Monday, September 2, 2019

Minnesota Wild 2019-20 season preview

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             After three consecutive first round exits from 2016 to 2018, Wild owner Craig Leipold had enough. GM Chuck Fletcher's contract was not renewed, ending his almost nine year tenure as general manager. After a thorough month long search, longtime Predators assistant GM Paul Fenton was hired. If avoiding a first round exit was what Leipold wanted, then the good news is that the Wild were not eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in 2018-19. The bad news was that the Wild didn't make the playoffs in the first place. Fenton traded core players Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter, and tried to trade another one, Jason Zucker, twice, but both deals fell apart. After one season, Fenton was relieved of duties in August, after the draft and free agency. Those three trades left the Wild with one terrible contract, and two young middle six forwards. It could be a year or two until new GM Bill Guerin gets the team back to the playoffs.

               Additions: Mats Zuccarello, Ryan Hartman

               Subtractions: Pontus Aberg, Nate Prosser, Matt Read, Anthony Bitetto, Andrew Hammond

               Forwards
Probably the best news all season for the Wild was that Zach Parise was healthy, though he did have a knee injury at the tail end of the season. He played in 74 games for the first time since 2014-15, and his 28 goals and 61 points were also his most since '14-15. He led the team in both categories. But now 35 and with six more years left on his contract at over $7.5 million, the Parise contract still looms over the Wild. Eric Staal surprised with 42 goals in 2017-18, his most 2005-06, but he followed it with his second to worst season. He scored 22 goals with 52 points, but that's not bad for a 34 year old. The third and final Wild member with 20 goals, Jason Zucker went from a career high 33 in 2017-18 to 21 in 2018-19, and he won the King Clancy Trophy for leadership on and off the ice. To help with scoring, the Wild signed the only other player in NHL history who's last name starts with "Zuc", Mats Zuccarello. Zuccarello scored 40 points in just 48 games, for a career high .83 points per game. He had 11 points in 13 playoff games. Captain Mikko Koivu tore his ACL, and played in just 48 games. His eight goals and 29 points were his lowest since his rookie 2005-06 season. Ryan Donato played in 22 games after being part of the Charlie Coyle trade. He was promising, with 16 points. Kevin Fiala, acquired for Mikael Granlund, played in more games than there are in an NHL season (83), and was an awful -12 with seven points in 19 games post trade. 6'6'' forward Jordan Greenway scored 12 goals in his rookie season. Former first rounder Luke Kunin failed to impress, 17 points in 49 games. He was the only former first rounder to have a weak season. Joel Eriksson Ek, part of the star studded 2015 draft, had just 14 points in 58 games. Ryan Hartman enters on a two year deal after scoring 12 goals for Nashville and Philly. Marcus Foligno's three year streak of 23 points ended when he had just 19. Despite playing in all 82 games, his spot in the lineup could be in jeopardy. Former 20 goal scorer Victor Rask had just three points in 23 games after being acquired for Nino Niederreiter. He is trying to win back the fourth line center spot from Kunin or Eriksson Ek. JT Brown scored eight points in 56 games. He figures as the backup winger.

                 Defensemen
Ryan Suter has the same terrible contract as Parise, but at least he's always healthy. He averaged over 26 and a half minutes a game again, and scored 47 points, and earned Norris votes for the 10th consecutive season. Entering a contract season, Jared Spurgeon is coming off a career high 14 goals and 43 points, while finishing top 10 in Lady Byng voting for the second consecutive season, and finished 11th in Norris voting. A chest injury sustained in a fight with Matthew Tkachuk cost Matt Dumba 50 games. He scored 12 goals, and was leading defensemen in scoring at the time of the injury. He was on an 82 game pace of 30.75 goals. Normally a defensive defenseman, Jonas Brodin had a career worst -15 rating, with 18 points. Another defensive defenseman with a career worst plus/minus, Greg Pateryn was a -11 in his first season in Minnesota. Tough Nick Seeler had 64 penalty minutes in 71 games, averaging just over 12 minutes a night. He also had seven points. Brad Hunt played in 29 games with the team after being acquired from Vegas. He had five points and a -5 rating.

                  Goalies
Devan Dubnyk has declined since his magical 2014-15 season. He has been healthy, though. In a league leading 67 games, Dubnyk had a .913 SV% with a 2.54 GAA, while leading the league with 28 losses. Dubnyk might have been overworked because of how bad his backup, Alex Stalock, was. Stalock had a .899 SV% and 2.99 GAA.

                   Deep Depths
Kyle Rau played in six NHL games in 2018-19. In the AHL, he scored 26 goals with 53 points in 69 games. German forward Nico Sturm scored 45 points in 39 games at Clarkson University, then played in two games for the Wild. Louis Belpedio could be the first defenseman to be called up. He had 21 points in 70 AHL games in 2018-19, and two assists in three career NHL games. Veteran defenseman Matt Bartkowski played in two games for the Wild, making them his fourth NHL team. He scored a goal, and owned a +2 rating.

                   Up and Coming
Top prospect Kirill Kaprizov is one year away from likely coming to the NHL. When he does, he is looking at a top six, maybe even top line role. Last KHL season (2019-20 just started), Kaprizov scored 30 goals with 51 points in 57 games. He was also very impressive for OAR (Russia) at the 2018 Olympics. Top goalie prospect Kaapo Kahkonen came to North America for the first time, and ended up winning the AHL starting job. In 39 games, Kahkonen had a 2.78 GAA and .908 SV%. Kahkonen looks to be the starter when Dubnyk is out of the picture, but the Wild did just draft goalie Hunter Jones in the second round. He is years away. The last two Wild first rounders, Matt Boldy and Filip Johansson, are at least two years away.

                     2019 draft class
Round 1, 12th overall: Matt Boldy
Round 2, 42nd overall: Vladislav Firstov
Round 2, 59th overall: Hunter Jones
Round 3, 75th overall: Adam Beckman
Round 5, 149th overall: Matvey Guskov
Round 6, 166th overall: Marshall Warren
Round 6, 172nd overall: Nikita Nesterenko
Round 7, 197th overall: Filip Lindberg

                     Management
Bruce Boudreau could be in his last year as Wild Head Coach. He has now been Wild coach under three GMs, after Guerin was hired. An NHL Head Coach for three teams in every season since 2007-08, Boudreau teams have never endured a losing season, and they have a .641 regular season winning percentage. He's missed the postseason only twice, but he has a .478 winning percentage in the playoffs. An assistant GM with Pittsburgh since June of 2014, Guerin gets his first GM opportunity. He was a 18 year veteran player with over 1,250 games played.

                     Projected Lineup
Zach Parise - Eric Staal - Mats Zuccarello
Jason Zucker - Luke Kunin - Ryan Donato
Jordan Greenway - Mikko Koivu - Kevin Fiala
Marcus Foligno - Joel Eriksson Ek - Ryan Hartman
Extras: Victor Rask, JT Brown

                     Ryan Suter - Jared Spurgeon
                     Jonas Brodin - Matt Dumba
                     Nick Seeler - Greg Pateryn
Extras: Brad Hunt

                               Devan Dubnyk
                               Alex Stalock
Extras: Kaapo Kahkonen

                       Prediction
The Wild are just one year removed from three consecutive playoff appearances. But they traded away some of their core players, and they are depending on aging players and young, unproven talent. If three of Greenway, Fiala, Donato, Kunin and Eriksson Ek breakout, then the Wild can make the playoffs, especially if the latter two are the ones to breakout. But even then, it is hard to see the Wild make the playoffs in a tough Central Division. I still see them as a last place team.

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