Our Minnesota Wild 2019-20 Preview is a part of our series covering the entire NHL. Check them out here in the lead up to another exciting season.
The Wild organization is ripe with discontent, turmoil, and turnover in recent history. From coaches on the hot seat to a short-tenured GM who made highly questionable personnel decisions to an aging and soon to be wildly overpaid core group of players, the Minnesota Wild are due for a fall down from their slightly above average/on the cusp of good every season era.
The biggest story out of Minnesota through the offseason will be the one-season long tenure of former GM Paul Fenton. He came to the Wild organization as a highly respected, long-time assistant GM in Nashville. A guy who was a name thrown around in nearly every open GM spot for seasons, it seemed the Wild had finally gotten their guy.
But, very shortly after, questions over his suitability for the job began to arise. For an excellent summary of this, check out Michael Russo’s interview in the first part of Spittin’ Chiclets #195. It was not just one thing that led to Fenton getting fired, it was an accumulation of many smaller ones that eventually led owner Craig Leipold to cut him loose. Among other things, a mishandling of prospects and roster space leading to prospects being sent down, players claimed and put on waivers unnecessarily, nepotism in hiring decisions (he hired his own son them promoted him to run amateur scouting, an aloof and distant relationship within the organization and with media, and complete mismanagement of the Rask for Niederreiter trade were some of the reasons why Fenton only lasted a single season.
Fenton was hell-bent on dismantling the forward core that Chuck Fletcher, his predecessor, had built, unloading some of the most identifyable and productive forwards on the Wild’s roster. Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, and Charlie Coyle were all dealt for questionable returns. Lastly, Jason Zucker was involved in a handful of near-trades that eventually fell apart. This season had been tough on Jason, as he saw his point production fall and it was rumoured he was growing discontent with his place in the organization. He never said he wanted to be traded, he just wants to be somewhere he is wanted.
This may change under new GM Bill Guerin, as a culture change within the organization is a primary goal in the new front office. Coach Bruce Boudreau will be on the hot seat to start the season and may find himself one of the most likely coaches to be fired if the team gets off to a slow start. With it being the last year of his contract, however, the organization may decide to let him play it out and use the season to start a rebuild instead.
This incoming rebuild will be inevitable, as the team’s core group of players, including Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Mikko Koivu, Eric Staal, and Devan Dubnyk are all reaching the tail end of their careers and the Wild’s prospect pool is shallow, to say the least. It is headlined by a few high-profile, potential star players, but not much beyond that. Kirill Kaprizov and Matthew Boldy headline the Wild’s farm system. Kaprizov has been an international standout, scoring forward who is still under contract in the KHL until the end of the 19-20 season. Matthew Boldy projects to be an intelligent, strong, two-way forward (maybe another Mikko Koivu type, with more of a scoring touch) who will be playing college hockey next season. So, the youth infusion will have to wait another season or two.
Over the past ten years, the Wild have had very little success in the draft, which leaves them in the difficult spot they are now having an aging core with few prospects coming up to replace them. Most players, especially outside of the first two rounds, never saw NHL action. The 2015 draft looks like it will be the best of the decade within the next few years, as the Wild drafted Joel Eriksson Ek, Jordan Greenway, and Kirill Kaprizov who should all be excellent players on their roster. The next GM will have to put extra emphasis on amateur scouting and the draft immediately if they want to minimize the length of the rebuild phase.
Comparatively speaking, the Wild’s best forward options are old for NHL standards. Eric Staal and Mikko Koivu are two of the team’s top centres going into next season. Staal has experienced a bit of resurgence since joining the Wild three seasons ago, but he did see a significant drop in offensive production last season, dropping to 22 goals/52 points from 42 goals and 76 points the season prior. He is still the team’s best option at centre, for the time being, however. Mikko Koivu is fading into the twilight of his career at this point and will very quickly see himself passed over by Joel Eriksson-Ek. The career Wild mainstay had his least productive season since his rookie year, though he was injured and played only 48 games. He will still play a major role with the team, albeit in reduced minutes, as Koivu will be the best defensive option at centre for the time being.
The previously mentioned Joel Eriksson-Ek has spent most of the last two seasons in the NHL but has not stayed up full-time quite yet. With the loss of Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, and Eric Fehr, he will find himself with the opportunity to shoot up the depth chart going into training camp. The key for him will be to find more offense in his game, especially if he is to play on the second line. 16 points in 75 games and 14 points in 58 games will not cut it. Although he is generally pencilled in as the fourth line centre at this moment, he may receive a chance to play in a more offensive role with additional ice time and powerplay time to see what effect it has on Eriksson-Ek’s offense. Another young, highly praised player on the NHL roster is Luke Kunin. He has earned the praise and confidence of Boudreau and will be strong competition for Eriksson-Ek’s place on opening day.
