The Minnesota Wild are a curious group. Fresh off a roller coaster ride of a season a year ago, the newly led Wild look to build off a somewhat disappointing 2014-15 campaign.
Finishing the season with 87 points (the only team makes last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs with less than 90 points), the Wild backed into playoffs, lost in six games to the team formerly known as the Minnesota North Stars, and began an off-season of tinkering.
The Year That Was
As I mentioned earlier, last season was a roller coaster-like ride for the Wild. Whenever you felt as though the team was starting to gain momentum as by rattling off three wins in a row, they would all of the sudden hit a speed bump and drop their next two or three games. The Wild would do this dance of three steps forward, two steps back, for the first three months of the season when all the sudden the team appeared to drive off of a cliff straight into Lake Superior.
January 10th began a month-long stretch of play that not only threatens the team’s chance of playing hockey in April and beyond, but also cost Mike Yeo his head coaching job. From January 10th to February 13th, the Wild managed to lose 12 of its 13 games and sent the team plummeting down the standings. After a February 13th loss to the Boston Bruins, Yeo received the axe and the team turned to John Torchetti, then head coach of the team’s AHL affiliate Iowa Wild.
The impact of Torchetti was felt immediately as the Wild would then win its next four games in a row. Under Torchetti the Wild would win 15 of its final 27 games. Certainly, nothing to brag about, but it was enough to clinch the final Wild Card spot in the Western Conference.
What Happened Since
Following the end of the season, GM Chuck Fletcher began searching for a new head coach for the Wild. Fletcher moved fairly quickly and hired former Anaheim Ducks and Washington Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau.
Boudreau, known for his success in the regular season, looks to be brought in to try and stabilize the many ups-and-downs the Wild has experienced over the last few years. He’ll also look to get more out of Wild players like Nino Niederreiter, Jason Zucker, Mikael Granlund and Matt Dumba who seemed to underperform at times under Yeo.
With limited cap space, the Wild were pretty quiet this offseason. Their biggest free agent splash was the signing of former Carolina Hurricanes center Eric Staal to a three-year $10.5 million contract.
Staal at the very least should provide a solid presence in the face-off circle as he has consistently won over 50% of his even-strength face-offs over the last five seasons. Once a consistent 60-plus point scorer, Staal underperformed last year, only averaging .47 points per game with the Canes and New York Rangers. His career average is .85.
Centering a line with Parise and Charlie Coyle, Staal will need to be better than a year ago or else he might find himself playing second or even third line minutes.
The Wild also managed to resign Chris Stewart to a two-year $2.5 million deal. Stewart figures to add some grit on the fourth line, as well as the potential goal here and there. During the 2014-15 season, the Wild acquired Stewart via trade with the Buffalo Sabres. In 20 games, the winger scored three goals to go along with 11 assists.
Questions For The Season Ahead
There are a lot of questions to be answered by this year’s Wild. You almost wonder if management senses that the window is beginning to close on its core of players, which is why they went out and grabbed an experienced head coach like Boudreau — only weeks after he was fired by the Ducks — to see if there’s anything extra he can squeeze out of this team that the previous regime failed to do. What kind of effect will Boudreau have behind the bench? Will veterans like Parise and Ryan Suter buy into Boudreau’s system or will there be riffs along the way like there was with Mike Yeo? Can this team be more than just a Wild Card team in the West?
An interesting storyline to watch this year is the arrival of former New Jersey Devil and Hall of Fame defensemen Scott Stevens. There has been a lot of high praise of Stevens, who will exclusively work with the defensemen. Can he show guys like Dumba and Mike Reilly how to position themselves better when playing in their defensive zone? How much better can guys like Jonas Brodin and Jared Spurgeon be under his tutelage?
The heart and soul of the Wild, Parise, had his season cut short a year ago due to a back injury. While he was able to play in three games for the US in this year’s World Cup of Hockey, how will Parise’s back respond to the grind of an NHL season? Will he be healthy enough to play 65-plus games? Can we expect the same production from him that we’ve seen the last three seasons in Minnesota?
What To Expect This Season
Player-wise, the Wild are the same team as they were before. Boudreau seems to have mixed up some of the lines from a year ago and will have players like Coyle and Granlund playing on the wing rather than centering their lines. What will this season come down to is how much more can Boudreau get out of this team than Yeo (sorry, I feel like a broken record)?
Barring catastrophic injuries to guys like Parise, Suter, and goalie Devan Dubnyk, I have a hard time seeing the Wild missing out on the playoffs.
The Central division will be a dogfight this year. With that being said, it’s hard to envision the Wild being better than Chicago, Dallas, and Nashville. There is potential for a surprise there, but I find it unlikely. It looks like the Wild will be fighting for another Wild Card spot for the fourth year in a row.