Over the span of six weeks, we’ll be taking a quick look at each of the 30 NHL clubs — examining their major storylines, pivotal players and the most important questions they need to answer heading into the 2016-17 season.
By the time we’ve hit every team, it will be mid-September. And that, of course, means it will be time for training camps to open. Perfect timing, really.
Today, it’s the Minnesota Wild…
The Minnesota Wild have been a playoff team each of the last four years, but they haven’t been able to make it past the second round since 2003. Their mid-season swoon this past year cost head coach Mike Yeo his job in February, and ultimately led to the hiring of Bruce Boudreau this summer.
Arguably the biggest obstacle standing in the Wild’s way is the simple fact that they play their hockey in the Central Division. It hasn’t prevented them from qualifying for the playoffs, but it all but guarantees that they’ll have to go through some combination of the Blackhawks, Stars, Blues and Predators to go on any sort of run. And that hasn’t worked out so well for them.
It was Dallas who ended Minnesota’s 2015-16 campaign, and Chicago did the job each of the previous three years. Those are routinely two of the most offensively gifted clubs in the league, and the Wild simply haven’t been able to slow them down with the season on the line.
Michael Russo of the Star Tribune joined the Natural Hat Trick Podcast this week, and suggested this group will have to be at their absolute best for all seven games of a series to knock one of those elite clubs out.
Certain teams in certain situations can afford the occasional off night — even in the playoffs — because they’re able to adjust and bounce back on the fly. It’s not that Minnesota isn’t capable of doing that too, it’s just a lot more difficult to pull off when facing a battle-tested team like, say, the Blackhawks.
Is Devan Dubnyk capable of taking this group to the next level?
Nobody expects him to do what he did in the second half of the 2014-15 campaign, when he started 38 straight games, won 27 of them and even landed in Las Vegas as a Vezina finalist. And it’s not like his numbers during the regular season this past year were all that bad. But he was plagued by inconsistency from night to night, and the playoffs didn’t go well at all.
Still, we now know he’s capable of going on a run and putting this team on his back. Doing it for half a season again isn’t realistic, but a little more consistency with the occasional hot streak mixed in would go a long way for this club.
NOTABLE SUMMER ACQUISITION
Boudreau’s postseason struggles have been well-documented, but he did reach 400 career wins faster than any other coach in NHL history. He gets his teams to the playoffs, he just doesn’t always get them as deep as they’d like to go. Come to think of it, that sounds eerily similar to the Wild franchise as a whole.
He also has a history of getting a lot out of his offensive players though, and that could be a nice boon for this Minnesota club. Younger guys like Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker and Erik Haula may have an opportunity to bump their scoring numbers up which, in turn, should make the Wild much more dangerous up front. Especially if Boudreau can get the power play going again.
Joel Eriksson Ek (drafted: No. 20 overall in 2015)
The Wild don’t necessarily have a lot of big-name stars on the roster, but they do have a pretty solid collection of good players and younger guys with a little bit of upside. Eriksson Ek should fit right into that formula. He’s never going to win the Hart Trophy, but he’s already a well-rounded prospect with the ability to impact the game in a variety of ways.
BIGGEST CAP HIT
Zach Parise and Ryan Suter ($7.538 million each)
These two are clearly the backbones of the forward group and blue line, respectively. They both came over as the major free agent acquisitions of the 2012 offseason, and they’re ultimately the guys that this team looks to in crunch time.
The biggest issue with Parise, of course, has been keeping him on the ice. He’s expected to be good to go for the start of the upcoming season, but there’s no guarantee he doesn’t re-aggravate his most recent malady. And he has missed 35 contests over the last three years — in addition to every playoff game back in April.
2017 FREE AGENT TO KEEP AN EYE ON
Niederreiter, Granlund and Haula are all set to become restricted free agents a year from now, so Chuck Fletcher is going to have some work to do. Niederreiter, in particular, has evolved into a fairly consistent source of goals — notching 58 over the last three seasons. At just 23 years of age, he’s actually still one of the youngest players on this roster too, so locking him up for awhile will be big.
At first glance, Staal’s numbers from last season — particularly his time in New York — suggest he might be on the downside of his career. But he’s far from ancient at 31, he averaged 0.93 points per game from 2005 through 2015 and he comes with a relatively cheap price tag of $3.5 million per season.
Staal’s never going to recapture the magic he had during his best days with the Hurricanes but, compared to the last couple years, there’s still some upside here. And if Boudreau and the other forwards in this lineup can help unlock that upside, Minnesota could end up with a really nice bargain up the middle.