Welcome to our latest series here at Last Word on Hockey. The Puck Drop Preview series takes you through each team as the season is fast approaching. The preview will focus on the narratives surrounding the team ending last year, during the offseason, and heading into the 2021-22 season. Puck Drop Preview also focuses on what the season has in store for each team from a roster and expectations perspective. Join us, as we look at all 32 teams before the season starts. Today, we take a look at the 2021-22 Minnesota Wild.
2021-22 Minnesota Wild
The Minnesota Wild saw a resurgence last season, thanks in large part to the rise of rookie sensation, Kirill Kaprizov. The high-flying Russian burst onto the scene with 27 goals and 51 points, on route to securing the Calder trophy. The Wild surprisingly enjoyed a great deal of regular-season success last year. They finished the season with a points percentage of .670, the highest in franchise history, and a massive jump from .558 the year prior.
The Wild have been marred in mediocrity since coming into the league. Led by an all-important 2015 draft class of Kevin Fiala, Joel Eriksson Ek, and Kirill Kaprizov, they look to rewrite that script. Last season saw this trio establish themselves as household names in the State of Hockey.
At the head of this whole operation is first-time general manager, Bill Guerin. When Guerin took the role in 2019 he vowed to leave his mark on this franchise and change its culture. And boy has he delivered on that promise. Guerin has brought the same level of aggressiveness that made him so good as a player and has applied that to the role of general manager.
The deconstruction of his roster was culminated this summer by the buyouts of long-term Wild players Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. With youngsters Matthew Boldy and Marco Rossi waiting in the wings, the Wild are ready to unveil a new and exciting lineup that’s ready to be anything but mediocre.
There was plenty of business that needed taking care of this off-season, but none more important than locking up prized rookie, Kaprizov. And just days before training camp is set to open, Guerin got his man. A five-year, $45 million contract was signed by the star Russian. This is the largest amount of money ever given to a player with this little amount of games played in the NHL. A risk, sure, but so is any contract. Plus, the last 10 Calder winners have gone on to be the face of their franchises. That alone should give confidence to the Wild fanbase.
Kaprizov joins a list of other recent Calder winners who signed their big-ticket right after winning the award. Kaprizov’s AAV of nine million matches the amount 2020 Calder winner, Cale Makar, received from the Avalanche this year.
With Kaprizov finally locked in, Guerin can breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy the fruits of his labour from his busy summer. This signing comes as the cherry on top of his offseason sundae that includes contracts handed out to Fiala, Eriksson Ek, Bjugstad, Goligoski, Kulikov, Jordie Benn, and Merril.
However, the shaking up his roster with buyouts to Suter and Parise does come with consequence. The buyout penalty will eat up significant cap space in years two through four. For the 2021-22 season, they will only account for 4.75 million in dead cap space. But next season it will spike to 12.75 million and then 14.75 for the 2023-24 and 2024-25 seasons. The remaining four years will decrease to a more manageable 1.66 million.
Minnesota will ice a very competitive team this season but next year will prove more difficult to replicate. Minnesota has 10 players needing to be resigned next season, including Fiala, Greenway, and goalie Kaapo Kahkonen. With a little less than 20 million available to work with, Bill Guerin knows he will need to rely on an influx of youth to supplement the lean years ahead. Expect to see rookies Boldy and Rossi finding their way into the lineup as regulars this year to begin building their NHL experience.
Leaving the team are a trio of depth defencemen, Ian Cole, Brad Hunt, and Carson Soucy. Of the forward group, the Marcus Johansson experiment is over just as quickly as it started. Johansson finds himself joining Soucy in Seattle which now leans out an already shallow depth pool at centre for the Wild.
Matthew Boldy – Joel Eriksson Ek – Kevin Fiala
It’s hard to say what combination coach Dean Evason will use for his opening day lineups. The Wild lack a true bonafide centre for Kaprizov to play with. That said, when Evason paired Rask with Kaprizov back in February, they found immediate success. Rask and Zuccarello are traditionally role players and found themselves floating through the Wild depth chart during their tenure in Minnesota. However, their hardworking style and playmaking ability were accentuated by playing with the creative Kaprizov.
