The expansion draft necessitated changes on the Wild blueline, but Minnesota used that as an opportunity to add up front with hopes the adjustments can get back and hold on to top spot in the Central.
The Hockey News is rolling out its 2017-18 Team Previews daily, in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds, until the start of the season. Today, the Minnesota Wild.
Stanley Cup odds: 23-1
Key additions: Matt Cullen, C; Tyler Ennis, RW; Marcus Foligno, LW; Kyle Quincey, D; Ryan Murphy, D
Key departures: Marco Scandella, D; Jason Pominville, RW; Martin Hanzal, C; Erik Haula, LW; Christian Folin, D; Darcy Kuemper, G
Will the Wild regret trading Marco Scandella?
Dealing Scandella to the Buffalo Sabres was reminiscent of New Jersey trading Adam Larsson a summer earlier – in that both teams were not dealing from an area of strength. The Devils had little on ‘D,’ and their blueline was left totally barren without Larsson. The Wild obviously aren’t nearly that bad on defense, but they aren’t deep after Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon and Matt Dumba, and all their best prospects coming up the pipeline are forwards. Was Scandella a player this contending team could afford to lose?
A lot will depend on whether Jonas Brodin steps up this season. As a rookie in 2012-13, he logged more than 23 minutes a game as a 19-year-old and finished fourth in Calder Trophy voting. Two years after that, he topped 24 minutes a game and finished 18th in Norris voting. But Brodin’s role has since shrunk. He played a career-low 19:34 per game last season. Now the Wild need him to return to a workhorse assignment. The good news is, he’s underrated in his ability to suppress shots, and he’s still just 24. Per naturalstattrick.com, Brodin actually led Minnesota blueliners in 5-on-5 Corsi Against per 60 last season. He hasn’t necessarily peaked, so maybe GM Chuck Fletcher knew what he was doing by dealing Scandella: adding some forward help from Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis while also opening up a top-four spot for Brodin alongside Dumba.
The Wild enjoyed their most successful regular season in Year 1 under coach Bruce Boudreau, setting franchise records with 49 wins and 106 points. Mikko Koivu, Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker form one of the league’s best two-way lines, supported by a 1B trio centered by Eric Staal and featuring some combination of Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and Zach Parise. Forward depth is a major strength, and it’s about to get better. The Wild won’t sweat losing rental Martin Hanzal in the off-season, nor Erik Haula to Vegas, as the depth chart now has space for promising rookie centers Joel Eriksson Ek and maybe Luke Kunin.
No NHLer has logged more ice time than Ryan Suter since he joined the team in 2012. He’s still playing great at 32, fresh off a top-five finish in Norris voting. He has an underrated ‘D’ partner in Jared Spurgeon, and Matt Dumba has stepped up. In net, Devan Dubnyk is firmly established as an high-end starter. He ranks among the leaders in every major stat category since joining the Wild in 2014-15, and he’s a big reason why the team is poised to contend again in the tight Central.
As deep as the Wild are, they didn’t have a 30-goal scorer last season. They lack an elite sniper and won’t have one until mega-prospect Kirill Kaprizov arrives, and his KHL contract isn’t up yet. Lacking that go-to gunner got them bounced by hot goalie Jake Allen and the Blues in the first round last spring. The rookies coming in raise the Wild’s ceiling but don’t guarantee success. They’re still rookies, after all, so it’s possible the team doesn’t evolve offensively. The trade of defenseman Marco Scandella to Buffalo left a big hole in Minnesota’s top four. Adding Kyle Quincey and Ryan Murphy does not do enough to address it.
The shallow defense corps should make Wild fans a bit nervous, especially in the vicious Central Division, where any hint of weakness can get you bounced from the playoffs. Look at Dallas, who missed last season after winning the division the year prior. The Wild can’t afford to regress with the Stars making major off-season upgrades and the young Jets likely to keep improving. Both of those teams will threaten to return to the playoffs and steal someone else’s spot.
THN’s PREDICTION: 5th in the Central. We still have the Wild in the playoffs, and the Central should be extremely tight. But we think the Predators and Blues will carry their late-season momentum into this season, while the Stars have improved as much as any team and the Blackhawks are the Blackhawks.
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