This preseason we will be previewing each of the Jets’ competitors in the Central Division. Today we’ll cover the Minnesota Wild ahead of their preseason matchup at the MTS Centre tonight.
The Minnesota Wild should be one of the most compelling teams in hockey this season. Not compelling in a “great players/exciting style/winning lots of games” sort of way; the Wild are going to be interesting in an academic sense, an experiment as to how much of an impact NHL coaches can make.
This is a team that has, for years, been just a hair better than average. Their past three seasons have resulted in one first-round exit and two second round defeats. Their best players — Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu — are all over 30, and their only significant on-ice addition this summer was in adding 31-year-old Eric Staal.
But the Wild had a job opening at exactly the right time, and so just over a week after being fired by the Anaheim Ducks, Minnesota were able to lock down one of the best hockey coaches in the world to a four-year contract. The roster has hardly changed — good but not great, sure to contend for the playoffs but no guarantee to make it there — but the man behind the bench has. And with the Stars, Blues, Blackhawks and Predators entrenched at the top of the division, the Jets’ road back to the playoffs this season goes through Minnesota.
HOW THEY DID LAST SEASON
- First-round playoff exit to the Dallas Stars
- 87 points, 5th in the Central
- 47.9% corsi
If you didn’t want to be mean, you could call the Wild’s 2015-2016 season underwhelming. If you didn’t mind, though, you could point out that they accomplished the single worst outcome possible: sneaking into the playoffs for a first-round loss to a much superior opponent, ensuring another season out of the draft lottery.
A putrid January led to the firing of coach Mike Yeo, replaced in the interim by John Torchetti, formerly of AHL affiliate Iowa Wild. The coaching change didn’t exactly light a fire under the Wild, but they managed to stumble into the playoffs with just 87 points thanks to a truly appalling season for the bottom-four of the Pacific Division.
Minnesota’s leading scorer last season was Mikko Koivu with 56 points — although Zach Parise would have almost certainly eclipsed that had he not lost 12 games to injury — and therein lies the problem for the Wild. When your top three scorers are Koivu, Parise, and Ryan Suter(!), it’s hard not to notice the conspicuous absence of young offensive talent.
That’s not to say the Wild have nothing going for them. Their main asset is top-to-bottom depth. Jared Spurgeon is terrific and an absolute pleasure to watch; and the Minnesota blueline, led by Ryan Suter, is top-to-bottom very solid.
In Niederreiter, Coyle, Zucker, and Granlund, Minnesota have some entertaining, above-average middle-sixers. And the vets — namely Parise, Koivu, and now Staal — are still very good. They just aren’t good enough, and there isn’t any help coming. And as a worrying sign of the future, Jason Pominville put up just 36 points last season and is still pulling in 5.75 mill per season for three more years.
ADDITIONS AND DEPARTURES
- Eric Staal
- Chris Stewart
- Bruce Boudreau
- Thomas Vanek
The Wild bought out Thomas Vanek this summer, choosing to pay him 3 million dollars to not play for them anymore. In fairness, that buyout allowed them to sign Eric Staal, who will be a huge upgrade to their centre depth.
Staal will be an interesting player to watch: his possession stats are still among the league’s best, but his scoring has dropped precipitously in recent seasons. That could come back on a better team and with some better bounces, or Staal may have just lost his touch as a finisher. The Wild desperately need it to be the former.
Chris Stewart is a perfectly fine body to play in the bottom-six, and Boudreau seems to like him. Why not.
The Wild lack what the Jets have in spades: young offensive talent forcing its way up the roster. Still, there’s no question that Minnesota could be a playoff team this season.
Between Devan Dubnyk, one of the deepest bluelines in the league, and a glut of vets known for two-way play, the Wild are going to be awfully hard to score on again this season. They allowed the third-fewest goals against at even strength (per hour) last season, and there isn’t any obvious reason why they’ll get worse in that department.
It will be interesting to see what type of strategies Boudreau puts to use with this Minnesota roster. He is the NHL’s premier offensive coach, after squeezing every goal possible out of Alexander Ovechkin and co for years, and then the same with Getzlaf and Perry in Anaheim. But last year, when the goals weren’t coming, Boudreau successfully switched the Ducks to a stifling — and deeply frustrating — trap system. It’s easy to imagine the Wild playing a similar defensive system very effectively: some young, tireless forecheckers up front with an intelligent, efficient, puck-moving veteran core.
Interviews with Boudreau have suggested that he would prefer to play a more typical up-tempo system, and it will be telling to see how much offence he can extract from this Wild roster — and just how much of a difference changing the coach (and not much else) will make.
If I was betting, I would probably say this team could put up anywhere between 90 and 100 points this year. They’re too good to finish below that, but don’t have enough upside to get into triple digits. If the Jets are going to make the playoffs in 2017, they’re going to have to go through Bruce Boudreau’s Wild to get there.