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With former franchise faces Ryan Suter and Zach Parise out the door, can Minnesota’s burgeoning new core maintain last year’s success? (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Can Suddenly Fun Wild Avoid Regression To Boredom? 2021 NHL Previews

With former franchise faces Ryan Suter and Zach Parise out the door, can Minnesota’s burgeoning new core maintain last year’s success? (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Can Suddenly Fun Wild Avoid Regression To Boredom? 2021 NHL Previews

From 2013-2018, no team achieved more success with such little notoriety than the Minnesota Wild. Only two other teams (Pittsburgh and Anaheim) qualified for the playoffs each of those six seasons. Most teams would look back on such an incredible run with reverence and nostalgia. Yet the era that began with Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signing identical 13-year, $98 million contracts felt far too much like purgatory in the State of Hockey.

Those deals were supposed to vault Minnesota into the league’s elite category. Instead, they left the Wild were spinning their tires in the league’s mushy middle. They only had home-ice advantage in one of those years (2017… when they lost to the Blues in Round 1 in five) and made the second round just twice, going a combined 2-8 in those games. After missing the playoffs in 2019 and losing to Vancouver in the Qualifier Round in 2020, hope was vanishing vast in Minny.

One player rarely completely changes the identity of a franchise. The Wild found that the hard way with Suter and Parise. But Russian rookie Kirill Kaprizov proved to be an exception. Kaprizov didn’t just deliver on all the hype built up from being one of the top scorers in Russia’s KHL over the last few years, winning the Calder Trophy with 51 points in 55 games. His arrival changed the Wild’s entire identity. Even during their playoff streak, Minnesota was known as a pretty melancholy team. Minnesota only finished top ten in goals once during that six-year run, winning games with depth and defense. Kaprizov seemed to inject the entire team with an extra jolt of offense, as the Wild finished 9th in goals last season and were legitimately exciting to watch all year.

That was all fun and well, but the result was more of the same: a first-round exit. Granted, it was a competitive series against a juggernaut in Vegas who the Wild pushed to seven. If this is the first step on a road towards true contention, that’s perfectly fine. But with buyout penalties in the $12-15 million range from 2022-23 through 2024-25 for cutting ties with Parise and Suter, plus a lack of high-end additions this summer, is that a realistic path for Minnesota? We’ll find out this season, but let’s take a look at the group trying to get the Wild there.

Forwards (New Players In Bold)

Kirill KaprizovJoel Eriksson EkMats Zuccarello
Jordan GreenwayRyan HartmanMarcus Foligno
Victor RaskFrédérick GaudreauKevin Fiala
Brandon DuhaimeNico SturmNick Bjugstad

It’s a difficult process here at Vendetta to churn through the list of NHL teams for this fall’s slate of previews. One of the reasons the Wild are coming out in the last third of our previews is/was Kaprizov’s contract situation. There was a little bit of legitimate worry; rumors of difficulties in negotiations and the threat of a ten-figure offer from his former KHL team CSKA Moscow made the situation fairly tense. But in the end, the likeliest and best outcome of Minnesota signing Kaprizov before the start of the season.

It’s always risky to sign a player to as big a contract (5 years, $45 million) as Kaprizov inked with such a small sample size. And it is worth noting the discrepancy between Kaprizov’s Expected Goals% (just over 50%) and Actual Goal For% (59%). But anyone who watched Kaprizov last year knows he has game-changing skills; only one rookie in the last five years (Mat Barzal) had a higher points-per-game average than Kaprizov’s 0.93 (min. 30 games played). The team probably would’ve preferred a longer deal, but a half-decade is a long time; just one year longer than the time between Kaprizov’s draft year (2015) and his NHL debut. Kaprizov is a premier offensive talent; it’s up to Minnesota to surround him with the right pieces.