The number one centre spot is currently occupied but Wild fans will be hoping it’s handed over to their 2020 first-round draft pick, Marco Rossi. The former Ottawa 67 stalwart had a whopping 120 points in his last 56 games in the OHL. Guerin and Evason are hoping that junior success translates over to the NHL level.
Despite losing a year of development due to an illness that took him out all of last season, Rossi should get a 9-game showcase to start the season. The young Austrian will most likely need some extra grooming in the AHL at the beginning of the year. But as both Rossi and the season progress, expect the rookie to be brought up to the club to help with the Wilds’ playoff push.
Fellow rookie, Matthew Boldy, the 12th overall selection in the 2019 draft, appears to be slated for full-time work with the Wild this season. The former Boston College and World Junior standout had a productive campaign in his first year as a pro with AHL affiliate, Iowa Wild. Boldy had 18 points in 14 games in the 2020-21 season. Boldy has been a point-per-game player at every level he’s played and he didn’t miss a beat when moving up to the pros. Evason will likely start him on the second line to start the year beside Joel Eriksson Ek.
Rounding it Out
Eriksson Ek, who signed an eight-year, $42 million extension in July, finished fourth in Selke voting last year and plays a superb 200ft game. He anchors a strong second line and will be flanked by Fiala and Boldy. Fiala has had back-to-back 20 goal seasons and is poised to put together his first 30 goal campaign with a full 82 game season.
Overall, the top-six group is a perfect combination of speed and skill that also plays strongly on both sides of the puck. The main issue for this top-six group last year was that they had a miserable power play. The power play operated at an abysmal 4% to start the year but surged to life in April where they had a league-best efficiency of 50%. The Wild finished the 2020-21 season with a PP% of 17, good for 24th best in the league. The Wild will look to avoid last year’s slow start and come out firing with the man advantage.
There is a lot of depth for the Wild in their bottom-six grouping. Jordan Greenway and Marcus Foligno add a nice touch of offence to the Wilds’ third line. If Rossi is to make it into the lineup, we should see Rask fall back down to centring the third line. Though he found a fit on a line with Kaprizov, Rask definitely isn’t the “future” of this club. With Kaprizov’s elite skill, anyone can be a good fit playing alongside him. Rask in the third line role would give the Wild an extremely reliable line that Evason can roll out at various moments of a game.
The Wild finally got a good look at their big German left-winger, Nico Sturm. The 6’3” winger from Augsburg got a full season under his belt and put up 11 goals. On his opposite side is Nick Bjugstad. Bjugstad is a former 20 goal scorer with the Panthers and will look to find his scoring touch again in his first season with the Wild. Holding down the centre position of this fourth line with be Frederick Gaudreau. Gaudreau found himself bouncing between the AHL and NHL last season. With Evason looking to get rookies into the lineup, expect the same for Frederick this season.
Dmitry Kulikov – Jon Merril
Extras (Jordie Benn – Calen Addison)
The Wilds’ defence is not one that turns a lot of heads. It lacks star power and is nothing more than an average group.
Wild fans are probably surprised to see Dumba still on the roster to start the year. The longtime Wild defenceman was the subject to trade rumours all summer but buyouts to Parise and Suter most definitely kiboshed any plans to move on from him, as Bill Guerin would need to eat some of his $6 million salary.
Jared Spurgeon was signed to a seven-year extension back in 2019. The deal carries through to Spurgeon turning aged 36 and has fans wondering if he will still be worth the $7.5 million cap hit by then. Spurgeon plays a hard-nosed game and logs big minutes. He is more than just a serviceable d-man and those concerns can be addressed later in his contract. For now, the Wild have one of the more reliable defensemen in the league-leading their backend and he will be relied on each game to shut down the league’s top lines.
With the exodus of half their blueline this summer, the Wild went about patching the holes by signing veteran defenceman and Minnesota native, Alex Goligoski. Guerin, a former teammate of Goligoski’s on that 2009 cup-winning Penguins team, signed Goligoski to a one-year, $5 million deal. It’s a hefty price tag for a player who’s 36 but his leadership and Stanley Cup-winning resume will be welcomed into a young Wild dressing room.
Jonas Brodin’s new contract extension kicks in this 2021-22 season. Brodin is a veteran of 555 NHL games – all with the Wild – posting 30 goals and 146 points over his career. A sound, stay-at-home defenceman, Brodin will round out this top-four group playing alongside Dumba.
