Off the top of your head, where do you see the Minnesota Wild finishing in the Central this season?
They’re only technically in the same league as the division’s twin titans of Nashville and Winnipeg, which seem destined to finish 1-2 (you pick the order).
Of course, the Wild finished in that third spot last year; a distant third, mind you, with a 13-point gap between Winnipeg and themselves. And that came with some serious ups and downs; they were one of the worst possession teams in the league last year, and really only got to where they were because of an a PDO that was ninth-highest in the league.
And to be fair, they had a number of key players miss a pretty good amount of time. Jared Spurgeon only played 61 games. Zach Parise just 47. Nino Niederreiter checked in at only 63. Those are all very useful players and if they’re missing a quarter or close to half of a season, your on-ice results are going to suffer, especially if they miss a bunch of games at the same time.
But at the same time, Eric Staal scored 42 goals and 76 points. Jason Zucker cleared 30 in both goals and assists. Mikael Granlund had 67 points. Ryan Suter and Matt Dumba both hit 50 points from the blue line. Devan Dubnyk was once again top-notch at .918 in 60 appearances.
The problem for the Wild, then, is that the rest of the division seems to be improving, and it was pretty tightly packed around the middle of the Central to begin with. Nine points separated Minnesota from sixth-place Dallas, with Colorado and St. Louis between them. I would argue that all those teams improved this offseason, and Chicago should be (much) better if Corey Crawford is fully healthy, even if they’re not the Chicago of old.
Note that many of the Wild players I just listed as having enjoyed great seasons are, for the most part, outside their prime production years. Staal and Suter will turn 34 during next season. Spurgeon will turn 29. Dubnyk just turned 32. Other teams have aging producers as well, obviously, but these were some pretty outsized years from past-their-primes players, so it’ll be interesting to see what they can actually put together in 2018-19.
The real problem with the Wild, though, is the playoff format. The gap between Nashville/Winnipeg and the rest of that division is so significant in terms of on-paper quality (you can never guess when injury or quirky underperformance will rear their heads) that you’re better off finishing in the wild card spot in the division and taking your chances with the winner of the Pacific than finishing third and getting as brutally crumpled as the Wild did in the first round last year.
And with the new contract Matt Dumba signed over the weekend — five years with a $6 million AAV, the value of which I’ll get to in a minute here — this team is about $5.6 million south of the cap limit, and still have to re-sign Zucker, who has 111 points over the last two seasons. That scoring total ties him for 63rd in the league in that time, just ahead of Jordan Eberle and Sean Couturier, for instance, and likely means he’s going to be looking for a fat paycheck. That probably pushed Minnesota up around the absolute top of the league in terms of cap obligations.
(Also worth noting: There are few Bruce Boudreau stans in the hockey media bigger than me, but my man only has so much to work with, y’know?)
So this is a cap-limit team with a first-round-limit ceiling in the playoffs unless things go very heavily their way. This is, I guess, why the team brought in a new front office crew this summer; there’s a recognition that they’ve built a rather expensive team that probably reached its peak in terms of reasonable competition within the division, let alone the Western Conference or league writ large. And with so many of their top players (such as they are) on the wrong side of 30, one wonders how much longer this approach is going to be kept up.
Simply put, seventy-nine-point-something million dollars a year to get bounced in the early rounds of the playoffs again isn’t and shouldn’t be viewed as a tenable situation, but as I wrote repeatedly like four or five years, simply paying a lot of money to players who are above-average but certainly not stars in the league doesn’t make them worth their contracts. The Parise and Suter contracts don’t expire for seven more seasons and it’s a hell of a lot of money to spend on two guys whose impact on the ice is going to diminish.
The good news is there aren’t too many long-term commitments otherwise — Dumba and Niedereitter, both of whom are under 26, are the only other guys signed for more than the next three seasons — and the team does have some promising, youngish players to supplement the old guard. That Dumba contract is probably a little too much in terms of AAV, but he has 35 goals over the last three seasons and you gotta pay for guys like that, I guess.
Only 12 defensemen in the salary cap era besides Dumba have cleared 50 points in a season before the age of 24, so what are you gonna do? The term is fine, for sure, but Dumba doesn’t really move the needle in terms of underlying numbers; he’s still improving given his age, but paying a lot for that particular player seems more optimistic than rational. Because of those 13 defensemen, only eight repeated their 50-performances at least once before turning 28.
Nice to have young players who can make an impact, certainly, but the Wild fall into that classic trap of having a number of goodish, cheapish young guys and goodish, expensive old guys and very little in between, which doesn’t allow for a continuity of quality over years.
