Last Word on Hockey’s Puck Drop Previews are back for the 2023-24 season! As the regular season approaches, Last Word will preview each team’s current outlook and stories to watch for the upcoming year. We’ll also do our best to project how things will go for each team over the course of the campaign. Today, we’re previewing the 2023-24 Minnesota Wild.
2023-24 Minnesota Wild
Minnesota sports fans are entering a new season with the same memory of another first-round exit fresh in their minds. The story is a broken record: Minnesota enters the postseason hopeful to break the cycle, only to leave feeling cheated once again. Nonetheless, this team continues to garner more excitement. The quest for the Stanley Cup feels a whole season closer. Our 2022-23 Wild is a perfect example of how the road to victory is longer than a season.
Despite losing a cog in their offensive-production machine, Kevin Fiala, the Wild were determined to enter 2022-23 stronger than ever. Instead, the team skated into the season scorched from the 2021-22 playoffs. Minnesota started their season on a 3-game losing streak, only to finally grasp a point in overtime for their fourth game.
They spent the rest of the regular season as underdogs and nearly laboured their way to the top of the central division. For a moment, dreams of finally shaking the first-round exits that have plagued the franchise for many years seemed plausible. Yet, with a combination of injuries and a lack of playoff performance, history repeated itself. Still, there are highlights from last season that prove this team inching closer to winning their first cup.
2022-23 Season Highlights Show Promising Developments
Ryan Reaves gave the team an immediate edge when they acquired him in November. Reaves’ presence proved a vocal veteran and enforcer is a necessary position to fill for the Wild. Matt Boldy caught fire in March. At just 21 years old, Boldy showed he could be a leader in point production. Minnesota also secured an elite line combination with Boldy, Joel Eriksson Ek, and Marcus Johansson. Filip Gustavsson surprised everyone when he started to nip at Linus Ullmark’s heels in point percentage and benched future-hall-of-famer Marc-Andre Fleury. Lastly, superstar Kirill Kaprizov became the fastest player in franchise history to reach 200 points.
During the season, The Athletic named Minnesota’s 2023 prospect pool as the best in the league. It is not hard to see why considering the youngsters they have developing in the Wild’s farm system (Jesper Wallsedt, Liam Ohgren, Danila Yuhrov, Adam Beckman, Sammy Walker, etc.). Overall, if last season proved anything, the Wild have a lot of incoming talent due in the next few seasons.
It was a quiet offseason for General Manager and President of Hockey Operations, Bill Guerin. Due to cap constraints, the Wild could not re-sign the following free agents: Alternate Captain Matt Dumba, John Klingberg, Ryan Reaves, Oskar Sundqvist, Sam Steel, and Gustav Nyquist. Dumba’s exit is the team’s greatest loss and it won’t be easy to replace such a vocal leader on and off the ice.
With the little cap space the Wild had to work with, they were able to re-sign Marcus Johansson, Brandon Duhaime, and Filip Gustavson. Defenceman Calen Addison is still waiting for an offer. Minnesota also acquired forwards Vinni Lettieri and Pat Maroon. Maroon is meant to replace Reaves’s critical enforcer role.
Marcus Johansson – Joel Eriksson Ek – Matt Boldy
Brandon Duahime – Connor Dewar – Pat Maroon
Last season the Wild’s top line experienced some tinkering. Hartman started out as the number-one center until suffering a shoulder injury. Hartman was demoted to the third line after his return. For a while, Steel functioned between Kaprizov and Zuccarello. Alas, Steel became a healthy scratch after struggling to obtain points and shots on goal for 13 games straight. At the end half of the season, Hartman was reunited with the top line. Most likely, the Zuccarello – Hartman – Kaprizov combination is how the top line will start for the 2023-24 Minnesota Wild. However, if Rossi impresses staff at training camp or early in the season, Rossi and Hartman could swap places.
The second line is solid. This combination of Johansson, Eriksson Ek and Boldy has arguably the best chemistry of all four lines. The line worked so well together last season that Guerin agreed to sign Johansson to a 2-year deal straight away in the off-season. Johansson’s speed, Eriksson Ek’s two-way talent, and Boldy’s puck-handling skills are sure to wreak havoc on opponents this upcoming season.
The third line is the combination most likely to see the most change this season. Gaudreau is a reliable player and a favourite of Dean Evason. Unless injuries occur, Gaudreau’s spot on the third line is sealed. Foligno is undoubtedly valuable to the team. The veteran will most likely occupy a wing spot on the third line this season. However, if his performance regresses, staff may call up Vinni Letteri, Sammy Walker, or Adam Beckman to slot in. As for Rossi, he is the man to watch. The Austrian Native’s spot is the most uncertain. Originally a first-round draftee for the Wild, Rossi should be in the top six. However, due to performance issues last season, they will most likely give Rossi another chance to impress as a bottom-six player and reevaluate from there.
