If you can’t be optimistic in the first month of the season, when can you be optimistic?
There has been a lot of skepticism about the Wild because they’re coming off a year in which they lost in the first round for a third straight year, seem to be getting less and less competitive in the playoffs after advancing to the second round in 2014 and 2015 and didn’t make any gigantic changes this past offseason.
With Paul Fenton now running the show as the team’s rookie general manager, many fans and reporters thought the Wild would make significant changes to their core with one or two earth-shattering trades.
It never transpired because the longtime Nashville Predators assistant GM found his colleagues were trying to rob him blind.
So instead, the Wild tried to get grittier by adding hard-nosed defenseman Greg Pateryn to the third pair and forwards Eric Fehr, J.T. Brown and Matt Hendricks to the fourth line. The fast Brown, a Rosemount native, won a national championship at UMD and the physical Hendricks is a former stud at Blaine High School and St. Cloud State.
He also re-signed speedy left wing Jason Zucker, who had a career-high 33 goals last season, and defenseman Matt Dumba, who scored double-digit goals for a third straight season, to five-year contracts.
What makes the Wild optimistic despite returning the same team?
First of all, Ryan Suter, who had season-ending ankle surgery in April, has declared himself good to go for training camp and should again be the stalwart of the league’s second-highest scoring blue line of last season. Zach Parise, who broke his sternum in the playoffs, expects to start the way he finished. From March 1-April 3, Parise scored 12 goals and had a goal in each of the first three games of the playoffs.
Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle are healthy. Both were ravaged by injuries last season and Niederreiter especially looks to bounce back after slipping to 18 goals after three consecutive 20-goal seasons.
Eric Staal’s coming off an awesome 42-goal, 76-point season and goalie Devan Dubnyk, since debuting for the Wild on Jan. 15, 2015, leads the NHL with 231 games played and 20 shutouts, is tied for first with a .923 save percentage, is second with 134 wins and second with a 2.26 goals-against average.
So, making the playoffs should still occur if the team remains healthy.
As for getting over the hump when it counts? That’s another story because this largely same core just hasn’t gotten it done in the springtime.
Fenton will be watching and analyzing and trying to identify what changes need to be made to turn this team into a true contender. Maybe the changes to the fourth line and third defense pair will make a difference. Maybe health will because the Wild were decimated by injury from start to finish last season.
We’ll see. But at least the fact that the Wild are experienced enough to get into the playoffs should buy him some time to truly evaluate things.
Bruce Boudreau has coached the Wild to consecutive 100-point seasons. He has two years left on his contract and knows the pressure’s on with a new GM at the helm.
But he’s optimistic.
“I know people are going to think, ‘OK, they didn’t make a big splash, we didn’t do this,’ I just feel that this team is different,” Boudreau said. “I feel that coming in we have something to prove and I think this core has something to prove. I think we will play that way with that little chip on our shoulder all year long. I think the young guys are going to come of age and I think the older guys that we’ve got are really going to make a big improvement. Most importantly, I think our defense is as good as any team in the league right now. And when you’ve got good defense and good goaltending, I think you’re going to win.”
Projected forwards lines:
Jason Zucker-Eric Staal-Mikael Granlund
Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle/Nino Niederreiter
Jordan Greenway-Joel Eriksson Ek-Nino Niederreiter/Charlie Coyle
Marcus Foligno-Eric Fehr-J.T. Brown
Extra: Matt Hendricks
Projected defense pairs:
Ryan Suter-Jared Spurgeon
Jonas Brodin-Matt Dumba
Nick Seeler-Greg Pateryn
Extras: Nate Prosser, Gustav Olofsson
Third goalie: Andrew Hammond
“I feel that coming in we have something to prove and I think this core has something to prove. I think we will play that way with that little chip on our shoulder all year long. I think the young guys are going to come of age and I think the older guys that we’ve got are really going to make a big improvement."
Russo’s predicted leading goal scorer: Eric Staal turns 34 in October, but he still looks in his 20s and has played that way, too, in Minnesota. He followed a 28-goal campaign in 2016-17 with 42 goals and 76 points last season and an invitation to the All-Star Game. Not only did he become the second 40-goal scorer in Wild history and matched Marian Gaborik’s team record, Staal scored his most goals since 2005-06 (his second year in the NHL when Carolina won the Stanley Cup) and his most points since 2010-11. The 76 points were the highest point total by a Wild player in 10 years. I don’t see any reason why he’d slow down this year. He has missed a game in two years with the Wild and is in a contract year and he enters the final season of his bargain three-year, $10.5 million contract.
