There’s a reason why Minnesota is considered the State of Hockey. You won’t find a better fanbase anywhere in the United States, with their level of interest rivaling some of Canada’s biggest markets. Heck, a high school tournament is a complete sellout each year at the Xcel Energy Center, home of the Wild.
So when will the big club finally give the rabid fanbase something to get excited about?
Since the Wild forced themselves into the conference finals in just their third season back in 2003, the Wild have one just two playoff series’ since in 2014 and 2015. In fact, of their three extended post-season appearances, the Wild were swept in two of them, including 2003.
Yeah, it’s been bad. Very bad. But for a team most had pegged for a bottom-five result by December this past season, the Wild at least gave it their best effort against Vancouver in the qualification round. That doesn’t mean much, but there were at least some encouraging signs after the club let coach Bruce Boudreau go in February. Then interim coach (and now the main bench boss) Dean Evason led the Wild to an 8-4-0 record in 12 games, good for 11th in the league before the season ended in that span – and just four points behind the league-leading Blues, who had two games in hand. Everson specifically found a way to unlock Kevin Fiala’s full potential, with the former first-round pick recording 16 points in the final 12 games. Forwards Zach Parise and Alex Galchenyuk, as well as defenders Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon, were especially impressive, while Luke Kunin and Mikko Koivu played some of their best hockey of the season. It seemed like Everson could get the most out of his club’s depth after the players just seemed to have quit on Boudreau over the first half of the season.
Everson now has the floor for good, and a young, fresh-faced coach might be enough to spark new life into the franchise. But for that to happen, the Wild have a few questions to answer first:
Who’s going to score?
All NHL teams send at least one participant to the all-star game each season. This past January, 35-year-old Eric Staal was the team’s representative, marking just his third appearance in the event in the past decade. But now he’s gone and the Wild didn’t do a whole lot to address scoring concerns in the early days of free agency.
Fortunately, Kevin Fiala finally had a breakout and finished with 54 points in 64 games and should be Minnesota’s key forward in 2020-21. Fiala would have been a 90-point player in a full season if he held his late-season run going, but even 65 points would be a huge boost to the Wild. After that, who’s next? Kirill Kaprizov should add some scoring, but it starts to get a bit tricky after that.
Staal’s replacement, center Marcus Johansson, is just 30 and has a chance to stick in the system for a couple of years. But injury issues have limited him to 118 games over the past two years, missing 34 games in the process. Still, he isn’t the same player we saw record 58 points in the 2016-17 alongside Alex Ovechkin and Co. in Washington, the final full season of his NHL career. Johansson is more of a secondary scorer on a solid team, but in Minnesota, he’ll be elevated to a top-line role, for the most part. That’s simply not ideal.
Zach Parise (46 points in 69 games) and Mats Zuccarello (37 in 65) are far from the forwards they once were and are now more seen as overpaid veterans used to mentor the younger players. Nick Bjugstad, Jordan Greenway, Nick Bonino, and Joel Eriksson Ek are good depth pieces, but, again, not the answer for a team that doesn’t have a lot of scoring talent, to begin with. In fact, according to Daily Faceoff, a site that lists line combinations and ranks them compared to others in the NHL, has Minnesota’s top two lines as the 22nd and 23rd best in their respective areas. Minnesota does have a deep blueline where even Brad Hunt and Carson Soucy, the team’s third pairing, provide tremendous value, but there needs to be more help upfront.
The biggest wild card, though, will be whether Rossi makes the team or not. There’s not much for Rossi to accomplish in the OHL after a 120-point season and should be a true threat for the No. 2 spot. Rossi isn’t a big kid at 5-foot-9 and there would definitely be some reservations in buying him deep in the lineup, so the Wild need to be certain Rossi will be a solid contributor out of the gate. Minnesota’s middle men depth doesn’t run deep, so that’s definitely a possibility, but don’t expect Rossi to blow the gates open right away.
