When thinking about the most important free agent acquisitions in Minnesota Wild history, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are the names that instantly come to mind. This summer the organization may have landed their most important free agent yet though, signing head coach Bruce Boudreau to a four-year contract.
While the veteran bench boss isn’t a player, there’s no denying that he will have a monster impact on the Wild and their fortunes in the coming years. The gap between Bruce Boudreau and Mike Yeo — who has yet to find work since Minnesota fired him in February — is significant.
With all due respect to Minnesota’s former skipper, Boudreau has done nothing but win at the NHL level. No active coach in the league has a better points percentage than the 61-year-old and his teams have won division titles in eight of his nine full seasons.
As Shane O’Donnell illustrated after the Wild made the hire, Boudreau has a very noticeable and real impact on his clubs. He instantly turned the Washington Capitals into a better possession team in 2007 and had the same impact on the Anaheim Ducks in 2011.
Now he’ll bring his high-end pedigree to the State of Hockey, where there are a few young players that Boudreau could turn into legitimate NHL stars.
Nino Niederreiter is a budding star, coming off of a 20-goal season and clipped along at a point per game pace in the 2015-16 playoffs. The 23-year-old’s counting stats may not blow you away, but he’s also among the best shot-driving forwards in the league.
No one — not Anze Kopitar or Patrice Bergeron or Joe Thornton — finished this year with a better score-adjusted Relative Corsi percentage according to Corsica.Hockey.
When he’s out on the ice, the Wild take considerably more shots and are a more impactful offensive team. Boudreau likes his squad to hang onto the puck and both the Ducks and Capitals typically played under that particular banner.
One of the biggest strikes against Yeo during his tenure as Minnesota’s head coach was that he leaned on the wrong factors when dolling out ice time. He typically handed veterans more ice time than they deserved.
There may not be a better example of this practice than Niederreiter. Despite being among the game’s best shot drivers, the forward averaged just 15:33 of ice time per game this season and 14:33 in 2014-15. Boudreau will likely be aware of how the Swiss wing helps produce shots, and we could see Niederreiter’s production spike as he’s given more opportunities by the new coach.
He may even have a shot at averaging more than two minutes of power play time per contest. The former fifth overall draft pick caught the attention of the stats community this year. In 2016-17, he could take another step forward and evolve into one of the Wild’s most dangerous forwards.
Niederreiter isn’t the only young player who will benefit from the presence of Boudreau.
Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund will also be allowed to flex their offensive muscles a little bit more under the new head coach.
Yeo overvalued players who were willing to do the “dirty” work out on the ice. He wanted to see his forwards going for big hits, laying down to block shots and risking penalties to agitate opponents. The NHL is moving in a different direction now, with speed, depth and creativity becoming hallmarks of outstanding teams.
Logic dictates that you can’t be blocking shots or dishing out hits if your team as the puck, and Boudreau prefers to play in the offensive zone. Coyle and Granlund both saw less ice time than they should have under Yeo, and, like Niederreiter, have a lot to gain simply because they’ll be given more chances to make things happen.
We could also see Jason Zucker emerge as a consistent 20-goal scorer under Boudreau’s tutelage. The 24-year-old took a step back last year after notching 20 goals in 2014-15, but he’ll be given a clean slate to work with from the incoming bench boss.
Yeo (and later, John Torchetti) tended to lock Zucker in the doghouse more often than not, and that will likely change next season.
General manager Chuck Fletcher spoke at length about the forward’s struggles following the season, telling Michael Russo of The Minnesota Star-Tribune the following:
“He lost his way, there’s no question. But he’s a good player who scored 34 goals the last two years in 120 games and I think 31 of them were even strength. So considering we’re sitting here talking about how he gets better, he scores an even strength goal every four games, never plays on the power play and he had 34 goals in two years.”
Boudreau knows a thing or two about coaxing goals out of his wings — think of Alex Ovechkin in Washington and Corey Perry in Anaheim — and Zucker could very well return to his scoring ways come October.
Over the last three years he’s scored at a rate similar to Nathan MacKinnon, Ryan Getzlaf and Patrick Sharp. If he finds another gear, he could push his way into the league’s top 50 goal scorers.
Before Boudreau was hired we wrote that the Wild didn’t have a reason to panic this offseason. We’ll double down on that notion now that Minnesota has landed the best free agent coach, and these youthful forwards will have the opportunity to surprise some folks in the Central Division in next season.