Image Credit: NHL.com
The coroner had a lunch break, but he’s back in. Let us dive into the defanging of the Minnesota Wild.
The skinny: So close, and yet so far away. If you were to describe the Minnesota Wild’s recent history in a single sentence, that’s the one that fits the best. A decade after the major signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, the Wild have been stuck in a no man’s land between fringe playoff contender and barely missing the postseason. But this year was meant to be different. With likely Calder Trophy winner Kirill Kaprizov being as exactly as advertised in his first season from Russia, young players like Joel Eriksson Ek and Jordan Greenway breaking out, and a deep defensive corps, this was the season for the Wild to finally break through.
Unfortunately, their first taste of success put them on a collision course with the Vegas Golden Knights, a team that was so close to winning the division and President’s Trophy. While the Wild deserved to be considered a sexy upset pick (and they came very close to pulling it off), their lack of playoff experience came back to haunt them in the end, coming up just short in Game 7. So what led to the final downfall of the Wild? Let’s take a look…
Zach Parise: The issue here isn’t necessarily Parise, who played very well in this series and tied for the team lead with two goals and three points; the issue is coach Dean Evason’s usage of Parise. Parise was a healthy scratch for the first three games of the series, only seeing action when Marcus Johansson suffered a broken arm in Game 3. When Parise did enter the lineup, he had a slight return to form for the rest of the series. It leads to further uncertainty about where Parise stands with the Wild. While it’s likely his contract will keep him in Minnesota for the foreseeable future, a season where Parise was up and down the lineup might lead him to be a little frustrated.
Inconsistent offense: It wasn’t just Parise’s lack of usage that weakened the Wild offense; their top stars couldn’t keep any momentum throughout the series. Kaprizov was held to just one assist in the first four games of the series, scoring his only two goals in Games 5 and 7. Kevin Fiala was near nonexistent, scoring his only two points in Game 6 (he also finished with a -6 for the series). Mats Zuccarello and Marcus Foligno were held without a goal, as were three of their top four defensemen. Eriksson Ek (two goals and three points), Greenway (one goal and three points), and Ryan Hartman (two goals) did their best, but Minnesota’s top stars failed to show up when it mattered most.
Injuries: It wasn’t just Johansson that was injured in this series. Third-pairing defenseman Carson Soucy also went out with an injury, but it wasn’t until Game 7 that the injury bug really bit Minnesota hard. Early in the game, Jonas Brodin took a hit from Vegas forward Nic Roy that took him out of the game. Ryan Suter and Eriksson Ek also had nasty collisions with the goal posts and, while both players did come back into the game, neither seemed particularly effective for the rest of the game. It’s not necessarily a valid excuse, but there’s no denying how important a clean bill of health is for the postseason.
The crystal ball: This season may have ended in bitter disappointment, but the Wild are on the verge of something they haven’t had for a while: legitimacy. With Kaprizov looking like a franchise star, a young core emerging, and prospects like Matt Boldy and Calen Addison on the way, the Wild look to be in great shape for years to come. While Kaprizov, Eriksson Ek, and Fiala will all be in line for hefty extensions, the Wild should also have the cap space to add at least one more major piece to help push them over the top (perhaps a top-line center to pair with Kaprizov and Zuccarello).
The big question for the Wild, however, will be the Expansion Draft. They are the one team where it’s an uncertainty of what protection format they will choose: do they protect Matt Dumba and go the eight skaters route, or do they protect the likes of Fiala and Hartman with the traditional 7-3-1 scheme? Regardless of their choice, the Wild might have to part with a prospect or draft pick in order to keep the player(s) they would prefer not to lose. The good news is they have a relatively deep farm system and a couple extra draft picks this year from the Jason Zucker trade to Pittsburgh, so they should be alright. Well, so long as Wild fans are fine with losing Hartman or Soucy to keep Dumba or Fiala.
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