You wouldn’t think Mats Zuccarello and (especially) Victor Rask would be those pieces. Yet the trio produced 59% of the on-ice goals in 320 minutes together, though their underlying numbers were pretty poor. Their 46% Corsi was slightly positive relative to teammates (the Wild were a heavy quality over quantity team when it came to shots last year). But their 46% expected goals was over six percent worse than when the trio wasn’t together. Eliminate Rask and isolate Kaprizov and Zuccarello, and the picture becomes much rosier; those two racked up 64% of the expected and on-ice goals. Zuccarello has always been a talented puck-handler and a pure playmaker; seeing him thrive with Kaprizov is no surprise.

Unfortunately, the team isn’t all that strong down the middle outside of the extremely underrated Joel Eriksson Ek, which is part of the reason Rask spent so much time in the top-six. Last year did mark Rask’s best offensive output since 2017-18. But if I had to guess that’s largely a result of spending about two-thirds of his 5v5 minutes alongside Kaprizov. Eriksson Ek recorded a career-best 30 points in last year’s shortened campaign; although that comes with the asterisk of a sky-high 16% shooting that’s over double his career average. Still, he’s a well-rounded center that finished fourth in Selke voting last year. He should have no trouble living up to the 8-year extension he signed over the summer, especially if he plays consistently with Kaprizov. Though you could certainly make the argument Minnesota is better off spreading the wealth like last year.

Eriksson Ek’s career year also coincided with Marcus Foligno’s, who scored a new-high 29 points in just 39 games. Weird things can happen in such a small sample size; case in point, Foligno’s eye-popping 27.5% shooting, which makes Eriksson Ek’s leap look normal by comparison. That’s going to come down to earth this year; for reference, his career average is 12.3%. Hopefully, some of that regression is offset by a rise from Jordan Greenway, who tallied just six goals but twenty-six assists last season. A big power forward like Greenway should have no trouble picking some garbage goals in front of the net, but that hasn’t been the case so far. It will be intriguing to see if Greenway can become a more well-rounded threat in his fourth NHL season. He needs to take a step forward this year.

Kevin Fiala returning to the scary good form he showcased late in 2019-20 would certainly help; he dipped from 2.63 points per/60 in 2019-20 to 2.01 at 5v5 and suffered a similar fate on the man advantage. Fiala still managed his second straight and third career 20-goal season, so it’s not like he fell apart last year. He’s currently listed as the only eye-popper in Minnesota’s bottom-six, which is mostly full of unheralded traditional bottom-sixers who will throw the body and kill some penalties. It would get much stronger if someone like Duhaime was phased out via trickle-down effect from Matthew Boldy or Marco Rossi winning a top-nine spot. Both are former first-round picks, and Rossi very well have made Minnesota last year if not for a scary bout with COVID. Both have far more upside than anybody they’d be replacing.

Defensemen

Jonas BrodinMatt Dumba
Alex GoligoskiJared Spurgeon
Dmitry KulikovJordie Benn

While Parise is nothing more than a depth piece at this point in his career, Ryan Suter was still a key piece of the Wild’s defense. Even through last year, Suter remained a key part of Minnesota’s top-four with a lengthy track record of success alongside Jared Spurgeon in recent years. Replacing him is not an easy task, and it’s a mild surprise the Wild went with someone just as old to fill his void; 36-year old Alex Goligoski. To his credit, Goligoski has aged pretty well, putting up decent raw underlying numbers that were positive relative to his teammates in Arizona last year. Getting to play alongside one of the game’s most underrated defenders in Spurgeon should help continue that trend. But it’s not like the Wild are getting a significant upgrade, especially considering the price tag ($5 million for Goligoski plus a $2.4 million buyout penalty for Suter).