And with this team in particular, what even is that quality, really? Can you really afford to run out the clock with all these early-to-mid-20s and mid-30s players over the next three years if this is where you’re gonna get?
While anyone can get on a hot run and make a deep playoff push, the Wild don’t really have a realistic chance to do that unless they land outside their own division for the playoffs. Which is theoretically possible, but in actual practice you shouldn’t want to hope you finish seventh or eighth in the West to get a viable path to the Conference Final, where you’re likely to get clubbed anyway.
So the Wild, again, seem to be at a crossroads with the direction of their franchise, but none of their paths forward seem particularly favorable.
What We Learned
Anaheim Ducks: They’re officially bringing back, well, a version of the original Mighty Ducks jersey, which should just be their actual jersey anyway. This one kinda stinks but what are you gonna do?
Arizona Coyotes: God if the Coyotes are worth $500 million, what’s Vegas worth now, a year after paying that same amount of money to be a team?
Boston Bruins: The cool thing about if the Bruins got Artemi Panarin? He would be the second-best left wing on the team.
Buffalo Sabres: Casey Mittelstadt looks like he could soon be a difference-maker at the NHL level, which is probably a little ahead of schedule to be honest.
Calgary Flames: The Flames love putting useful young depth players on waivers for no reason, but at least they didn’t lose Brett Kulak for nothing like they did Paul Byron.
Carolina Hurricanes: I would not recommend making a 19-year-old rookie your No. 1 center, no.
Chicago: Jonathan Toews wants a big bounce-back season for himself and his team. I want a million dollars. Nice to want things.
Colorado Avalanche: The Avs are probably going to avoid arbitration with Patrik Nemeth and that’s the only guy they need to re-sign at this point.
Columbus Blue Jackets: *Craig Finn voice* Don’t let Oliver Bjorkstrand explode!!!!
Dallas Stars: You can say what you want about the Stars but there really aren’t that many bad contracts on the books.
Detroit Red Wings: Wow the Red Wings might actually play talented kids instead of mediocre 29-year-olds in important situations. Signs and wonders.
Edmonton Oilers: Put Joe Gambardella in the NHL. Yes. Do it. Think about where he went to college and don’t be a coward!!!
Florida Panthers: Vinnie Viola is selling his mansion in New Jersey and I’m buying it.
Los Angeles Kings: A great mid-July pastime is to look at NHL signings and guess what percentage of them are AHL-quality goons. Here’s one now.
Montreal Canadiens: This is brutal.
Nashville Predators: Yes. Thanks for asking.
New Jersey Devils: Only roster eight defensemen if you’re gonna play seven every night. Which, by the way, you should do that.
New York Islanders: Frankly, gang, I don’t know that they have much of a choice in the whole “should we tank?” discussion.
New York Rangers: When the richest and biggest-name teams in the league are openly saying they’re “rebuilding” that should be a good indication that it’s a perfectly okay thing for every team to do when needed.
Ottawa Senators: This is going really great.
Philadelphia Flyers: Man, that Forsberg-to-Nashville trade effectively got the Flyers Scottie Upshall, Ryan Parent, Scott Hartnell, and Kimmo Timonen plus a third-round pick? Good lord!
Pittsburgh Penguins: Okay, sure, Derek Grant. That’s someone.
San Jose Sharks: Chris Tierney? That’s even more someone.
St. Louis Blues: This is a take where I go, “Ahhhh, maybe?” Which kinda defeats the purpose of the take.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Really feels like everyone in Tampa is just sitting around going, “Well jeez hey when’s this Karlsson thing happening? Soon? Soon. Gotta be soon.”
Toronto Maple Leafs: Andreas Johnsson‘s one of those guys where it’s like, “Yeah he’s probably a real player.” He went point-a-game in his second AHL season and 1.5 a game in the playoffs. Granted, that’s on a stacked team, but he’s 23 and a guy who can score like that is probably a good bottom-six option at an absolute minimum.
Vancouver Canucks: I would not want to be in the business of extending Alex Edler, despite his long-term status with the org.
Vegas Golden Knights: It’s really too bad the Golden Knights didn’t have to change their name. That would have been so funny.
Washington Capitals: Yeah, no.
Winnipeg Jets: I’m gonna write more about Trouba this week but: yikes.
Gold Star Award
Maybe this makes me a kook in hockey circles but every NHL team should have as many jerseys as they want. Who cares as long as they’re cool or weird or whatever? I don’t like the Ducks’ new “classic-inspired” thirds but at least they’re trying something. More throwbacks would be a good thing.
Minus of the Weekend
This is some kinda take.
Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week
User “Kshahdoo” loves this time of year.
STL gets Panarin (but only with extention)
Toronto gets Parayko
Columbus gets Nylander
(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)