They got into the dance thanks to the expanded postseason, but the 2019-20 season was not exactly a success for the Minnesota Wild.
The Wild finished the shortened regular season sixth of seven teams in the Central Division last season while their offseason hasn’t exactly been fruitful for the second straight year.
There will be new pieces aboard and general manager Bill Guerin still has time to evaluate his team, so we can’t write off the team quite yet.
Long-time netminder Devan Dubnyk is no longer around and the team traded center Eric Staal to the Buffalo Sabres. Additionally, free-agent center Mikko Koivu signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets on the open market in moves that seemingly have diminished the team’s depth down the middle.
Nonetheless, let’s dive into the 2020-21 Minnesota Wild season preview while breaking down their odds before we dive into some predictions on how this season should shake out in the State of Hockey.
2020-21 Minnesota Wild Season Preview & Odds
- Last Season: 35-27-7 (6th in Central Division)
- Key Additions: C/LW/RW Marcus Johansson, LW/RW Kirill Kaprizov, C Nick Bonino, C/RW Nick Bjugstad, G Cam Talbot
- Projected Salary Cap Space: $2,700,579
- 2021 Stanley Cup Odds: +6700
- 2021 Western Conference Odds: +2500
It’s a safe conclusion that the Minnesota Wild offense surprised to the upside a season ago.
The Wild ranked 12th with 3.16 goals per game on offense, ranking ahead of teams such as the Winnipeg Jets, Vegas Golden Knights and Edmonton Oilers. They also tied for a top 10 finish on the power play as their 21.3% clip tied that of the Florida Panthers.
There’s been plenty of turnover in this area, and it remains to be seen how the offense should fare.
Keep in mind left winger Jason Zucker was dealt to the Pittsburgh Penguins prior to the trade deadline last season while their top two centers in Staal and Koivu now reside elsewhere.
Now, those aren’t two ground-breaking names at this point in their respective careers, but they were special teams fixtures that logged plenty of ice time down the middle. Now, it appears the Wild are set to roll Johansson out as a center to start the season, a position he’s rarely played in his NHL career, although he’s been capable of doing so in a pinch.
The team will also be forced to promote Joel Eriksson Ek to the second line center spot, however Eriksson Ek’s career-high in goals-scored is eight and career-high point total sits at 29, and while both marks were posted last year and he’s still just 23 years old, he certainly hasn’t delivered on his first-round billing to this point in his career through 210 regular-season contests.
Veteran newcomer Nick Bonino should stabilize that third line and fellow first-year Wild forward Nick Bjugstad is also capable of handling center, although he’s coming off an injury-filled 2019-20 season while his production has declined significantly since his 19-goal season in 2017-18. Another former first-round pick that’s struggled for consistency.
While the depth down the middle has seemingly diminished, the scoring remains on the wings. Kevin Fiala is coming off a big season while the combination of Zach Parise and Mats Zuccarello are capable of producing despite being well on the wrong side of 30 at this point.
The highest hopes among the Minnesota forward group are squarely on Kaprizov, the 23-year-old former fifth-round pick that’s turn up the KHL for the last four seasons, most recently setting new career-highs with 33 goals and 62 points in 57 games. Kaprizov is regarded as one of the better prospects coming to the NHL this season and should be a difference-maker sooner than later for the Wild offense.
— Patrik Bexell (@Zeb_Habs) October 1, 2019
While the center ice depth remains a concern, we’ll see if the wingers can carry the load again in 2020-21.
The Wild uncharacteristically struggled defensively last season, at least on the surface.
They finished the regular-season tied for 23rd with 3.14 goals against per game, essentially cancelling out their surprising production on offense. Not helping matters was their penalty kill that checked in at 25th with a 77.2% mark on the campaign.
That said, goaltending certainly didn’t help as the Wild prevented scoring chances with the best of em’ a season ago.
In fact, they ranked first in the league in terms of scoring chances against on the season and despite playing a game or two less than their peers, their 1,228 scoring chances against were the best by a wide margin with the Boston Bruins coming in at 1,131 despite playing just one more game.
Furthermore, they also ranked first with 444 high-danger chances against, against by a notable margin with the Bruins checking in at second there as well with 496.
As a result, the Wild were on the right side of the scoring chances battle as per their 52.42% Scoring Chances For% – seventh in the league – as well as the high-danger chances battle while their 56.89% High-Danger Chances For% was the best mark in the league.
Additionally, they tied for 23rd in overall defense, but ranked 11th with 30.7 shots against per game.
So, it would appear the Wild deserved a better fate on defense, something that could rear its head this season.
While trade rumors surrounding Matt Dumba were ever-present around the draft, the Wild have kept their stout right-shot blueline as part of an excellent top four trio that also contains veteran Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon and newly-re-signed Jonas Brodin. Add in Carson Soucy and Brad Hunt and this is a Wild defense capable of chipping in on offense as well. It could be the best offensively-capable defense corps in the league and they certainly have plenty of their cap space committed to this group.
12 goals on the season, which leads all defensemen…
— NHL (@NHL) December 12, 2018
Here’s where things fell apart for the Wild on the back end last season.