Jonas Brodin’s 7-year, $42 million extension kicks in this year. He’s a solid shutdown defender who skates with the offensively minded Matt Dumba, who survived expansion draft rumors for the second time in four offseasons this summer. It’s worth noting the duo’s underlying numbers declined for the second straight season last year as they just barely out-chanced opponents while being outscored slightly at 5v5, although their sample size from 2018-19 is quite small thanks to a significant injury to Dumba. That was the year Dumba looked like a Norris darkhorse only to injure his hand in a fight, ending his season on December 15. After scoring 72 points in 114 games across 2017-18 and 18-19, Dumba has just 45 in 120 contests over the last two years. Perhaps Suter’s department opens up a larger role for him offensively.

It will be interesting to see how heavily Dean Evason relies on last year’s lone returning defense pair. Dmitry Kulikov is a respectable Carson Soucy replacement after he was lost to Seattle. Both he and Jordie Benn are decent, defensively-minded third-pair guys who will throw the body and block some shots. They aren’t the only options for those last two spots, though. Jon Merrill had nice underlying numbers with Detroit last season (he was a depth piece for Montréal as well). And touted prospect Calen Addison, who played in 3 NHL games and produced at a nice clip in the AHL last year, will be knocking on the door as well. Minnesota’s third-pair could be in flux for a while this season.

Goaltenders

Cam Talbot
Kaapo Kähkönen

From the start of last year through March 31, only five teams allowed fewer goals per game than Minnesota’s 2.50. A huge reason for that was the outstanding goaltending of veteran Cam Talbot and up-and-comer Kaapo Kähkönen. Up to that point, the duo posted .925 and .920 save percentages, seventh and thirteenth in the league respectively. Talbot was enjoying a bounce-back to 2016-17 form when he emerged as a workhorse for the rising Oilers. Kähkönen was living up to the hype after winning AHL Goalie of the Year in 2019-20. At less than $4.5 million combined, Minnesota had one of the game’s very best tandems.

But things changed when the calendar flipped to April. Over the season’s final month and a half, Talbot dropped to a decent .915 mark, while the bottom completely fell out on Kähkönen, who sputtered out a .849 SV% in an admittedly small six-game sample size. That left Talbot firmly as the team’s starter, and to his credit, he delivered two shutouts and a .923 save percentage in the first round against Vegas. I’d expect a bounceback from the 25-year old Kähkönen, which should push Minnesota’s netminding back into the league’s top half.

The Verdict

To be honest, I’m not nearly as high on the Wild as some (much smarter) people are. While they have plenty of skill on the wings, including a legit game-changer in Kaprizov, the rest of Minnesota’s team looks the same way it usually does: pretty bland. Maybe that’s just not assigning proper credit after an exciting 2021 season. But it’s worth being concerned about that in a division where five of the other seven teams could barely tie their skate laces, the Wild were 29th in Corsi For% in the whole league, ahead of only Chicago and Detroit.

Granted, they were someone able to turn that into 51% of the expected and 53% of the actual goals. Thank their strong defense for that; the Wild finished just outside the top ten in 5v5 goals against per 60 and PK% last season. Their power-play also caught fire down the stretch, finishing second in the league from April 1 out. Receiving solid if not spectacular goaltending for most of the year certainly helped, too. This isn’t a team that just waved a magic wand to become exciting; there are legitimate, tangible reasons for the Wild’s success last year. You just have to know where to look for them.

Check out our preview of a team Minnesota knows all too well from playoffs past, the Chicago Blackhawks.

There’s something to be said for a team just figuring out how to win. Anyone who watched the Wild last year would tell you they looked like a different team. The effort they displayed against a stacked Vegas team last May shouldn’t be forgotten, either. I’m certainly not going to dismiss that entirely based on a few eyebrow-raising shooting percentages and a lack of stellar underlying numbers. But in a Central Division that I think is tougher than a lot of people are giving credit for, maintaining last year’s success will be incredibly challenging. Unless Evason keeps working magic or young players like Rossi, Boldy, and Addison make big impacts (which is certainly possible), at least a small step back feels like the most likely outcome to me.

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All Advanced Stats are 5-on-5 unless otherwise stated and via Natural Stat Trick; Salary Cap Info and Depth Chart via CapFriendly

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