The Wild have a potential Vezina winner, coach of the year and a workhorse top defenseman, but come the post-season, opponent’s should most fear Minnesota’s depth.
Devan Dubnyk is well on his way to winning the Vezina Trophy and given the Wild have matched their win total from the past season in 25 fewer games, Bruce Boudreau is going to be in the conversation for the Jack Adams Award. He could very well take home the hardware by the time the season ends, too. There’s also going to be talk about Mikko Koivu for the Selke Trophy and Ryan Suter, as always, is going to be part of Norris Trophy discussions.
But with all the solo performances that have made this season an impressive one for the Wild, there’s more to this Minnesota club that the standout performances of single players. Rather, the best thing the Wild have going is their incredible depth, and as the playoffs inch nearer and Minnesota gears up for what looks like it could be a deep run, the way the Wild have been able to win should be striking fear into the hearts of opponents.
As of Friday, the Wild currently have the fourth-highest scoring offense in the league, but that’s a bit of a head scratcher given not a single player has hit the 20-goal plateau. Compare Minnesota’s lineup to that of the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers and Washington Capitals — the top three offenses in the league, respectively — and you don’t exactly walk away thinking the Wild belong in the conversation. The Penguins boast Crosby and Malkin, Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller are leading the way for the Rangers and the Capitals are always lethal with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov. On paper, one would likely take all three offenses ahead of Minnesota’s, especially given the Wild’s current top scorer, Mikael Granlund, had maxed out at 44 points before this season.
It’s been that kind of year in Minnesota, however, with just about everyone on the team stepping up under Boudreau. Matter of fact, no team boasts a more spread out offense than the Wild, who have 10 different players to have scored at least 10 goals. That list includes Koivu, Granlund, Zach Parise, Charlie Coyle, Chris Stewart, Eric Staal, Erik Haula, Nino Niederreiter, Jason Pominville and Jason Zucker. The Capitals high-powered offense is the only other group in the league that has as many 10-goal scorers, but the Wild have two more players, Suter and Jared Spurgeon, sitting at eight goals and on pace to hit double digits this season.
One of the things that’s evident is that Bourdeau has found a way to get the most out of players who are right in that prime stage of their development. There’s no better example than Granlund, whose 16-goal, 51-point performance thus far has already seen him set dual career highs. He’s not the only one on pace to reach new heights, however. Coyle’s 44 points are a new career-best, while Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, Matthew Dumba, Nino Niederreiter and Jason Zucker are all on their way to setting new bests.
And while Granlund is the best example of a guy flourishing under Boudreau, no player is quite as indicative of the way the Wild’s depth has been clicking like Zucker. The 2015-16 season was a frustrating one for Zucker and Wild fans. After coming off a 20-goal campaign in 2014-15, the belief was Minnesota had a goal-scoring star in the making. All the facets of his game were present, but none more than his ability to absolutely burn up the ice when he hit his top speed. And while he’s seen his ice time take a dip under Boudreau — he’s playing roughly a shift or two less per game — Zucker is having the season of his life while playing bottom-six minutes.
Through 57 games, he has 16 goals and 38 points, but only a single point of his has come on the power play and not a single point of his has been scored shorthanded. Instead, he’s been a stud for the Wild at 5-on-5, so much so that he’s in the same league as Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid. That sounds bizarre, but it’s true.
Zucker’s managed 14 goals and 37 points while playing five-a-side this season, and the other 500-plus minute players who rank in the top five in scoring are McDavid, Crosby, Brent Burns and Mark Scheifele. That’s a select bunch as all four rank in the top six in league scoring. More impressive yet is that Crosby is the only one of those four others to have a higher points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 than Zucker’s 2.86. Of course, no one is about to say Zucker’s in the same overall league as Crosby or McDavid, but when it comes to even strength play this season, the Wild winger is sure producing like it.