Minnesota’s fourth line is exciting. Dewar brings speed to the trio and is especially prone to scoring short-handed goals. Duhaime is a bulldog of a player and a menace to play against. To top it off, the Wild have a big bruiser in Maroon. His experience as a three-time Stanley Cup winner will help this team tremendously as they seek to snag Minnesota’s first win. However, it will be interesting to see what happens if the Wild re-signs Mason Shaw and if he becomes healthy this season. Shaw previously occupied the fourth line last season until he tore his ACL in April. Depending on how he looks upon full recovery, Shaw could shake up Minnesota’s bottom line.
Jared Spurgeon – Jake Middleton
Jon Merril – Calen Addison
Extras: Alex Goligoski
Captain Spurgeon and his D partner Middleton are not going anywhere. The pair are complete opposite players in nearly every way. Spurgeon is 5-foot-9, a speed demon, and a magnet for blocking shots. Middleton is 6-foot-3, fires good passes, and cushions Spurgeon with the physicality he brings on the ice. Additionally, the odd pairing’s success comes from their ability to read off each other.
Brodin and Faber will be a new pairing, as Brodin will no longer have a partner in Dumba. Brodin is a veteran defenceman who is able to shut down the best forwards in the league, including Connor McDavid. Last season Faber was whisked away straight after Minnesota’s Golden Gophers lost to Conneticut’s Quinnipac Bobcats in the NCAA championship game. Faber was devastated, but still performed well for the Wild in the postseason. It will be interesting to see how Faber adjusts from a 34-game season to an 82-game season against the best players in the world. For this pairing, Brodin will certainly serve as a mentor to Faber.
Merrill, Addison and Goligoski will likely be rotating trio in the bottom pair slots. All three players face a few issues in their game, which has caused each of them to be healthy scratches last season. Merrill is stronger defensively and has no problem protecting the net, but struggles to stay in the right position on the ice. Meanwhile, Addison’s sore spot is his defence, although, is a rocket on the power play unit. Additionally, Addison is still a free agent and not yet on the roster. But, Guerin has made it clear that signing Addison is on his to-do list. As for the 38-year-old Goligoski, he plays well over a few stretches of games. Nonetheless, the veteran seems to struggle to play multiple games in a row. For these three players, they will need to earn their spot in the lineup or they will find themselves on the outside looking in.
It will be an exciting season watching the new fan-favourite Gustavsson and the highly decorated veteran Fluery battle for the number-one goaltender’s spot. Gustavsson found his rhythm last season and shocked everyone. No one anticipated much when Minnesota acquired the calm and quirky netminder from the Ottawa Senators. However, Gustavsson finished last season with a record of 22-9-7 and an astounding save percentage of .931. The Wild hope Gustavsson can continue to prove himself and perform well in a greater number of games next season.
In Minnesota, opposites seem to attract. The 2023-24 Minnesota Wild and goaltenders Fleury and Gustavsson are no exception to this. The “Gus Bus” tends to the net with a calming aura. While Fleury the “Flower” combats pucks in a flurry of movement and fashion. This playing style has earned Fluery a record of 24-16-4 and a save percentage of .908 last season. Additionally, the 38-year-old goaltender has 3 Stanley Cups, a Jennings Trophy, and a Vezina Trophy on his resume. Fleury has admitted this could be his last season in the NHL. Although, as one of the most determined players in the NHL, it would be out of character for Fluery to give less than his all during his last season.
Players to Watch
The obvious answer is Kaprizov. Arguably, the best move this franchise has ever made was digging this star out of Russia and quietly stealing him in the 5th round of the 2015 draft. Since then Kaprizov has been an anchor for the team and critical to success every season. The forward is, quite frankly, a leader in nearly everything on the team. Fans love to watch how Kaprizov wins battles on the boards, scores flashy goals, moves around the ice flawlessly and seemingly makes precise passes using the eyes on the back of his head. The only room for improvement this player has is his performance in the postseason.
With the amount of uncertainties this season will face, it is cumbersome to select just one other player to watch this season. One option could be Gustavsson. With the struggles the Wild have had to generate offensive production, they need Gustavsson to continue to be a wall in front of their net. Another option could be Boldy. Minnesota needs another player to put pucks in the back of the net. The Massachusett’s youngster is the most likely on the team to increase his point production. The same could be said for Eriksson Ek. Regardless, the events of last season caused Maroon to stand out as a crucial candidate. Things did not start clicking for the Wild in 2022-23 until Reaves swapped his Ranger blue tarp for the Wild green. For this reason, Maroon is definitely critical to this team. The former Tampa Bay Bolt needs to replace the energy and physical safety net that Reaves brought last season.
Prediction for 2023-24 Minnesota Wild
Despite having the same result every season, it is always difficult to predict where exactly this team will end up. With the rollercoaster style this team plays with, fans are always kept on their toes. Hopefully, this team of underdogs and underrated players will finally grind their way to the top sometime soon. Regardless, the Stanely Cup will not come this season. While it feels like the limited moves this offseason have made this team better, the rest of the central division has also obtained an upgrade. The focus this season will be to develop players and line combinations in order to prepare the team for season 2025-26. At that point, the team will finally have enough money to afford their talent and make a playoff run. Until then, this team will either make this year’s playoffs in a wild card slot or just miss them. Nonetheless, the 2023-24 Minnesota Wild will still be an exciting crew to watch this season.
Main Photo: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports