Can the Wild take that next step?
by Bryan Zollman
The Minnesota Wild will take to the ice tonight in front of the hometown crowd with hopes of another solid regular season, and even bigger hopes for advancing past the first round of the playoffs.
The past two seasons the Wild have had stellar regular-season campaigns only to fall in the first round. In both their past two playoff series, they staked themselves to a 2-1 lead after the first three games only to lose the next three.
Will this year be different?
There are not a lot of changes to the Wild’s roster. They recently signed Marcus Foligno, Ryan Hartman and Mats Zuccarello to contract extensions. They have added 3-time Stanley Cup winner Patrick Maroon and finally have a healthy Marco Rossi. Other than that, this team is very similar to last year’s team that won 46 games (46-25-11) and recorded 103 points to finish third in the Central Division and sixth in the Western Conference.
Here are a few things to look for in order for the Wild to take that next step and make a deep playoff run:
- Kirill Kaprizov was recently awarded the “A” and will once again be looked upon to lead the offense. Last season he was hampered by injuries later in the season and finished with just 75 points in 67 games after posting 108 points the season prior. Kaprizov will need to get back to that 100-point range. In order to do that he will not just have to stay healthy, he will need his linemates to stay healthy as well. The Wild will also have to improve their power play, which ranked 15th in the league last year with 54 power-play goals and a 21.43 percentage. Kaprizov scored 17 of them, good enough for ninth in the league.
- We hope Matt Boldy didn’t have a career year last season and his game continues to get better. At times last year he was the best player on the Wild and was a shining star when Kaprizov was on the shelf. Boldy saw a 24-point increase in 2022-23 form 2021-22, scoring 31 goals and adding 32 assists. Hopefully we will see another increase in production, and again, if the Wild can improve their power play into the Top 10 in the league, chances are Boldy will be a big part of it. He had eight power play goals and 26 power play points last season.
- The jury is still out on Marco Rossi, a former first rounder who was hampered by some health issues which slowed his expected development. He made the opening night roster, which means coaches like what they see. Last season he had 16 goals and 35 assists in 53 games for the Iowa Wild. As a playmaking center, he could form a good tandem with Freddie Gaudreau on that third line, giving the Wild much needed scoring depth.
- Speaking of scoring depth, the Wild scored 246 goals a year ago while allowing 226. Their 246 goals were 11th in the Western Conference and 22nd overall in the NHL. In order for that number to increase they will have to create more 5-on-5 opportunities while also being more effective on the power play. Getting a full season from Marcus Johansson (6-12-18 in 20 games) could also help add to the scoring depth and production from a year ago.
- Of course in order to score more the team will have to stay healthy. Two players who saw a big drop in their production were Marcus Foligno and Ryan Hartman. Both have since signed extensions and the Wild hope they get back to their 2021-22 production where Foligno scored 23 goals and Hartman buried 34. Last season they scored seven and 15, respectively, albeit playing in less games (Foligno from 74 to 65 and Hartman from 82 to 59).
- The defense is a mirror image of last season with no notable changes other than an injury to captain Jared Spurgeon to start the season. Grand Rapids native Alex Goligoski, 38, will step in until Spurgeon is ready, which might not be until early November. Last season the Wild tied for second in the West with the least amount of goals against and tied for fifth overall. Brock Faber emerged late last season and is a top-4 defenseman coming into this season. We will see if he is given opportunities on the power play, especially with Spurgeon on the shelf. The Wild would be happy to finish second in the West in goals against again.
- Goaltending may be the most important position on the ice, and the Wild are looking at Gus to drive the bus in that regard. Filip Gustavsson put together a strong season as a 24-year-old with 22 wins in 39 games and a 2.10 goals against average and .931 save percentage, second in the NHL in both categories behind Boston’s Linus Allmark. With a strong season under his belt, Gustavsson will likely get more starts this season with Marc-Andre Fleury playing more of a supporting role. If he has a year like he did last season, the Wild will be in a good position to win a lot of hockey games.
- Predictions are difficult to make in the NHL. Last season Boston had a historic regular season and were up 3-1 to Florida in the first round of the playoffs only to lose Game 7 in overtime. Florida, meanwhile, would advance all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals where they were beaten by the Vegas Knights, a team who lived the dream in just their sixth season as a franchise. If anything it’s proof that anything can happen once the puck drops, which gives our Minnesota Wild just as good a chance as anyone to fulfill the dream of a Stanley Cup run not just for the players who wear the Wild jersey, but the fans who relentlessly cheer them on along the way.
Opening night lineup:
Kirill Kaprizov – Ryan Hartman – Mats Zuccarello
Marcus Johansson – Joel Eriksson Ek – Matt Boldy
Marcus Foligno – Marco Rossi – Frederick Gaudreau
Pat Maroon – Connor Dewar – Brandon Duhaime
Jake Middleton – Alex Goligoski
Jonas Brodin – Brock Faber
Jon Merrill – Calen Addison
A look at this year’s opening night roster: