Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2016-17, where LastWordOnHockey.com gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2016-17 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the 2016-17 Minnesota Wild.
Puck Drop Preview: 2016-17 Minnesota Wild
After a successful and exciting outing in 2014-15, there were great expectations for the Minnesota Wild’s performance last season by team management, fans, and media alike. 2014-15 was only the second season in the franchise’s history that they broke the 100-point barrier and the team secured the first Wild Card spot in the Western Conference. After upsetting the St. Louis Blues in six games in the first round, the Wild were trampled by the Chicago Blackhawks in four games.
Last season was supposed to continue this momentum. They were finally getting somewhere. Making an impact. Improving. And they opened the season strong. Zach Parise scored a hat trick in the season opener as the Wild went 7-2-1 in their first ten games. The Wild carried this momentum through the first half of the season, going 20-10-6 and amassing twenty points through December, which was the fourth-best record in the league.
This is when it all started to go downhill. The Wild’s start to the new year was rough. They went 8-15-4 through January and February, effectively erasing any progress they had made in the standings. From January 10th to February 13th, they lost 13 out of 14 games. It was after their game on February 13th, where the Wild fell to the Boston Bruins by a score of 4-2, that the team fired head coach Mike Yeo. It wasn’t much of a surprise to the hockey world considering the team’s recent struggles, but Yeo had been coach of the team for four seasons, and the team had made the playoffs for three of them.
John Torchetti was brought in as interim head coach, a promotion from his head coaching job with the Iowa Wild. He seemed to make an immediate impact as the Wild won their next four games.
The rest of the season was no cake walk, as the team fought tooth and nail with the Colorado Avalanche for the second Wild Card spot in the Western Conference. After a six-game winning streak in late March, the Wild fell into another slump and lost the last five games of their season. This eleven game stretch to close out the season was a fitting end for one that was so streaky.
As the first team since the 2009-10 season to make the playoffs with less than 90 points, the Wild’s season stats were nothing to write home about. They finished 17th overall in league standings with 87 points and 23rd overall in Corsi-for percentage with 47.86% – a telling stat for a streaky team that couldn’t really find stability. They finished 15th overall in power play percentage with 18.5%.
Their leading point scorer was team captain Mikko Koivu, who at 32-years-old, was the second oldest forward on the squad. Parise led the team in goals with 25, which ended up being his lowest scoring season since his rookie year. Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek both had underwhelming seasons with neither player able to break the 20-goal mark.
They drew the Dallas Stars in the first round of the playoffs and took them to six games. After dropping the first two games in Dallas, whispers of the word “sweep” could be heard, but the Wild fired back with a definitive 5-3 victory in game three. After dropping game four, they fought to the brink in game five and evaded elimination with an overtime victory in Dallas.
Game six proved to be one of the most exciting games of the first round of the playoffs. After falling 3-0 in the first period, the Stars added insult to injury with a fourth goal late in the second. But the Wild weren’t ready to roll over. They stormed out of second intermission with renewed energy and scored three goals in five minutes. Fending them off, the Stars managed to put away another insurance goal, but the Wild weren’t done. With five minutes left in the game, Pominville buried a fourth goal, bringing the Wild even closer. But it wasn’t enough. The Stars managed to hold on for a 5-4 victory, bringing the Wild’s rollercoaster of a season to a close.
Through the second half of the season, the Wild never dropped the word “interim” from Torchetti’s title. On May 7, 2016, Bruce Boudreau was announced as the franchise’s fifth head coach. Coming off another disappointing playoff loss, Boudreau was released by the Anaheim Ducks shortly after their season ended. Still, his resume is impressive as he led the Ducks to four consecutive Pacific Division titles, setting franchise records.
From a player management perspective, the Wild started their off-season by buying out the final year of Vanek’s contract. In doing so, the Wild freed up $5 million of cap space going.
While Wild GM Chuck Fletcher claims this decision was a financial one, one can imagine how much harder this financial decision would have been had Vanek played to his lucrative price tag. It was his first full season where he failed to hit the 50-point mark, which resulted in him being a healthy scratch once by each of the Wild’s head coaches. Surely this was not a good situation for either the team of the player, so releasing Vanek from his commitment to the team ushers some of the negativity from last season out of the room.
At the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, the Wild selected Luke Kunin 15th overall. Kunin, from the University of Wisconsin, entered the draft as a centreman, but the Wild selected him for his ability to play either down the middle or on the wing. This versatility results in a two-way game for a player with great speed and a great shot. At only 18-years-old, Kunin isn’t expected to don a Wild jersey anytime soon, but no doubt the team will be keeping an eye on his development at the University of Wisconsin.
Come free agency, the Wild made a bit of a splash, signing three unrestricted free agents. First was goaltender Alex Stalock, who played thirteen games with the San Jose Sharks last season with a 3-5-2 record. His deal is two-way and it’s expected he’ll play in Iowa.
Second was veteran centreman Eric Staal to a three-year, $10.5 million contract. While Staal’s level play is not what it once was, he brings a wealth of knowledge and experience, including a Stanley Cup ring, to a room that is slowly being invaded by young players. Finally, the Wild brought in ageing fourth liner Chris Stewart on a low-risk, two-year, $2.3 million contract.