The brilliant thing about a player like Zucker playing that way is that he’s exactly the type of weapon a team that has designs on going deep into the post-season needs. Every post-season run has its unsung heroes, and they’re generally players who score a clutch overtime goal or get moved up the lineup in hopes of generating some offense. With the way Zucker has played, chances are he could be exactly that type of player for Minnesota in the playoffs, and if it’s not him, Niederreiter, Haula, Pominville and Stewart have all been proving they can give that added punch.
The post-season can be as much about rolling four lines and getting some mismatches along the way as it is about high-end skill. Given that’s the case, there isn’t a team more well equipped to make an opponent’s bottom six and depth defensemen pay quite as much as the Wild. So, while Dubnyk, Koivu and Suter could be in line for end-of-year award recognition, it’s the depth, led by players such as Zucker, that stands to carry Minnesota towards the real prize they’re chasing.
There's no "generational talent" at the top of the draft this season, but there is a nice battle for the top spot between Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier.
It’s time for draft rankings, people, and it’s getting very interesting out there.
The 2017 draft class has already been pilloried quite a bit this season, but I think we just have to appreciate it for what it is: a chance for teams to get better. We’ve been spoiled by “generational” talents such as Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews lately, but that can’t happen every year. Instead, we have a nice little battle shaping up at the top between Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier. And don’t be surprised to see even more movement as time goes on.
I have Timothy Liljegren third, but I’m kinda conservative when it comes to moving top players down. Recognize that he may slide as other blueliners make their cases, or if it appears we’ll have another run on centers at the top this summer in Chicago. Whatever happens, here’s the first round as I see it right now.
1. Nolan Patrick, C, Brandon (WHL): Back from injury and from all appearances, not suffering. Patrick has the size, skill and all-around game to be an instant NHLer
2. Nico Hischier, C, Halifax (QMJHL): The high-end skills and smarts are so tantalizing. Hischier is certainly giving Patrick a run for his money and surpassing the Wheat King is not out of the question.
3. Timothy Liljegren, D, Rogle (SHL): Liljegren seems to be back on track after illness and a loan to Timra. His skating and offensive instincts are excellent and he’s getting some nice responsibility with Rogle.
4. Gabe Vilardi, C, Windsor (OHL): Skating is the knock, but scouts are already downplaying it by hyping up his other skills. Vilardi is big, smart and talented and really, the speed isn’t that bad right now.
5. Owen Tippett, RW, Mississauga (OHL): A weaponized winger with size, speed and a big-time shot, Tippett doesn’t have the versatility of Vilardi, but the physical tools are beguiling.
6. Klim Kostin, RW, MVD (Rus.): Surgery ended his nightmare season, but Kostin is enough of a known quantity thanks to earlier international duty. He’s a big, powerful kid with loads of talent.
7. Casey Mittelstadt, C, Eden Prairie (Minn. HS): The Minnesota commit wanted one more shot at a state title, so Mittelstadt is currently laying waste to high schoolers with Eden Prairie. Tons of skill and he put up numbers in the USHL, too.
8. Michael Rasmussen, C, Tri-City (WHL): Starting off with his nearly 6-foot-6 frame, there’s a lot to like about Rasmussen. Naturally his reach is good, but his hands are also pretty sweet and he can play with an edge.
9. Eeli Tolvanen, LW, Sioux City (USHL): A wicked shot in a smaller package. The Boston College recruit is a pure goal-scorer and draws penalties with his skill. Mixed opinions out there on his feistiness.
10. Miro Heiskainen, D, HIFK (Fin.): Smooth-skating defensemen are in and Heiskanen may even challenge Liljegren for draft stock. Some scouts thought he was Finland’s best blueliner at the world juniors.
The Capitals acquisition of defenseman Tom Gilbert is a classic depth move by an elite team preparing themselves for the playoff grind.
The fact that the Washington Capitals made a minor move Wednesday is proof they’re priming themselves for a long playoff run. It might not seem like much that they acquired defenseman Tom Gilbert from the Los Angeles Kings for a fifth-round pick, particularly since Gilbert will start his tenure in the Capitals organization in the minors.
