Kevin Fiala

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Do Wild have short-term path back to playoffs?

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Before the 2018-19 season went sideways, the Minnesota Wild had a five-year run where they were a mostly outstanding and consistently underrated hockey team.

They had three 100-point seasons in a four-year stretch and even though they had limited success once they made the playoffs, they were at least always there.

All of that disappeared this past season when the team missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011-12 and finished with one of the worst records in franchise history (the .506 points percentage was fourth-worst in their 18-year existence). A lot of things went wrong and resulted in the shocking decision to fire general manager Paul Fenton after just 14 months on the job.

Unfortunately for the Wild, they are still stuck in a brutally competitive division with Nashville, Colorado, Winnipeg, Dallas, and a (potentially) improved Chicago team ahead of them. On top of that they were seven points back of a playoff spot last year in what was one of the weakest Western Conference playoff races ever, are relying heavily on big-money players in their mid-30s this season, still do not have a general manager to call the shots, and could probably use a rebuild that the owner does not seem to want to fully commit to.

Not exactly a great set of circumstances.

So is there a path back to the playoffs this season? Let’s take a look at three key factors that might help.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factors]

Better Health

While injuries were not a huge factor in the Wild’s regression, they did have a couple of significant ones with the loss of Mikko Koivu (48 games) and defender Mathew Dumba (only 32 games).

Koivu is one of the many mid-30 players on the roster and is not the same player offensively that he was a few years ago, but he’s still an excellent two-way player and key part of their forwards.

Dumba, on the other hand, was the big one. Losing him was a significant blow to the team’s blue line, especially since he was in the middle of a breakout season offensively at the time of his injury. Getting a 23-minute, potential 50-point blue-liner back in the lineup would be significant.

Jason Zucker is still there

Zucker was nearly traded on two separate occasions over the past year and it is probably fortunate for the Wild that both deals fell apart before they could be completed. He is still one of the best all-around players on the team and seems to be a prime bounce-back candidate. He was still a great possession-driver for the Wild last year (they had a 53 percent shot attempt share when he was on the ice) and finished with one of the lowest shooting percentages of his career. The return of a healthy Koivu and Dumba, as well as a bounce-back from Zucker, would help a lot.

Some new faces

Zuccarello is a long-term risk because of his age, but he is still an outstanding playmaker and will upgrade the roster that ended the regular season in Minnesota.

Then you have the young players acquired by former general manager Fenton at the deadline, specifically Ryan Donato and Kevin Fiala. There are a lot of reasons to question the direction Fenton sent the team in at the trade deadline, but now that they trades are done all the Wild can do is hope for the best. While there seems to be little hope the Nino Niederreiter trade can produce positive results for them, Donato and Fiala do at least have the potential to become useful.

There is absolutely something that can be salvaged there.

Donato looked promising after the trade from Boston, while Fiala is just one year removed from a 23-goal, 48-point season, is still only 23 years old, and is coming off of a tough shooting percentage and PDO (on ice shooting percentage plus save percentage) year while also posting strong possession numbers. There is potential for a bounce-back there.

More consistent performance from Devan Dubnyk

This might be the most important potential development.

From the moment he arrived in Minnesota during the 2013-14 season Dubnyk has been one of the best, most productive goalies in the league and finished with two top-five finishes in the Vezina Trophy voting. But the 2018-19 season was far from his best as he struggled with consistency, went through one of the worst slumps of his career, and faced yet another heavy workload.

If he is able to return to his previous Minnesota form that is a season-changer for the Wild.

That is a lot of “ifs,” and even if they all go perfectly it still probably will not be enough to make them a Stanley Cup contender. It could, however, get them back in the playoffs.

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.

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

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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. 

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

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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. 

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

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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.

Kessel rumor paints strange picture for Wild’s offseason path

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The first big trade rumor of the offseason (it is currently the offseason for 29 NHL teams) was centered around a potential blockbuster that would have reportedly seen the Pittsburgh Penguins send Phil Kessel to the Minnesota Wild in a deal that was thought to have included Jason Zucker (with the possible inclusion of a Jack Johnson for Victor Rask swap).

The rumored deal was reported by several outlets, including both the Minnesota and Pittsburgh chapters of The Athletic.

It now seems likely that the deal is not going to happen, seemingly because Kessel does not want to waive his no-trade clause to go to a Wild team that is probably pretty far away from a championship.

