Mikko Koivu

Getty

Do Wild have short-term path back to playoffs?

1 Comment

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.

Boudreau needs to get Wild turned around quickly

Getty
4 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 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.

Koivu ‘totally confident’ in return from ACL surgery

AP Images
4 Comments

Leaning on his crutches, just six days after reconstructive surgery on his right knee, Mikko Koivu was asked if he had concern about his ability to return to the Minnesota Wild next season at age 36.

Just as if he were corralling a puck with a quick flick of his stick on a faceoff, Koivu didn’t flinch.

“Yes, I’m totally confident. I think those are just numbers,” Koivu said. “I think it’s about your effort, the way you take care of yourself on and off the ice, and at the end, it’s going to be a battle. But if you’re strong enough, you’re going to be able to do it.”

Koivu’s determination and strength has never been in doubt, but the torn anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus cartilage he suffered in a game at Buffalo on Feb. 5 has raised a question about the Wild captain’s future considering this major late-career injury. Koivu will enter the final year of his contract this summer, with a $5.5 million charge against the salary cap.

Factoring in the typical ACL recovery timetable, the chance is slim that Koivu will be ready to join his teammates for on-ice drills at the start of training camp.

“I think it’s too early to talk about it too much, but that’s definitely my goal,” Koivu said Thursday after the Wild’s practice, his first public comments since the collision with Sabres forward Tage Thompson .

Receiving medical clearance for the 2019-20 season opener will be an additionally hefty challenge, but Koivu, who was drafted sixth overall in 2001 by the Wild out of Finland and has topped the franchise leaderboards in several statistical categories over his 14-year career, cast his familiar steely gaze toward the daunting rehabilitation that’s ahead.

“It’s a fact that this knee will be stronger than I’ve ever experienced,” Koivu said. “The rest of it is up to me.”

The Wild are just 1-4-2 this month and 1-3 without Koivu, currently clinging to the eighth and final postseason spot in the Western Conference . They host the New Jersey Devils on Friday night, the only team they’ve beaten in February.

“We’re going to make the playoffs. That’s about as elaborate as I’m going to get,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “You want me to predict how many wins we’re going to have? Not going to happen. But we’re going to make the playoffs.”

Joel Eriksson Ek has been a productive fill-in over the last four games, but Koivu’s absence requires more than simply replacing a second-line center.

“In the locker room, outside the locker room. The little things of playing against every team’s top center, every faceoff that’s important, every time you need something,” Boudreau said.

___

More AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Canucks’ Bachman gifts Mikko Koivu with easy power-play goal

Twitter
1 Comment

Mikko Koivu won’t score an easier goal in his life.

And he can thank Vancouver Canucks goalie Richard Bachman for that.

Bachman was in a giving mood in the first period against Koivu’s Minnesota Wild on Thursday night. With the Canucks trying to kill off a Wild power play, Bachman tried to be a hero on an outlet pass from behind his net after Koivu dumped it into Vancouver’s zone.

What occurred next was less than heroic:

It is Bachman’s first start with the Canucks this season and just his 48th NHL game for the American Hockey League veteran. The 31-year-old is playing backup to Jacob Markstrom while Anders Nilsson has been on the shelf since late October with a fractured finger.

To Bachman’s credit, the pass was as good a tape-to-tape job as you’ll see from a goalie. He’ll just want to find a teammate’s stick next time.


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

J.T. Compher scores twice as Avalanche down Wild 5-1

2 Comments

The Colorado Avalanche kept their playoff train chugging along nicely on Tuesday.

Sitting in the second wildcard spot in the Western Conference heading into the game, the Avalanche received some help from the Montreal Canadiens via a 4-2 win over the Dallas Stars, and kept up their end of the bargain with a 5-1 win away to the Minnesota Wild to leapfrog the Stars into the first wildcard spot — three points behind the Wild for third place in the Central Division.

The Avs are a healthy 5-0-3 in their past eight games.

While Nathan MacKinnon has been doing much of the heavy lifting to position himself favorably in the Hart Trophy conversation, it was J.T. Compher who took a bit of that load off on Tuesday.

Compher got the ball rolling for the Avalanche, scoring on a nice wrist shot that beat Dubnyk high in the first period.

Colorado’s lead would last well into the second period before Mikko Koivu converted on a odd-man rush to bring the Wild level.

Minnesota — who lost 7-1 the last time these two teams met — came into the game 3-1-0 in their past four, and with the Winnipeg Jets falling 3-1 to the Nashville Predators earlier in the night, the Wild had a chance to close the gap on second place in the division to five points.

But 59 seconds after Koivu notched his 13th, Nikita Zadorov crushed a one-timer from the slot past Dubnyk to restore the 2-1 lead.

Nathan MacKinnon entered the game on an eight-game heater and pushed that number to nine games 11 seconds into the third period to double Colorado’s advantage.

MacKinnon has eight goals and 17 points during his streak and 18 goals and 42 points in his past 25 games.

Compher’s second of the night came in the second half of the third period, a goal that was challenged for goaltender interference but upheld after the review.


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