But this is a classic depth move that elite teams make, one that has the potential to pay dividends in the playoffs. It’s basically an insurance policy against injury, giving the Capitals a useful defenseman they can put in their rotation if they’re hit with any injuries before or during the playoffs.
The Capitals, like a bunch of other teams, are currently on their NHL-mandated bye week and don’t return to action until Saturday. While they kick up their heels, they can do so knowing they’re firmly entrenched atop THN.com’s Power Rankings once again. (Last week’s rankings in parentheses.):
THE CREAM OF THE CROP
1. Washington Capitals (1) 2. New York Rangers (5) 3. Chicago Blackhawks (6) 4. Minnesota Wild (2) 5. Pittsburgh Penguins (3) 6. St. Louis Blues (10) 7. Boston Bruins (25) 8. San Jose Sharks (4) 9. Anaheim Ducks (14) 10. Edmonton Oilers (11)
With their 6-4 win over Anaheim on the weekend, the Capitals became the second team in NHL history to score five or more goals in 11 straight home games…With his 400th win, Henrik Lundqvist is one behind Chris Osgood for 11th on the all-time list. He’ll be in the top 10 by the end of the season…By the time the Blackhawks host Edmonton Friday night, the will have gone 23 days between games at the United Center…The Wild’s next victory will give them 38 on the season, which would equal their total of 2015-16…Sidney Crosby’s next point will be the 1,000th of his career…Paul Stastny, who left a game last Thursday with a lower-body injury, was put on the injured list and will be out at least two more games…The Bruins are 3-0-0 under new coach Bruce Cassidy and have scored 14 goals, more than any other three-game stretch under Claude Julien this season…With Tomas Hertl moving back to center, the Sharks have Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Hertl and Chris Tierney down the middle. That’s good…Antoine Vermette could be in a world of trouble for slashing a linesman in the Ducks’ 1-0 win over Minnesota Tuesday night…Oilers’ GM Peter Chiarelli doesn’t think he’ll be active at the deadline and is not looking at a rental. “I don’t think we’re quite ready to contend for the Cup,” he said.
THE MUSHY MIDDLE
11. Columbus Blue Jackets (7) 12. Florida Panthers (9) 13. Toronto Maple Leafs (15) 14. Nashville Predators (13) 15. New Jersey Devils (12) 16. New York Islanders (8) 17. Philadelphia Flyers (21) 18. Los Angeles Kings (24) 19. Montreal Canadiens (16) 20. Ottawa Senators (20)
Remember the team that put together a 16-game winning streak? Well, the Blue Jackets have won two in a row only once since then, a span of 19 games…The Panthers are in the midst of a stretch of nine straight against Western Conference competition, with five of those games on the road…The Leafs adopted a new dressing room slogan, “Play Right. Play Fast” then went out and beat the Islanders 7-1 Tuesday night…The Predators are nothing if not confounding. They overcame a three-goal deficit to Dallas in a 5-3 win Sunday before their bye week, which should be a sign they’ve turned the corner, right? Well, the last time they overcame a three-goal deficit, they went out and lost eight of their next 12 games… Stefan Noesen joined the Devils Jan. 25 and was immediately placed on the third line with Pavel Zacha and Jacob Josefson. In the seven games since then, Zacha has three goals and six points, Josefson a goal and five points and Noesen two goals and three points…With a chance to take over a playoff spot, the Islanders did a face plant with a 7-1 loss against Toronto Tuesday night that coach Doug Weight called, “an ass kicking.”…The Flyers play eight of their next 11 on the road, where they’re 10-13-3 this season. They kick it off with a three-game trip through western Canada, where they’re 0-2-4 the past two seasons…The Kings salvaged a pre-bye week road trip with a 6-3 win in Florida Sunday. Prior to that, they had gone three-plus games without scoring a goal in regulation time…Prior to firing Michel Therrien, the Canadiens had not scored a 5-on-5 goal in seven games where either Max Pacioretty or Alexander Radulov was not involved…Curtis Lazar sat out his fourth straight game as a healthy scratch Tuesday night amid speculation that he could be dealt before the trade deadline.
