The Minnesota Wild went into the 2016/17 season with an abundance of optimism. New head coach Bruce Boudreau was going to be the coach to take the Wild, a perennial playoff underachiever, to the next level, and in the process, he would shed his reputation as a great regular season coach who struggled come playoff time. Unfortunately for him and fans in Minnesota, the playoff reputation reared its ugly head again in the first round against St Louis.
Now, the Wild are in a tough cap situation, and will almost surely lose an upper-echelon player from the roster to Las Vegas. The question for the Wild will be what can they do this summer to finally take the next step in the playoffs. (Hint: Don’t trade a first round pick for Martin Hanzal!)
The Wild had five forwards score over 55 points in the 2016-17 season. That’s two more forwards above 55 points than the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Mikael Granlund had a career high 69 points, Eric Staal had 65, Mikko Koivu had 58, Nino Neiderreiter had 57, and Charlie Coyle had 56. That list is impressive when you consider three of the top three paid forwards for Minnesota were held under 50 points for the season (Jason Pominville and Zach Parise). If Pominville and Parise can return to a top level (Pominville had 30 goals and 60 points in 2013/14, Parise had 33 goals and 62 points in 2014/15), the Wild’s top 6 can be one of the most dangerous in the Central division.
Minnesota’s strength is in goal. Devan Dubnyk’s impressive season masked a team that was in the bottom 3rd of the league in shot suppression with a 55.3 5v5 CA60 (Corsi Against per 60). While Ryan Suter (40 points), Jared Spurgeon (38 points) and Matt Dumba (34 points) had strong offensive seasons, none of them were overwhelming defensively. In fact, of 187 defensemen in the league that played at least 41 games, only Spurgeon was in the top 60 in relative shot suppression (measured as Rel Fenwick%). If it weren’t for Dubnyk, this team would struggle more than it does. The Wild especially need more defensively from Dumba, who was in the bottom 15 in the Western Conference in shot suppression, in the company of Mark Stuart, Patrick Wiercioch and Dennis Wideman, none of whom are considered top level defenders like Dumba is.
The Wild are in a tough spot this season, especially with their forward group. Two of their top five scorers are restricted free agents, including Mikael Granlund, who set career highs in every major offensive category, including goals (26), points (69), and power play points (20). Granlund projects to be the Wild’s next big offensive superstar, and as such will command a substantial raise this summer. His closest comparable over the last two seasons is Colorado forward Nathan Mackinnon, who currently has a cap hit of $6.3 million for the next 6 seasons.
On the back end, the Wild are pretty well set, needing just a third pair Left shot defenceman. With no internal options ready to jump into the lineup, this may be the spot where the Wild will have to dip into free agency. Brendan Smith would be a perfect fit in the Wild lineup, but in a free agent crop lacking a surplus of top-end defensemen, Smith may be out of the Wild’s price range come July 1.
OFFSEASON GAME PLAN
The first step in every team’s offseason is the expansion draft. The Wild are in a tough spot in this respect. Currently, they have to protect 4 players with no-move clauses (Parise, Koivu, Pominville, Suter). Add in Granlund and Niederreiter to the forwards, and that leaves 2 protected forward spots left to split between Eric Staal, Charlie Coyle, and Jason Zucker, meaning that the Wild would likely lose one of these players. However, the forwards might be saved by the fact that the defensemen may be more attractive to Vegas. There are two protected defensemen spots to split between Spurgeon, Brodin, Scandella, and Dumba.
In anticipation of this problem, it appears that GM Chuck Fletcher is trying to move a d-man in advance of the expansion draft. Joe Haggerty of CSN New England reported that there are ongoing trade talks between the Bruins and Wild, centred on Brodin. This would be appealing, especially with the report that Boston has made it clear that they are willing to trade their 1 st round pick, and the Wild not having a selection until the third round (85 th overall). However, Wild VP of Hockey Operations Brent Flahr told the Minnesota Star-Tribune that “You’d just rather lose a player than make a bad trade”, referring to the fact that the Wild will not make a trade in advance of the expansion draft just to free up another spot.
With his team in a tough cap situation moving forward regardless of whom they may lose to Vegas in the expansion draft, Fletcher would be wise to at accumulating assets in advance of the draft, especially looking to obtain a first or second round pick that the Wild currently do not have, and then using those assets and/or the cap space created to make a splash that will finally help push this team over the top. If the Wild can find the right piece, with the Central appearing to be wide open in 2017/18, this team could find itself in the Western Conference final next spring.
PREVIOUSLY IN THIS SERIES…
30. Colorado Avalanche, 29. Vancouver Canucks, 28. Arizona Coyotes, 27. New Jersey Devils, 26. Buffalo Sabres, 25. Detroit Red Wings, 24. Dallas Stars, 23. Florida Panthers, 22. Los Angeles Kings, 21. Carolina Hurricanes, 20. Winnipeg Jets, 19. Philadelphia Flyers, 18. Tampa Bay Lightning, 17. New York Islanders, 16. Nashville Predators, 15. Calgary Flames, 14. Toronto Maple Leafs, 13. Boston Bruins, 12. Ottawa Senators, 11. San Jose Sharks, 10. St. Louis Blues, 9. New York Rangers, 8. Edmonton Oilers, 7. Montreal Canadiens, 6. Anaheim Ducks