The Minnesota Wild’s 2014-15 campaign was a tough one to assess. On the one hand, they swung the midseason deal for Devan Dubnyk that triggered a major collective turnaround and set the stage for one of the biggest stories in the NHL. On the other hand, their year ended courtesy of Chicago in the second round again. That’s the same opponent and round where they were eliminated a year prior — not exactly the level of improvement you’d hope for from a team with their payroll.
Getting to round two and pushing the Blackhawks to six games in a hard fought series was a very acceptable way to wrap up the 2013-14 effort. After all, Minnesota hadn’t won a playoff series since 2003, and had only made the postseason three times in that stretch.
Last year was supposed to be different though. And one of the main reasons why was the acquisition of Thomas Vanek. The perennial 30-goal (and sometimes 40-goal) scorer had essentially been the model of consistency over his first nine NHL seasons, so adding his offensive prowess made perfect sense for a team like the Wild. They had just finished a season in which they held opponents to 2.42 goals per game (No. 7 in the league). With the defense getting the job done, a boost up front — from a player with local ties, no less — seemed like a surefire way to take the next step.
The goaltending proved to be an issue in the first half of last season — one the defense simply couldn’t cover up for. Ultimately, Minnesota ended up allowing 2.42 goals per game again, but it took a Hurculean effort from Dubnyk just to get back to that point.
That meant the forwards have to kick in more offense just to maintain the status quo, and Vanek hardly had the monster season that fans in the Twin Cities were hoping for. When all was said and done, he finished with 52 points — his lowest total in a full season since his rookie campaign of 2005-06, when he ended up with 48.
Those 52 points aren’t “bad”, by any means. But remember, he really had to go on a run in the second half of the season just to reach that number. Then he managed a grand total of zero goals in the club’s 11 playoff games.
In a lot of ways, Vanek’s season directly mirrored that of Minnesota as a whole. He started slow, so did they. He got going late in the year, notching 19 points in 23 games from early February through late March — and the Wild went on a tremendous roll. As for the postseason? Vanek’s offense deserted him, and his team ultimately bowed out earlier than they had hoped for.
To be fair, some of that is coincidence. And much of Minnesota’s roller coaster ride hinged directly on the play in net — specifically, the arrival of Dubnyk in January. Still, it is a reminder of the pivotal player Vanek can be.
The Wild know they’ll get goals from Zach Parise, and assists from Jason Pominville. Meanwhile, Mikko Koivu can routinely be counted on for 40-50 points. And they know they can expect elite-level defensive play from Ryan Suter. It’s the other guys who can really swing the organization’s fortunes. Mikael Granlund is emerging as a solid all-around forward, Nino Niederreiter just chipped in a career-high 24 goals and Jason Zucker was a revelation, notching 21 goals in just 51 games.
Those players helped raise Minnesota’s goal output from 2.43 per game in 2013-14 to 2.77 last season. But Vanek is the man who can really set off a seismic shift for the Wild. At his best, we’ve seen him tally 43 goals in a season. And he’s at least hit the 25-goal barrier all but two times in his career. One of those times was during the 2012-13 season that was shortened to just 48 games because of the work stoppage… and he still managed 20 goals. The other was last year, when he totaled just 21 in 80 games. Again, not “bad”. But not what we’ve all come to expect from Vanek over the course of a pretty large sample size.
During his first eight NHL seasons, Vanek knocked in 277 goals in 663 games. That’s an average — for his entire career — of 0.42 goals per game, meaning he’s good for roughly 35 goals per 82 contests. Last season, he lit the lamp just 0.26 times per game. If he simply scores at his usual rate, he puts in 14 more goals last year. That alone would have moved Minnesota from No. 14 in total goals (231) to No. 6 in the entire NHL (245). And that doesn’t even account for the positive impact his increased output would likely have on his linemates. Think a boost like that might make a difference for a club trying to make the jump from good to great?
The real test for Vanek and the Wild will come in the playoffs. Another 20-goal, 50-point regular season from the 31-year old likely won’t derail Minnesota or anything. But he’ll definitely need to be at his best when those seven-game series start to roll around in April and May. And, if he is, this could be a dangerous group.