Based on everything that has come out of Pittsburgh in the aftermath of its Round 1 sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders, there is going to be some change this summer and a Kessel trade will likely be a significant part of that. At this point it is just a matter of when it happens and where he ends up going. It is not a surprise to hear his name in trade speculation, and it should not be a surprise when he eventually goes.

The surprise is that it was the Wild that came the closest to making a deal.

[Related: Can the Penguins win a Phil Kessel trade?]

There is no denying that Kessel could probably help them because for all of his flaws he is still an elite offensive player.

He can still score goals, he is still an exceptional playmaker and passer, and any team’s power play could run through him and be better for it. Given that the Wild were 28th in the NHL in goals scored and 14th on the power play this past season he is, in theory, the type of player they could use.

But these types of situations do not exist in a vacuum. What is so strange about the Wild making a play for Kessel is that it seems to run counter to everything they did in the second half of last season when they started to strip their team of core players, trading Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, and Charlie Coyle, none of whom were pending free agents or needed to be traded when they were.

The return on that trio was mainly Rask, Ryan Donato, and Kevin Fiala, a sequence of transactions that shed some salary off their cap and made the team slightly younger. The Rask, Donato, and Fiala trio is, on average, three years younger than than the Niederreiter, Coyle, and Granlund trio.

It seemed to be a sign that the Wild were looking to turn the page on a core that hadn’t really won anything, seemed to have reached its ceiling, and was looking to get younger and cheaper. General manager Paul Fenton again emphasized the team’s desire to get younger in his end of the season press conference. Whether or not the moves they made were the right ones remains to be seen (the Niederreiter trade was definitely not the right one) but it was probably a path that had to be taken at some point.

Throwing their hat into the Kessel ring, however, obviously runs counter to all of that.

The rumored trade, assuming it also included the Johnson-Rask swap, would have only saved them $500,000 against the cap and it would have made the team significantly older. Even if a team is looking to rebuild or retool (or whatever they want to call it) it still needs players to put a team on the ice, and you never want to turn down the opportunity to acquire good players when the opportunity presents itself.

But the Kessel pursuit, even if it ultimately failed, creates a number of questions for where the Wild are headed this summer.

Among them…

  1. Is this team, as it is currently constructed, a 32-year-old Phil Kessel away from being a contender in the Western Conference, and especially in a Central Division that includes Nashville, Winnipeg, an emerging power in Colorado, and a current Stanley Cup Finalist in the St. Louis Blues? If it is not, what are you trying to make that type of splash more for? And if you can not get him, are you going to pursue another comparable player?
  2. If you think it is just one of those players away, why the sudden rush to trade a player like Niederreiter (at what was probably his lowest possible value at the time) for an inferior player in Rask, or to make any of the moves you made at the trade deadline? What changed your mind in these past couple of months that you went from selling veteran players under contract to suddenly deciding you need to go get another veteran winger that can score?
  3. Beyond all of that, the most important question might be what this all means for Zucker’s future in Minnesota, as he once again found himself at the center of another trade rumor and another trade that almost happened? Why is one of your best two-way players burning such a hole in your pocket that you are seemingly desperate to trade him or try to use him as a trade chip?

When everything is put together it just seems to be a team that is kind of lost in what it wants or where it wants to go.

On-the-fly rebuilds do not usually work, especially when it is a team that is already lacking high-end talent at the top of the lineup. That path almost always seems to end up resulting in a complete rebuild anyway, only just a couple of years after it should have already started (see, for example, the Los Angeles Kings).

Not only are the Wild lacking in impact players, just about all of their top returning scorers from a year ago (Zach Parise, Eric Staal, Ryan Suter, Mikko Koivu) are going to be age 35 or older this upcoming season. Their best days are definitely far in their rear-view mirrors.

Trying to re-tool around mediocrity or aging and declining talent only extends the mediocrity and leaves you stuck somewhere in the middle of the NHL.

Successfully acquiring Kessel might have made the team slightly better (at least offensively), but probably not enough to have moved the needle in a meaningful way. It just would have added another player on the wrong side of 30 to a team that already has too many players like that.

But what it really would have been is just another strange, questionable transaction after a season full of strange, questionable transactions that didn’t seem to be necessary.

Where the Wild go from here this summer will be seen in the coming weeks, but the continuing trend of questionable transactions should be a cause for concern for the team’s fans when it comes to this new front office.

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.