Victor Rask’s poor start in Minnesota after the ill advised trade late last season has found him already falling off the depth chart. Rask will not likely have a roster spot to start the season. A longshot to make the team out of training camp, but one who will be high on the call-up list, is Nico Sturm, a sklled two-way centre who made his debut in Minnesota at the end of the 2018-19 season. Sturm projects to develop into an ideal third line forward who possesses size, underrated skill and playmaking ability, and a solid game on both sides of the puck.
Zach Parise and Jason Zucker are the best bets to join Staal on the first line. They are the team’s most productive wingers for the time being. This is assuming Zucker remains on the roster on opening day. The team’s big free agent acquisition, Mats Zuccarello, will also be an option for the first line if things need some changing. Zuccarello is an excellent playmaker and could be a nice compliment for Parise and Staal, both of whom have shown a touch of sniper in them throughout their careers.
Kevin Fiala, the return for Mikael Granlund last season, and Jordan Greenway are both younger players still developing and could use this season to prove themselves and live up to the hype surrounding them. Fiala was always projected as a major offensive talent and dominated almost every league he has played in. In the NHL, he (so far) has topped out as a 40+ point producer. He could be a more serviceable option for the Wild’s second line at the moment, as Jordan Greenway has not yet shown that level of production in the NHL. But, Greenway has the size that Fiala does not. Since the rest of the Wild’s top-6 winger options are under six feet tall, Greenway, at six-foot-six, may be utilized as a physical power forward to help create space on the ice and drive to the net to create second chances.
Ryan Donato, acquired from the Bruins for Charlie Coyle at the last trade deadline, had an impressive start with the Wild, posting 16 points in 22 games. He may be poised for a breakout year, but his skillset is best utilized in an offensive role. Donato may have to become an offensive driver if he falls in on the third line on the depth chart. His tendency to take smart shots to create offense can be paired with Greenway’s size, if Greenway can be trained to crash the net and look for rebounds. Those two could really make a dominating winger duo if the chemistry develops.
Ryan Hartman, Marcus Foligno, and JT Brown round out the main options at forward for the Wild, and all three fall in the physical, hard-working forward category. Foligno and Brown are excellent veteran presences that could be utilized very well in leadership/mentorship roles. Hartman has shown some offensive talent to go along with his physicality that the Wild will hopefully get to see, as he can produce at about a third line level if he is on his game.
Workhorse Ryan Suter will still be the leader of the Wild’s defensive corps. The perennial 40+ point producing, 25+minute per game, all-around defender is showing no signs of slowing down, though his game may be less noticeable than it once was in his Nashville days. He is an absolute anchor of their defense and they will live or die by his performance and consistency in the lineup. The concern with Suter is that, at 34, his game could fall off a cliff at a moment’s notice. Although they may not be able to individually replace the minutes played, the Wild have a few defensemen on the roster to take on some extra load. Jared Spurgeon has become a well-respected defenseman in recent years and his contributions are massively underrated. Matt Dumba has taken major leaps forward in his development as a dynamic defenseman over the last two seasons, but will be mostly looking to stay healthy after only playing 32 games last season. And, Jonas Brodin has been the Wild defender taking on many of the toughest matchups in recent seasons.
Lastly, although they are not flashy, Nick Seeler and Greg Pateryn provided the team with steady, solid defensive presences that maintained a consistent level of play even though they were each often playing with a revolving door of linemates. If the team needs a slightly more offensive presence than those two, Brad Hunt can be slotted in and contribute with some additional puck moving support on the bottom pair.
Once again, Devan Dubnyk will tend the crease for the Wild. His numbers regressed slightly last season, but so far that is the anomaly from his time in Minnesota. He has been one of the top goalies in the league since joining the Wild and will be heavily relied on to keep the team competitive through the season. The team’s best option as back-up will be Alex Stalock, who was unimpressive in his 21 games last season, with a 2.99 GAA and .899 SV%. Although Dubnyk is good to play 60+ games, Stalock will need to improve on those numbers to try and squeeze as many points as possible out of every single game.
Minnesota Wild 2019-20 Prediction
7th Central Division
The Central Division is still loaded with too much high-end competition. The way the team finished the 18-19 season, going 3-6-1 in their last 10, seems to be more indicative of how this roster stacks up against their division opponents. They did not do a whole lot to improve the roster. Mats Zuccarello will be a great addition for some offence, but the team will be hard pressed to make up the 29+ goals for they were behind every other team in their division (aside from Dallas, who they beat by one goal, 211 to 210). The teams closest to them in the standings, Chicago and Colorado, appear to be on the upswing, as Colorado exits their rebuild and Chicago ended the season on a 100+ point pace under their new head coach. It will take a Hart Trophy calibre season from Devan Dubnyk to get this team out of the Central Division’s basement.