Between Devan Dubnyk, Alex Stalock and Kaapo Kahkonen last season, the Wild ranked 29th in the league with an .897 Sv%, ahead of only the San Jose Sharks (.895) and Detroit Red Wings (.886).
Interestingly, Dubnyk was traded to the Sharks to form a tandem with Martin Jones, but he’ll do so coming off a poor season in which he worked to a 3.35 GAA and .890 Sv% across 30 games. Among netminders with at least 30 games played last season both of those numbers were the worst in the league among the 45 goaltenders with that 30-game threshold. Again, Jones ranked 43rd in that group, so it’s a curious addition by the Sharks to be sure.
To be fair, Dubnyk spent time away from the team to care for his ill wife, so perhaps his mental game led to such results more than anything.
Nonetheless, Stalock was better, posting a solid 2.67 GAA and .910 Sv% in his 38 appearances while Kahkonen was solid himself with a .913 Sv% in five starts, albeit with a 2.96 GAA. Despite being a 24-year-old home-grown talent and posting a 2.07 GAA and .927 Sv% in 34 AHL games last season, Guerin decided to go out and grab a veteran in Cam Talbot for three years and $11M.
The move is somewhat prudent as Talbot is coming off a bounce-back season with the Calgary Flames in which he posted a 2.63 GAA and .919 Sv% while stealing the crease from David Rittich in the playoffs while posting a 2.42 GAA and .924 Sv% in 10 postseason contests.
— Hockey Daily 365 (@HockeyDaily365) August 3, 2020
The team ate more than $2M on Dubnyk’s contract in the trade with the Sharks and have Stalock on the books for two more seasons, albeit at just a $785K cap hit, but the hope is that the pair of 33-year-olds can form a tandem that gives the Wild better goaltending than they received a season ago.
It’s a decent and calculated bet on Guerin’s part while Kahkonen continues his development in the AHL, and it’s hard to see the Wild getting worse goaltending than they did a season ago.
If they can get repeat efforts from Talbot and Stalock, they’ll be in good shape and there’s also a decent chance the Wild could once again become one of the better defensive teams in the league once again.
2020-21 Minnesota Wild Predictions
A team without strength down the middle rarely finds itself among the best offenses in the game, or even an average offense. Much of the team’s strength down the middle is on Johansson as he pivots back to center after playing the vast majority of his career on the wing. Interestingly, the Buffalo Sabres come to mind as a team that lacked depth down the middle in recent years behind Jack Eichel, but decided to beef up that group with Staal and fellow veteran Cody Eakin. A team such as the Blue Jackets saw value in adding a veteran center in Koivu to help eat bottom-six minutes while taking care of the puck.
I’m not a fan of what the picture looks like down the middle for the Wild, and that’s going to hurt the offense. Scoring on the wings will remain, but the center position is the most difficult among the forwards group, of course, and thrusting Johansson and Eriksson Ek into first and second-line duties down the middle is a little eyebrow-raising to me.
That said, I’m bullish on the picture on the back end. There’s a reason why the Wild believed Dumba could be a trade piece to add talent down the middle of the ice. They believe in their defensive group so much that a real nice two-way, right-shot defensemen in Dumba – with three more years of cost-certainty, no less – all the sudden became available on the trade market.
Suter’s now 35 and not quite in his prime at this point, but he doesn’t have to be on this group. Spurgeon, Dumba, Brodin, and Soucy are all 30 or under and are going to be contributors on this team for a while, barring a Dumba trade somewhere down the road.
The goaltending situation should improve, albeit we don’t know how much. Stalock is a career backup – albeit a capable one – and Talbot’s 2019-20 season was his first productive campaign since the 2016-17 season. Both will work better in smaller workloads, and the likely shortened 2020-21 NHL regular season is going to give both an opportunity to be fresh, healthy and productive for this team.
Also working in their favor is the regression from the Jets and Predators in that Central of late. It may seem like a stretch to see them competing with the Stars, Blues or Avalanche for a top-three spot in the Central, but with the low-scoring Stars set to miss their top point-getter in Tyler Seguin and also one half of their goaltending tandem in Ben Bishop, they may not score enough to survive any regression on the back end.
The Predators have regressed in a big way on paper for now this offseason and the Jets still have holes on the back end and may have to rely on Connor Hellebuyck for an MVP-caliber season once again.
In the Pacific, you can probably write off all three of the Sharks, Kings and Ducks as playoff contenders.
In other words, the west appears to be the favorable conference for bubble teams such as the Wild. What they do with it remains to be seen.
A lot of the pressure to contend will be on head coach Dean Evason who led the team to an impressive 8-4-0 record down the stretch after being named interim coach on February 14 in place of Bruce Boudreau.
With Evason’s help, I can see this Wild team competing with how that back end looks. Their surface results last season were nearly entirely goaltending-related, making that department the x-factor for this club next season.
I’ll go out on a major limb here and say the Wild get a top-three spot over the Stars, Jets, Predators and Blackhawks in the Central, and I can see them surprising their way to a first-round victory before running into a powerhouse and bowing out without much postseason experience among the forward group.