The wild signed a few players to contract extensions through the off-season. First was Jason Zucker, who agreed to terms on a two-year, $4 million contract. This is a nice bridge deal on a player who continues to show signs of improvement. He set career-highs last season across the board and as part of the Wild’s top-six this year, those numbers should continue to improve.
Next was locking in Darcy Kuemper, back-up goalie to Devan Dubnyk, to a one-year contract worth $1.55 million. Kuemper’s numbers are by no means elite, but he’s a solid back-up option who, should they choose to part ways at the end of the season, can be succeeded by Stalock.
The Wild then locked up defenseman Matt Dumba to a two-year contract worth $5.1 million. The young defenseman had a breakout season last year and they are looking for him to continue improving his numbers offensively while his defensive game matures. Zach Palmquist and Jordan Schroeder were also each signed to two-way contracts.
Zach Parise – Eric Staal – Charlie Coyle
Mikael Granlund – Mikko Koivu – Jason Zucker
Jordan Schroeder – Tyler Graovac – Chris Stewart
Both in forwards and defense, the Wild have a good mix of veteran presence and young guns coming up. Staal brings even more leadership and experience to a room that has never played past the second round of a playoff series. Pairing him with Parise should help Parise bounce back in the goal department, as Staal tallied almost 30 assists last season.
Demoting Pominville to the bottom-six keeps the 32-year-old’s minutes in check. He should find some good motivation with Niederreiter, who should continue to improve after putting up a career-best 43-points last season. Schroeder adds skill, and Stewart adds some muscle to the bottom-six.
Nate Prosser – Matt Dumba
Four Wild defensemen had 20+ point seasons and two of them had ten goals or more. Suter led the pack with 51 points and a Corsi-for percentage of 50.25%. There’s no doubt that if this team wants to be better, they need to tighten up defensively. Their CF% of 47.86 was good for eighth-worst in the league. That being said, Brodin and Dumba are young defensemen with a high ceiling. Expect them to continue to improve.
Dubnyk’s performance last year was mild compared to when he came to the team the year before and put up Vezina-worthy numbers. Still, he is the best goaltender on the Wild’s roster and he will be looking to improve on his average .918 SV% and 2.33 GAA.
Players to Watch
As the Wild’s only major off-season acquisition, Staal will surely share the leadership load of team captain Koivu. With 929 career NHL games under his belt, Staal has been through it all. Currently sitting at 781 points, Staal will surely hit the 800 point milestone this year while likely helping Parise get back to his old point producing self.
Hometown boy Parise saw the lowest point production since his rookie season last year. Watch for him to rebound in a big way this year with a new linemate Staal. For the size of contract that he’s on, Parise should still be putting up big numbers. He should accept last season as a slump and move past it. It’s a new year with lots of potential.
Unlike his buddy Parise, Suter had the best offensive season of his career last year. With most of his points coming five-on-five, Suter’s CF% of 50.0 was best among team defensemen. At 31-years-old, it will be interesting to see if Suter can keep putting up big numbers where it matters. He can be one of the best defensemen in the league – he just has to play like it.
Players on the Rise
23-year-old denfenseman Dumba had a breakthrough year in 2015-16. Dumba scored 10 goals and 26 points in his first full season with the Wild. He’s still got some improving to do on his game, specifically with his possession metrics, but this is a very exciting time in this young player’s career. With a new bridge contract, Dumba gets to show this team what he’s really about. He’s on the rise and could hit the 20-goal marker this season.
24-year-old Haula found himself in the top-10 on the team in point production last season. His 14 goals and 34 points are a massive improvement over the 7 goals and 14 points he put up the year before. This is even more impressive when considering that he logged an average 12:44 per night. He led the team in plus/minus with a plus-26 rating. Expect his upward trajectory to continue this season.
The third youngster to watch out for, Coyle has seen a steady increase in points every season. Last year, he broke the 40-point marker with his 21 goals and 21 assists. Expect him to continue to improve with more ice time in situations that really matter, and with players who can really make a difference.
Players on the Decline
Pominville has had a long and illustrious career so far. Until last year, he showed no signs of slowing down, consistently breaking 50 points a season. Last year, Pominville didn’t even put up 40 points. While the team as a whole experienced a slump, it’s no stretch to say that Pominville won’t be returning to the numbers he was putting up at the peak of his career. Expect him to play in a decreased role next season as ice time is turned over to the young guns.
The 2016-17 Minnesota Wild continue to be an average, middle-of-the-pack team. They are in the toughest division in the league and will have to string together more wins than the Dallas Stars, Chicago Blackhawks, and St. Louis Blues if they want a top-3 spot. This is no easy feat.
So, the Wild will be chasing a Wild Card spot this year against an improved Nashville Predators roster and an equally-average Colorado Avalanche. Coming up quickly on their tails are an exciting Arizona Coyotes team and a motivated Calgary Flames squad.
If they don’t win at least 45 games this year, they won’t make the playoffs. This team has more potential than they showed last season. Their goal this year shouldn’t just be to make the playoffs, but to advance in them. It will be interesting to see if they are able to tap into that potential this year or if it will be another nail-biter for the Wild.