Russo’s predicted leading scorer: If Mikael Granlund plays on the right side of Jason Zucker and Staal all year, Granny should gobble up those points once again. Two years ago, Granlund led the Wild with 69 points and was only two points short of that last season despite a very slow start because of ankle and groin injuries. But he lit it up in the second half. Granlund scored 23 points in the final 23 games and 45 points in the final 46 games. He finished with a career-high 46 assists. Granlund should have another superb year.
Ready to break out: Last season, it felt like rookie Joel Eriksson Ek was just given a roster spot when maybe he wasn’t ready for it. He played mostly fourth-line minutes next to two checking-line teammates. This season, he’ll be elevated into a third-line role and should play with more high-quality teammates. There’s no doubt he has a future as a good two-way center. But he needs to improve in the faceoff circle (42.6 percent last season) and the Wild would love to see a big jump this season offensively from last year’s six goals. Boudreau sees a lot of Rickard Rakell, the young Anaheim star, in Eriksson Ek. Eriksson Ek is now 21, got better in the second half, looked good in the playoffs. Now’s the time for him to erupt.
Must bounce back: Charlie Coyle left all Wild fans and his coaches wanting more during a tough 2017-18 campaign. He scored only 11 goals and 26 assists in 66 games but was ravaged with injuries. He broke his fibula the third game of the season, underwent surgery and missed a month. He was hobbled all year, then struggled through the entire second half with a pair of wrist injuries that would eventually require surgery. Coyle has all the tools. He’s big, he’s mobile, he’s strong, he can dangle. But he just hasn’t been consistent at the NHL level. You can bet Fenton will be really eyeballing him this season to see if he should be put on the trade market.
Russo’s predicted best rookie: The Wild have a couple rookies that should make the team. One is Jordan Greenway. The other is Nick Seeler. We’ll go with Seeler as the likely best rookie. The native of Eden Prairie and former Gopher had a heck of a 22-game debut for the Wild last season (he’s technically still technically considered a rookie). He’s big, physical, plays with a bit of a nasty streak and offers the Wild an element they just don’t have on their undersized but high-scoring blue line. Greenway got a six-game regular-season look last year and then arguably was one of the Wild’s best players in the playoffs. But he’s still barely out of college at Boston University and hasn’t played a second of minor-league hockey, so as big as he is and as enticing as he as a power forward, there could be growing pains.
Possible call-ups: Assuming Greenway makes the team, the top call-ups will be rookie Luke Kunin, NHL veteran Matt Read and former Gophers stud Kyle Rau up front. Kunin likely won’t make the team because the Wild would love him to play at least half a season in Iowa after tearing his ACL last season. Read, a former Bemidji State standout, has 437 games of NHL experience with the Philadelphia Flyers. Rau is fast and provides energy and looked good in his short stint last season. On the back end, one of Olofsson or Prosser may not make the team, so they’d be a call-up option. The Wild also have right-shot defensemen Ryan Murphy and Louie Belpedio.
Prediction: Winnipeg and Nashville are still the class of the Central. St. Louis addressed its center need and should get Robby Fabbri back from a knee injury, so they should be much improved. Dallas still has Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, Colorado still has Nathan MacKinnon and emerging star Mikko Rantanen. Oh, and if Chicago gets Corey Crawford back in goal, there’s no discounting the Hawks. But the Wild have made the playoffs six straight years and know how to do that. I see them getting a wildcard spot, but that will hardly be satisfying to fans if they lose in the first round for a fourth year in a row. So it’ll be up to this same core to once again prove the naysayers wrong and prove they can do it when it matters.
Michael Russo enters his 14th season covering the Wild and writes for The Athletic. He has covered the NHL since 2005. He co-hosts the Russo-Souhan Show on talknorth.com and can be heard on KFAN (100.3-FM) and seen throughout the hockey season on Fox Sports North. Follow Russo on Twitter at @RussoHockey. To subscribe to The Athletic at a 30 percent discount ($3.49 per month), go to theathletic.com/michaelrussohockey. If you’re a student, you can get 50 percent off ($2.50 per month) at theathletic.com/student.