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2021 Minnesota Wild

(Brad Rempel/USA TODAY Sports)

Mild, Wild West: Previewing the 2021 Minnesota Wild

2021 Minnesota Wild
(Brad Rempel/USA TODAY Sports)

Close but never close enough has long been the dominant narrative for the Minnesota Wild. Ever since taking the massive risk of signing Ryan Suter and Zach Parise to 13-year mega-deals in 2012, the Wild have cemented themselves as a second or third tier playoff team. The last two seasons have seen the team trend farther toward the third tier, as the Wild have been bubble out in the playoff chase the last two years.

The first offseason for general manager Bill Guerrin was certainly a busy one; only the Ottawa Senators were more active in the trade market than Minnesota. The Wild overhauled their center core, doubled down on their outstanding defense, and added a new starting goaltender.

While that sounds like the start of something special, reality really isn’t much different for the Wild than what it was last fall. It’s incredibly difficult to turn a middle of the road team as old as the Wild into a legitimate threat without insane draft lottery luck or a call to Peter Chiarelli.

Unfortunately, the latter is no longer an option and the former failed to dance with the Wild after their qualifier round loss to Vancouver in August. There are some promising pieces starting to trickle in last year. But it seems unlikely the support they need to turn the Wild into something more than mild are currently in place (especially up front). Owner Craig Leopold has long desired to avoid a rebuild, but could another disappointing season in 2021 finally for him to pull the plug?

Projected Lineup

Zach PariseNick BoninoKirill Kaprizov (R)
Marcus JohanssonNick BjugstadKevin Fiala
Marcus FolignoJoel Eriksson EkJordan Greenway
Nico SturmVictor RaskRyan Hartman
Forwards (New Players in Bold)
Ryan SuterJared Spurgeon
Jonas BrodinMatt Dumba
Carson SoucyGreg Pateryn
Cam Talbot
Alex Stalock
Goaltenders (New Players in Bold)

Center of Doubt

One of the biggest reasons for Minnesota’s mediocrity has been a lack of talent down the middle. The Wild have had some good centers in recent years; the resurgence of Eric Staal, two-way beast and captain Mikko Koivu, and shifty playmaker Mikael Granlund have all done solid working manning the middle in Minnesota. While they performed admirably, none were franchise changing players, the type of elite first-line center that almost all contenders have.

The same applies to each of the three(!) centers the Wild traded for during the offseason. It’s extremely rare to see that much turnover at one position in one offseason for a team. Minnesota’s center core certainly looks different than it did a year ago, but is it better? To be honest, probably not.

Let’s start with the bad and move toward the good. The Eric Staal-Marcus Johansson swap was certainly the most confusing of the deals. Other than a random 58-point explosion four years ago, he’s never been an impact scorer. Johansson is coming off an uninspiring year in Buffalo, failing to drive play while putting up a respectable but not eye-popping 30 points.

That’s 17 fewer than Staal scored last year for the Wild, and though his advanced stats also took a bit of a hit, they were still much better than Johansson’s. Yes, Johansson is six years younger, but both are UFAs at season’s end, and Staal is actually $1.25 million cheaper. Oh, and Johansson isn’t even a natural center; he’s had much worse success playing on the wing. To be fair, he is listed as a winger for now. But Johansson could shift to center when Mats Zuccarello returns from injury. If the Wild plan to contend this year, trading Staal for Johansson seems to downgrade their chances.

The Luke Kunin for Nick Bonino swap also seems like the kind of move a contending team would make. Which, again, is why it’s so confusing a middling Minnesota team made it instead. This trade can at least save face since it also involved Guerrin turning a 3rd and 4th round picks into a 2nd. Bonino is still a solid veteran middle-six center, but the issue here is giving up so quickly on Kunin. The 23-year old isn’t a world beater by any stretch, but he was coming off his best season to date (31 points in 63 games). Kunin has upside, something the Wild desperately need from their forwards.