Guerin solidified his team’s backend with deals to depth defencemen, Kulikov, Benn, and Merril. This will be both Kulikov and Benn’s sixth team they’ve played for in their careers and Merril’s fifth. There’s not much to write home about with this bottom pairing. The Wild will surely lean on their top-four guys and use their bottom group sparingly. Coach Evason could (should) call up rookie Calen Addison and give him a look this year. Addison enters camp after a successful campaign with the Iowa Wild where he posted 22 points in 31 games and was a +7.
Cam Talbot – Kaapo Kahkonen
Cam Talbot enters camp as the starter for the Wild. After a one-and-done season with the Flames, Talbot came to Minnesota and played like his early days in New York, where the former Ranger was considered a top prospect. The Wild will hope he maintains form and can take the bulk of the starts this season as they ease in the youngster, Kaapo Kahkonen.
Kahkonen looked poised to be the future of the Wild crease but that status is up in the air now after Guerin and company selected number-one ranked goalie prospect in this year’s draft, Jesper Wallstedt. Wallstedt has all the makings to be a franchise netminder but will require more grooming over in Sweden, playing in the SHL.
Wild fans shouldn’t worry about drafting another goalie and whether it’s cause for concern on the development of Kahkonen. In fact, they should be excited about it. A little competition in the crease never hurt anybody and having two blue-chip goalie prospects is a pretty good “problem” to have.
Players to Watch
All eyes and I mean all eyes, every fans’ and players’ around the league, are on Kirill Kaprizov. Kirill is one of the most exciting players in the league today and it’s safe to say that his team’s success rides solely on his shoulders.
Kaprizov is a big reason other Wild players decided to re-sign with the team. He is the biggest star to play for this franchise. He is the only Minnesota player to win the Calder and his star-power is greater than that of former Wild favourite, Marian Gaborik. Kaprizov’s dynamic play injects new life into a franchise that has failed to ever truly be relevant. Kaprizov will look to mirror what fellow Russian, Artemi Panarin, did after being a 24-year old Calder winner – avoid the sophomore slump.
Wild fans will be tuning in nightly to watch their phenom and are counting down the days for when Rossi can get into the lineup and the two can start terrorizing defences together.
“Rossi carries the puck up the middle of the ice… he makes a move and gets around his defender…Rossi slides a pass over to Kaprizov… Kaprizov wires one high! It’s over the goalie’s glove! Kaprizov scooooorress!”
Ya, we’re going to love hearing that for years to come.
We’ll group in a few rookies here for our other players to watch. Boldy, Addison and Rossi make up the next prospect pool that’s looking to make a jump into the Wild lineup. They should all receive some significant playing time for the Wild this year too. Due to the salary cap complications facing Guerin and his team in the next four years, it is absolutely critical that their prospects can develop and deliver at the NHL level.
Getting top-six forwards and top-four defencemen on entry-level contract pricing will be crucial for how deep and competitive of a team the Wild will ice the next four years. Not every top prospect makes the NHL, no matter how good a junior year career they had. But there is a reason for optimism with this group. Boldy and Addison outperformed expectations in their first year as pro and Rossi is as surefire of a prospect as ever. Let’s hope we see them channel that early success into a full-time job at the NHL level.
Predictions for 2021-22 Minnesota Wild
The Wild have made the playoffs eight of the last nine years, but haven’t made it out of the first round in their last five appearances. They are essentially the Leafs of the west. Minnesota is bound for the playoffs again, and they are looking to buck the trend of early playoff disappointment this year. Minnesota will be competing in a Central Division that will surely be led by the Avalanche. A lot will need to go right for the Wild if they want to take the number two seed away from high-flying Dallas Stars. It’s imperative that Talbot provides quality starts and that their power play doesn’t sputter.
The Wild begin the 2021-22 season with six of their first ten games against non-playoff teams from last year. They also have one against a Predators squad that has regressed greatly this offseason. If the Wild take advantage of their light scheduling to start the year, they can jump out of the gates with a quick start and force their division rivals to play catch up. It’s going to be an exciting season for Wild fans. A third-place finish in their division is what we should expect.
But the question remains, will the Wild put it all together and shake the title of “playoff pretenders” and finally become playoff contenders? Time will tell. Buckle up, a “Wild” season awaits.
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