Is Kirill Kaprizov for real?
A highly touted Russian goal-scorer finally making the trek to North America. It’s a tradition prospect fans look forward to each year, with Artemi Panarin, Vadim Shipachyov, Nikita Gusev and Kaprizov being some of the biggest names to emerge from the motherland to suit up for NHL clubs.
Panarin is one of the best NHLers in the league today, so that was a success. Shipachyov’s Vegas debacle will never be forgotten, skating in two regular-season games before heading back home and continuing his strong career in the KHL. Gusev is still a wild-card – he joined a poor New Jersey Devils team after getting passed around by Tampa Bay and Vegas and whether he’ll truly find his mark alongside Jack Hughes is still to be determined.
Now it’s Kaprizov’s turn. Kaprizov, 23, was taken in the fifth round by the Wild in 2015 despite being a hard-hitting, slick-skating forward with future star potential. Kaprizov now has six years of KHL action under his belt coming off of a career-high 33-goal, 62-point season to make his mark as one of the league’s best forwards. In fact, he’s led the KHL in scoring the past two seasons, and the Wild desperately needs a goal-scorer to, you know, score some goals.
What are the Wild getting from Kaprizov, other than a proven scoring record back home? Simply put, had he not had prior contractual obligations to stay in Russia, he’d already have two years of top-six hockey under his belt in the State of Hockey. A confident shooter with great hands and quick acceleration, one Russian scout recently told me he hadn’t seen a prospect with Kaprizov’s level of offensive awareness, and compared it to what Pavel Datsyuk was able to produce during his heydays in Detroit. That’s not to say Kaprizov would be anywhere near the player that Datsyuk was, but the WIld need a guy who always wants the puck and will do what it takes to retrieve it. That’s Kaprizov.
Kaprizov is easily a threat for the Calder Trophy and his expanded pro experience should give him an edge over the likes of Alexis Lafreniere or Quinton Byfield. But like any European prospects, you run the risk of projecting highly as a top prospect, only for them to struggle due to a major culture change at a young age or an increased adjustment period going from the larger international hockey surfaces to the smaller NHL ice. If he doesn’t thrive immediately, don’t fret. Scouts love him for a reason, but you just got to give him the right tools to excel.
For the love of all things hockey, Talbot better be the man
Days after moving Devan Dubnyk, one of the worst goalies in the NHL last year, the Wild inked veteran netminder Cam Talbot to a three-year contract to be the team’s new starter. The cap hit of $3.66 million isn’t an issue, but is he really the right guy in Minny?
When Talbot’s on fire, he’s tough to stop. Late in the 2019-20 regular season, he was arguably one of the best goaltenders in the league and deserving of the No. 1 starting role in Calgary heading into the post-season over NHL all-star game participant David Rittich. But he’s still a goaltender with just a handful of years as a starting goaltender, and one that struggled for consistency throughout most of his career to date. Talbot was worthy of a Vezina Trophy nomination in 2016-17 and ultimately finished fourth in voting after a strong campaign in Edmonton.
Since then, Talbot has had stints in Philadelphia and Calgary, largely in a backup role. The thinking was, with the right team, Talbot could serve as a 1B to a consistent 1A, but he’s definitely the No. 1 man over Alex Stalock at this point. Realistically, he’s a mid-pack NHL starting goaltender and wasn’t one of the best options available on the market this summer, but he’s the best they’ve got.
Dubnyk had a tremendous start to his tenure in Minnesota, becoming a Vezina Trophy finalist in 2014-15 and finishing fifth two seasons later. But since then, Dubnyk’s game has dropped off quite drastically to the point where he easily lost the starting role late in 2019-20 to Stalock (partly due to injuries). Now it’s Talbot’s turn to carry the torch, and the Wild’s defense is actually the team’s biggest asset with tremendous depth throughout the lineup, but there’s still a lot of hope placed on a goaltender with streaky tendencies.