VYING FOR THE PARTICIPATION BADGE
21. Tampa Bay Lightning (19) 22. Buffalo Sabres (23) 23. Arizona Coyotes (27) 24. Calgary Flames (17) 25. Winnipeg Jets (28) 26. Vancouver Canucks (30) 27. Carolina Hurricanes (18) 28. Dallas Stars (29) 29. Detroit Red Wings (26) 30. Colorado Avalanche (22)
The Lightning have won three of their last four, something they haven’t done in almost two months…The Sabres’ 3-2 win over Ottawa Tuesday night marked the seventh time they’ve won a game when trailing after two periods. That’s tied for best in the NHL with Montreal and Pittsburgh…Despite a 5-2 loss to Edmonton Tuesday night, the Coyotes are 6-3-1 in their past 10, the best 10-game stretch they’ve had all season…Johnny Gaudreau was briefly demoted to the fourth line after a turnover that led to a goal in a 5-0 loss to Arizona Monday night...Jets coach Paul Maurice had this to say about Patrik Laine after the rookie notched his third (third!) hat trick of the season in a 5-2 win over Dallas Tuesday night: “If he didn’t score the three goals, I could have still come out and said that was his best game of the season.”…With both Bo Horvat and Brandon Sutter out day-to-day with minor injuries, the Canucks had major pieces out of their lineup in a 4-0 loss to Pittsburgh Tuesday night…If the Hurricanes fail to make the playoffs, they can point to what will almost certainly be a dismal road record. They’re 7-16-6 on the road, worst in the Eastern Conference…Jamie Benn is heating up even as the Stars stumble around. He has eight goals and 15 points in his past 11 games…Thomas Vanek has been dealt at the deadline before and knows the drill. “Wait and see, wait for a phone call and I guess for someone to let me know if I’m staying or going,” he said...After more than 300 games and almost seven seasons in the minors, Jeremy Smith made his NHL debut in Colorado’s 3-2 loss to New Jersey Tuesday night. “He was our best player by a country mile,” Avs coach Jared Bednar said after the game.
Eric Staal on life in the NHL before the 2004-05 lockout, and which human body parts he has autographed.
What was your favorite NHL team growing up?
The Leafs. I grew up in Thunder Bay, and it’s mostly Leaf Nation up there, too.
Who did you model your game after?
One of my favorite players was Joe Sakic, because of his clutch ability and because he played at both ends of the rink really well. He’s a good all-around player but was clutch.
Your ‘welcome to the NHL’ moment?
My first year was before the 2004-05 lockout, so any time I got near the net I took about eight cross-checks and slashes. I had a lot of those moments my first year at 18. It was a lot more physical before they changed the rules after that lockout.
First splurge purchase after signing an NHL contract?
I bought a Cadillac Escalade my first year once I knew I was staying and signing in Carolina. I needed a car, and my parents helped me, and I went and got one of those. It didn’t have spinning rims or anything like that, but it was nice.
What’s your favorite way to score?
I like to score from anywhere, but the fun ways to score are the one-timers or a sweet play. But most likely for me scoring, it’s going to be a quick-release shot. It’s going to be five-hole or low blocker. Those are my go-to.
What’s your craziest fan interaction?
I’ve signed people’s body parts. This one guy in Carolina, the whole team that won the Stanley Cup, he had everybody’s name tattooed to him. So he went around and basically got everybody that was on the team to sign, I think it was his leg or his calf or something, and he ended up tattooing everyone’s signature to his body. Hey, whatever you want to do. That was interesting.
Best thing about being an NHLer?
The fact I get to play a game for a living. How many people get to say they play a sport for a job? If I didn’t have this for a job, I would love playing beer-league pickup hockey with my buddies, because I love the game. I get to do that and get paid to do it, so there’s nothing better than that.
Worst thing about being an NHLer?
Travel. When you have a wife and kids, it’s hard being away. It’s hard for your wife when you’re busy and the kids are in school and hockey and everything else. It’s no fun being away. You always want to be around and be a part of everything, but the reality is we play 41 games on the road. That’s the hardest part.