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Central Division Preview: Minnesota Wild

Our Central Division preview series continues with another neighbor to the north.

Minnesota Wild v Winnipeg Jets - Game Five

The Minnesota Wild had a good season last year, finishing third in the Central Division with 101 points, although they were quickly dispatched by the Winnipeg Jets in the first round of the playoffs.

However, there are concerns if the Wild can replicate that same performance. Free agent signing Eric Staal put up a career year with 42 goals and 76 points despite being 33 years old. Although William Karlsson of the Vegas Golden Knights received a lot of skepticism about his performance last season for having an abnormally high shooting percentage, Staal similarly had an extreme 17.4 shooting percentage. It was a marvelous season for him, but he’s only a career 11.2% shooter. He will regress this season.

Furthermore, with every season that passes, Ryan Suter and Zach Parise only get older. Suter is 33 years old while Parise is 34, so they are firmly out of the primes of their careers. Additionally, neither is without some major injury baggage. Suter missed the playoffs last season with a bad ankle injury, while Parise has missed at least eight games every year since the shortened lockout season. He also missed the end of the playoffs with a broken sternum. When healthy, Parise can be a good player, but he missed 40 games last season. There are a lot of concerns if Suter and Parise can come back from their injuries the same, and those concerns are very valid.

NHL: Dallas Stars at Minnesota Wild Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports

Moreover, Devin Dubnyk began his overdue regression last season. He posted a goals-against average of only 2.52 and a save percentage of .918. He also looked out of sorts behind his own net last season, an uncharacteristic trait for Dubnyk. In fact, Dubnyk gave up the puck 29 times to opponents last season.

As a whole, the Minnesota Wild team look archaic on the ice. Bruce Boudreau still has this team running a trap system. It has been adjusted from the system Mike Yeo implemented, but it is still very much part of the Wild’s strategic identity. A lot of hockey minds thought Boudreau would go into Minnesota and kick the offense into high gear, but he has not altered this team’s core identity. They finished second-last as a team in corsi-for percentage ahead of the New York Rangers, posting at 47.19%. Of course, this really should not be surprising for anyone who watched the Wild last season, as it seems they often went on dry streaks without possessing the puck.

The Wild still have some fine young talent in Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker, and Matt Dumba. Jared Spurgeon is also a good second-pairing defender who held his own on the top pairing with Ryan Suter’s absence. However, the Stars, Blues, and Avalanche all got better this off-season. Did the Wild do enough in the off-season to keep up in the Central Division?

Key Additions

The Minnesota Wild made a number of signings, bringing J.T. Brown, Andrew Hammond, Matt Bartkowski, Mike Liambas, and Matt Read into the fold for this upcoming season. However, these are all depth signings. If one looks a/t this lineup, bottom six forward depth is not the pressing problem; it’s the lack of truly elite talent in every position. At their best, this team has a two very good forwards, a good defenseman, and a good goalie. Nobody on this team is elite.

However, this is an issue that the Minnesota Wild are unable to solve due to the salary cap anchors that are the Ryan Suter and Zach Parise contracts. Each of them are counting $7,538,462 against the Wild’s cap space each season for a long, long time. That’s over $15m tied up in two aging, injured veterans. Obviously that is still significantly better than the cap space that the Chicago Blackhawks have tied up in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, but it still hurts the Wild and they do not have three Stanley Cups to show for it.

Key Subtractions

The only real key contributor that the Wild lost was Matt Cullen, who returns to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Cullen did a fine job on the Wild’s bottom line last season, chipping in 22 points despite being 41 years old, which is certainly a feat in itself.

Accordingly, although the Wild did not make many additions, they made fewer subtractions. They are taking the same team that finished well below the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets last season into this coming year, while the three teams next below them look much better.

Best Case Scenario

Zach Parise only misses ten games this season as the Wild get decent production from him, while Ryan Suter’s ankle injury does not hamper him too much. Matt Dumba continues his development and overtakes Suter as the best defenseman on the team, and the two become even more of a force to be reckoned with. Devan Dubnyk holds his own and the offense is fine. Eric Staal still regresses, but there was no chance that he would shoot 17.4% again. Some of the other Central Division teams that improved simply let our expectations down, and the Wild finish 3rd in the Central.

Worst Case Scenario

Other than regression, the Wild’s biggest problem for this season is how the Stars, Avalanche, and Blues all became better teams. On paper, all of those teams are at or above the Wild, and that is not accounting for injury. Moreover, each of those teams has an elite “go-to” player. The Stars have Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alexander Radulov. The Avalanche have Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. The Blues have Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan O’Reilly. Who do the Wild turn to when they need a big goal? Granlund? The Wild’s best forwards are all a class below the best of everyone else in the Central Division.

Parise and Suter also come back from injury as worse versions of themselves, and Parise cannot stay healthy yet again. Dubnyk continues to struggle and this team, due to lack of elite talent, finishes 7th in the Central Division.

Projection: 6th in the Central Division

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Winnipeg Jets at Minnesota Wild Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Simply put, I do not see how this team is better than the Stars, Avalanche, and Blues. Having a lot of good players is not enough to win the Central Division; one needs elite talent. There is not one elite player on the Minnesota Wild. Matt Dumba could become an elite defenseman, but he is not there yet. Add in an archaic trap system, and this team firmly finishes 6th in the Central Division.