The only way I think this is a good deal for the Wild is if Guerrin has already committed to protecting four defensemen in the Seattle expansion draft. If Minnesota goes that route, two of Kunin and other promising young forwards Joel Eriksson Ek and Jordan Greenway would’ve been exposed. Perhaps Guerrin figured it would be better to sell high then lose Kunin for nothing. Then again, the fact that Greenway or Eriksson Ek will still have to be exposed (it’s either them or Matt Dumba) seems to be kicking the can down the road.

It’s not all bad news bears for the Wild, however. The Nick Bjugstad trade from Pittsburgh was an absolute fleece, and both sides knew it. Pittsburgh desperately wanted to trade salary and actual money to make up for lost revenue and the flat cap (especially after bringing in a similarly paid player in Kasperi Kapanen). So Guerrin pried Bjugstad, who he was a part of bringing to Pittsburgh as their assistant GM in 2019, for just a 7th round pick, while getting the Penguins to retain 50% of Bjugstad’s $4.1 million cap hit.

It’s been two seasons since Bjugstad posted his second (and most recent) 40 point campaign. Even if he never gets back to that level, Bjugstad should be a solid 3C in Minny. He’s a physical player (you basically have to be that if you’re 6’6”), and his underlying numbers are usually solid. The issue is the Wild may have to play him higher in the lineup because of their lack of center talent, but that’s not Bjugstad’s problem. All three of these new centers have one year left on their contract, so they can be flipped at the deadline if they don’t work out. But that result would be a damning punctuation mark on a sentence that may already be written.

Backend Bone

While the Wild lack high-end talent down the middle, their blue-line has long been a reason for optimism. Splurging for Suter in the 2012 offseason gave the Wild their first bell-cow blue-liner. Since arriving in Minnesota, no one has averaged more time on ice per game than Suter’s 27:29. That’s almost a half minute ahead of second place Drew Doughty (27:00). And while that workload has gotten to Doughty in recent years, Suter is still going strong. 2018-19 was a prime renaissance season for Suter, and though his numbers slipped a little, he still drives play very well (50.44% Corsi, 53.43% expected goals).

Believe it or not, the Wild actually may have a better defenseman than the 35-year old. Jared Spurgeon has long been one of the NHL’s best kept secrets; hopefully, the 7-year, $53 million extension that kicks in this year pulls the wool off most of the league’s eyes. Part of the reason Suter is still at (or at least near) an elite level is he played about 74% of his 5-on-5 minutes with Spurgeon, who may have had his best year yet in 2019-20.

Spurgeon is the total package for a defenseman. He scores 35-40 points a year. His underlying numbers are phenomenal. No Wild defender averaged more PK time per game last year. The only one who averaged more PP time than him was Dumba. There’s not much more you can ask for. Who knows how that contract will look in years six and seven, but the Spurgeon we see today is worth the cash and then some. There’s a reason the team named him captain after letting long-time leader Mikko Koivu walk.

However, Spurgeon isn’t the only recently extended Wild defender. Guerrin doubled down on his defense by signing Jonas Brodin to a 7 year, $42 million extension of his own. While his numbers aren’t as gaudy as Spurgeon’s (few players’ are), the 27-year old is a solid number three on even the best back-ends. Like Suter, Brodin is more of a shutdown defender, though he scored a career-high 28 points last season. He’s an important part of Minnesota’s PK, which did fall from 7th to 25th last season.

On paper, he forms a tremendous second pair with Matt Dumba. While that pair has been mutually beneficial in the past, 2019-20 was a trying year for Dumba. The 2012 1st round pick appeared to have his breakout year in 2017-18, scoring 50 points and playing so well the Wild let Vegas poach two quality young forwards (Erik Haula and Alex Tuch) to protect him. Dumba was scoring at a similar rate and starting to enter Norris talks early in 2018-19, before an injury suffered in a fight in December ended his year.

