing so.

Bryan Rust, Penguins – LW/RW: Rust suffered a hand injury in the preseason that prevented him from making his season debut until Oct. 26th, but he’s already made up for that lost time. He’s recorded at least a point in each of his six contests, giving him five goals and seven points in six games. It certainly doesn’t hurt that, like McCann, he’s been playing alongside Malkin recently. That makes this potentially more than just a hot streak, but even if it ends up being just that, he’s still worth considering as a short-term grab.

Robby Fabbri, Red Wings – LW/RW: Fabbri had 18 goals and 37 points in 72 games with St. Louis as a rookie in 2015-16, but injuries have proven to be a significant roadblock in recent years. Fast forward to 2019-20 and he’s healthy, but the defending Stanley Cup champion Blues just didn’t have a role for him. With that in mind, trading him to Detroit last week was something of a favor. It gives him a fresh start on a team with openings for young players. Fabbri has taken advantage so far with two goals and three points in two contests with Detroit.

Players You May Want To Drop

Nick Bonino, Predators – C: Bonino has been a pleasant surprise so far this season with eight goals and 13 points in 17 contests. Rather than being propelled by a major hot streak, he’s been fairly consistent in his contributions. While a hat trick on Oct. 29th certainly has skewed his goals total, it’s also true that he’s only been held off the scoresheet in back-to-back games once this season (Oct. 5-8). That said, his shooting percentage is at 25%, which is way higher than normal and doesn’t seem sustainable. His PDO and IPP are also similarly high, which are potential warning signs that he’s due for a regression. If you picked him up early and have ridden the wave then I wouldn’t advise dropping him at this time, but I do believe that you should at least see if you can cash him in for someone more likely to deliver long-term. As it is, there’s a good chance that he’s peaked in terms of value this season and will likely trickle down from here.

Erik Haula, Hurricanes – C/LW: After being limited to 15 games with Vegas last season due to a knee injury, Haula got a fresh start in Carolina in 2019-20 and was taking full advantage of it. He scored eight goals and 11 points through 14 contests, but the same knee that derailed him in 2018-19 is threatening to do so again. At first the injury didn’t sound too significant, but Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour went from describing him as day-to-day to saying that’s not the case. With Haula out indefinitely now, it’s unfortunately time to evaluate your alternatives.

Alex Galchenyuk, Penguins – C/LW: The Penguins got Galchenyuk in the Phil Kessel trade, but so far he hasn’t done much with his new team. It hasn’t helped that he’s missed time due to injury, but even while healthy he’s been limited to three assists in eight games. He’s averaging a modest 14:56 minutes per game, though he has seen some ice time with Crosby and Malkin. If you took him at the start of the season hoping that moving to the Penguins would give him a boost, it’s fair to drop him, but he is still interesting enough to warrant keeping an eye on.

Mikael Granlund, Predators – LW/RW: Granlund has fallen quick and hard offensively. He peaked in 2016-17 and 2017-18 with 69 and 67 points respectively, but last season he dipped to 54 points and so far in 2019-20 he has just two goals and four points in 17 games. He hasn’t recorded a single point in his last 12 contests and has fired an underwhelming 23 shots over that span. I think he’s fair to say he’s capable of more than this, but he’s not worth holding onto during this cold streak. If he starts to heat up then at that point he’ll be worthy of re-evaluation.

Ondrej Palat, Lightning – LW: Palat had two goals and five points in the span of four games from Oct. 26-Nov. 1, which drew some fantasy owners to him, but that hot streak has fizzled out. It’s worth noting that outburst corresponded with a stretch where he was averaging 18:49 minutes, but he has no points in his last two contests while logging 14:14 minutes and then 13:37 minutes. Palat is a solid secondary scorer who will have some hot streaks like that and periods of time where the Lightning lean on him more than usual, but his overall value over the course of a season is somewhat suspect in standard fantasy leagues.

If you’re looking for fantasy hockey information, Rotoworld is a great resource. You can check the player news for the latest information on any player and insight into their fantasy outlook.

Every week Michael Finewax looks ahead at the schedule and offers team-by-team notes in The Week Ahead. I have a weekly Fantasy Nuggets column where I basically talk about whatever’s captured my attention that week. Gus Katsaros does an Analytics columns if you want to get into detailed statistical analysis. If you’re interested in rookies and prospects, there’s a weekly column on that written by McKeen’s Hockey.

For everything fantasy hockey, check out Rotoworld’s Player News, and follow @Rotoworld_ HK and @RyanDadoun on Twitter.

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.

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Do Wild have short-term path back to playoffs?
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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.