Joel Eriksson Ek. Image by: Getty Images
The Wild have high-ceiling youth on the way to augment an already-competitive squad. They should contend for years to come but there's one noticeable position of weakness.
Welcome to 2020 Vision, our new feature taking a look at how the roster of each NHL team may look three seasons from now when the 2019-2020 season begins.
Over the next month we’ll profile one team, in alphabetical order, each day and project what their roster (12 forwards, six defensemen, two goalies) will look like.
There were some ground rules for this exercise. We didn’t allow any blockbuster trades or free agent signings, but we did make assumptions about teams re-signing their own UFAs and RFAs.
Therefore, this isn’t intended to be a fantasy-like look at the league in 2019-20. Instead, since this is part of the THN Future Watch family, it’s meant to be a realistic, best-case-scenario projection for each team based on players already under contract, and prospects in their system.
Our 2020 Vision exercise has been painful for fans of certain teams with doomed futures. Not to worry, Minnesota Wild faithful. Pour yourself something tasty, put your feet up and bask in the glory of your team’s 2019-20 depth chart. Nowadays, most NHL teams are (a) strong in the present, with much of their future mortgaged or (b) scuffling in the present while building a great talent crop for the future. The Wild are one of the rare teams who check off both boxes. We saw first-hand that they were a contending team in 2016-17, when they amassed 106 points, fifth-most in the NHL. But they’re also set up for sustained success even after some of their veteran contributors age out.
The Wild haven’t selected higher than seventh overall in the NHL draft since 2005 but, thanks to some outstanding scouting work, that hasn’t stopped them from building one of the league’s best farm systems. In THN Future Watch 2017, they boast three of our top 16 prospects and four of our top 36 in Joel Eriksson Ek (5), Kirill Kaprizov (13), Luke Kunin (16) and Jordan Greenway (36). They actually had a fifth player in the top 50, Alex Tuch, but he’s a Vegas Golden Knight now.
The Wild’s next generation will play a crucial role very soon. Dating back to the splashy, expensive long-term signings of Ryan Suter and Zach Parise in summer 2012, the Wild have been a cap-crunched team for several seasons now, lacking much leftover money to pursue further free agent upgrades, especially now that they’ve locked up restricted free agents Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter. The Wild will soon have to pay Jason Zucker, an RFA next summer and a key member of the team’s best line with Granlund and Mikko Koivu. General manager Chuck Fletcher will thus have little cap space to work with in summers to come, which should mean the resurgent Eric Staal walks when he becomes an unrestricted free agent two years from now.
The Wild will rely on their outstanding new wave of forward prospects as the equivalent of free agent additions, and each has the pedigree to become a high-impact NHLer. First up will be Eriksson Ek. He’s a two-way pivot similar to Mikko Koivu but with a better goal-scoring release. Eriksson Ek flashed potential already in the NHL last year, but the Wild returned him to Sweden so he could play more. He’ll fill an important role this year and should challenge for the Calder Trophy.
Luke Kunin looks ready, too, if Minnesota can find a spot for him. He has a higher offensive ceiling than Eriksson Ek and impressed with five goals in 12 games in his pro debut with AHL Iowa last season. It’s easy to see why Fletcher didn’t re-sign Martin Hanzal, right? Blocking Eriksson Ek and Kunin would be a bad idea. They’re ready to help this team right away.
Greenway brings an exciting combination of hulking size, grit and goal-scoring and should play in the NHL by next season at the latest if he leaves Boston University to turn pro. In Future Watch 2017, analyst Ray Ferraro compares him to Todd Bertuzzi. Greenway should become a (very) rich man’s Marcus Foligno, which is why I shift Foligno over to the right wing in the 2019-20 depth chart. If Foligno still plays for this team by then, I can’t see a spot for him on the left side. Minny is too stacked there…
…Especially if Kaprizov comes over from the KHL. His deal is set to expire in 2018, and while some reports from Russian team officials say he’s staying for three more years, our own Ryan Kennedy asked the Wild about it this week and they said they had no knowledge of a Kaprizov contract extension. As of right now, he’s still slated to be freed from his deal by summer 2018. So we should see him in the NHL at the Vlad Tarasenko age rather than the Evgeny Kuznetsov age. Kaprizov, who possesses an Artemi Panarin-like skill set, has the all-around offensive ability to be an NHL all-star.
So it’s easy to get excited about this Minny forward group in the future, isn’t it? On top of the kids, Granlund and Niederreiter are in the middle of their primes and just approaching their peaks. The air seeps out of the balloon when you look the Wild’s blueline, though. Workhorse Suter, 32, should start declining one of these years, while Jonas Brodin hasn’t lived up to the potential he showed during a great rookie campaign in 2012-13. Matt Dumba is maturing into a good young blueliner who can help on the power play with his shot. Still, Minny’s blueline as is isn’t one of the league’s best or deepest, and the Wild lack a top-end defense prospect.
Goaltending shouldn’t be a problem for several years. Devan Dubnyk has established himself as a top-10 goalie who often plays like he’s top-five. He’s not too old for a netminder at 31, and he’s under contract through 2020-21.
GOT IT: Minnesota shouldn’t have to worry about scoring from its forwards for quite some time. In 2016-17, the Wild did ache for a true sniper, with no player even hitting 30 goals, but Kaprizov, Eriksson Ek, Kunin and Greenway all bring goal-scoring acumen. This team should be far more offensively potent in 2019-20 than it is now, even if just two of those four realize their potential. Dubnyk provides medium-term stability in net, too.
NEED IT: Minnesota’s lack of defensive depth borders on alarming. Its top-ranked “prospects” on D, Mike Reilly and Gustav Olofsson, are 24 and 22, respectively, approaching now-or-never status. I see both cracking the roster by 2019-20, but it would likely mean the left-shooting Reilly plays the right side. The Wild didn’t pick in the first round this past June because they surrendered their pick to acquire Hanzal, but Fletcher must target a high-ceiling blueliner next year.
CAP WATCH: The Wild are just a few million bucks under the cap right now and will be even tighter once RFA Foligno signs. Zucker and Dumba need new deals in a year, so Minnesota will continue to operate with virtually no breathing room. There’s no way a guy like Tyler Ennis stays once his deal expires, and it wouldn’t make much sense to keep Staal in his mid-30s, either. Parise, the Minnesota-born golden boy, seems safe because he’s under contract so long and a buyout would prove costly.
BOTTOM LINE: Be excited, Minnesota. This team has some high-ceiling youth on the way to augment an already-competitive squad. Minny should contend for years to come. The key to truly challenging for the Stanley Cup will be improving the D-corps, however.
Previously: Anaheim Ducks | Arizona Coyotes | Boston Bruins | Buffalo Sabres | Calgary Flames | Carolina Hurricanes | Chicago Blackhawks | Colorado Avalanche | Columbus Blue Jackets | Dallas Stars | Detroit Red Wings | Edmonton Oilers | Florida Panthers | Los Angeles Kings
Monday: Montreal Canadiens