Dumba was unable to find top form for any stretch of the 2019-20 season, scoring just 24 points with underwhelming possession numbers. It’s not guaranteed Bill Guerrin (who wasn’t around for the Vegas expansion draft) bites the bullet on Dumba again, whose 5 x $6 million extension will be up in 2023. Dumba is still a solid defender with the potential to get back to that level still looming. But this is a pivotal year for him to show it; his future in Minnesota may depend on it.

The Kids are Coming?

For the first time in a long time, the Wild have some prospects and players under 25 with high upside. Minnesota usually never drafts high enough to select any of the high-impact prospects. While previous GM Chuck Fletcher had a solid drafting record, he never found the late round absolute steal his club desperately needed to take the next step (just imagine this team with former 3rd round pick(!) Brayden Point).

All due respect to 23-year olds Eriksson Ek and Greenway, whose ceiling is very strong middle-six forward (they’re already solid third-liners), but the Wild need more fire power if they’ll ever break through the glass ceiling. Kevin Fiala gave Minnesota hope that they already have some of that power last season. Fiala was absolutely unstoppable down the stretch last season; his 30 points from January 1 to the end of the regular season were tied for 18th in the league, two ahead of some scrub named Alex Ovechkin. Fiala flashed high-end skill on a near nightly basis, becoming the game breaker maligned ex-GM Paul Fenton thought he would be.

Fiala is the established NHL talent, but the Wild still need the young guns to support him. Enter Kirill Kaprizov. Remember how I said Fletcher never found that truly elite late round steal? This guy might change that narrative. Taken 135th in the 2015 draft, all Kaprizov has done is lead Russia’s KHL (largely considered to be the best non-NHL hockey league in the world) in goals each of the last two years. He’s a true sniper with the potential to the franchise’s best goal scorer since Marian Gaborik. This will be the 23-year old’s first NHL season, and he’s a strong contender for the Calder Trophy.

All he needs is someone down the middle to pass him the puck. While center may be a short-term weakness for the Wild, there’s long-term optimism at the position thanks to their 2021 first round pick. Selecting 9th, their highest draft position since 2012 (7th, where they took Dumba), the Wild may have found the steal of the 1st round in center Marco Rossi. Rossi absolutely lit the OHL on fire last year, leading the league in assists (81) and points (120) by fairly sizable gaps. There’s an outside shot he makes the team this year, but even if he doesn’t, watch out. Kaprizov-Rossi-Fiala has the makings of the deadly first line Wild fans have dreamed for over the years.

Look on the bright side Wild fans – it could be worse. Much, much worse, as the Red Wings proved last season (and will probably prove again in 2021).

The Verdict

The Wild should be an elite defensive team this year. Their elite top-four (and a solid third pair lead by the underrated Carson Soucy) will make sure of it. Adding Cam Talbot between the pipes, coming off a resurgence in Calgary last year, is. a massive upgrade over Devan Dubnyk, who was one of the league’s worst goaltenders in 2019-20. Dubnyk’s 7th worst save percentage last year (min. 10 games) dragged Minnesota’s usually stout goals against and PK numbers way down. That shouldn’t be an issue this year.

Starting the year without Mats Zuccarello is one, however. It seems unlikely the Wild can finish in the top half of the league in scoring this year. Eric Staal was a huge part of that effort, and he’s gone. Staal was on pace for his fourth-straight 50-point season last year, and the three centers the Wild brought in this offseason have combined for… zero of those. Come on guys, even Mikko Koivu’s had seven of those! Those days are behind the long-time Wild captain, but he was still a solid shutdown center and important piece in the locker room.

That last line is very important. The locker room seemed to be something Guerrin wasn’t satisfied with. Riding the team of Koivu and Staal, two of their biggest leaders, proves as much. It’s hard to know if that will be better or worse (or if it even was a problem), but it’s certainly different. Just like everything else about the 2021 Wild. Definitely different. But better? Probably not by much, if at all.

*Information and statistics from CapFriendly (contracts), Natural Stat Trick (advanced stats), and Elite Prospects (non-NHL stats)

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