As the offseason moves towards August, much of the dust has settled in terms of the availability of major free agent signings. Teams will add small pieces here and there, but now becomes the time to look within for further answers to team weaknesses.
The Minnesota Wild have hardy, young talent that could really shine brighter this year than last, given the right support, proper playing style and cohesion alongside experienced veterans. As I wrote just the other day, this “rebuild” is in truth a “retool,” with the youngsters owing real obligations to make it so. At every position, one can see the Minnesota team of tomorrow, today.
Centers and Wingers
The last two drafts of 2018 and 2019 saw the Wild draft three left-wingers, all this year, and one right-winger, as well as six centers in the drafts, combined. The 2019 12th-overall pick, left-winger/center Matthew Boldy, alongside left-wingers 42nd-pick Vladislav Firstov, and 75th-pick Adam Beckman come into the NHL with differing expectations. The 18-year-old Boldy is a star in the making, and while he’ll spend time on an affiliates roster, good play by him, team injuries or the Wild’s underperformance could see him inserted early for gaining proper professional experience. Meanwhile, contributions from the likes of Matvey Guskov and Nikita Nesterenko still seem a few years from being reasonable to expect.
The batch of offensive players for 2018 could also be due for breakout contributions; center Jack McBain, the 63rd-pick, has great potential at only 19 years old, while the 86th, 92nd, 155th, 179th and 210th picks all focused on offense, as well. Depth is one thing, then there’s what the Wild have done with young offensive talent. In order, centers Alexander Khovanov, Connor Dewar, Damien Giroux, right-winger Shawn Boudrias and center Sam Hentges all represent potential that the Wild are hoping will age and mature into something special. A poor season by the Wild could end up with much of the talent from both of the prior two drafts gaining playing time if trades should create the roster space.
Ideally speaking, only the likes of Boldy would be pressed into any real action this season, allowing the others to mature at a more steady pace, observing and growing out of the harsh spotlight until they are prepared properly for it. For apart from the youth of drafts gone by, the offense has young, more complete pieces through various trades as well.
Between the trade returns of 23-year-old left-winger Ryan Donato (acquired in the Charlie Coyle trade) and 26-year-old Swede center/right winger Victor Rask (from the Nino Niederreiter deal), competition for playtime should be fiercely contested. Donato was a necessary re-signing for the Wild, and the two-year contract he signed this offseason secured a still evolving talent for a team that will lose older players in the next couple years to old age, injury and the market.
Twenty-two-year-old left-winger Kevin Fiala (from the Mikael Granlund trade) is a solid youth already who, like the slightly older Rask, sputtered a bit upon first arriving in Minneapolis; progress for both could be cause for cheer, as the offense must do more to aid our netminder better this campaign.
Another name to watch out for is that of Joel Eriksson Ek, the 22-year-old Swedish-born center whom the Wild drafted in the 2015 first round. While he has been of lesser impact to this point than the Wild probably bargained for, a line featuring him alongside veteran Mats Zuccarello on the right and perhaps Boldy or Kevin Fiala on his left could provide him with the pieces needed to produce at a greater clip than to this point.
The potential of 21-year-old center/left winger Luke Kunin after having torn his ACL suffered in March 2018, was on full display in 2018-19. With six goals and 11 assists, his impact was felt, even in a losing season. That playmaking capacity will need to ascend further for the Wild to compete at a higher level moving forward. If paired with a veteran like Koivu or Zuccarello, alongside youth like Boldy, Firstov, or even young, giant, 22-year-old left-winger Jordan Greenway, Kunin’s impact could be immediate and immeasurable for the 2019-20 campaign.
An offensive side that provided their goaltender Devan Dubnyk with such little slack, despite a relatively low total of conceded goals (236), needs all the depth they can get on that side. If the young guns can shoot the puck with precision, pass with fluidity and handle their assignments, the veterans like Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Zuccarello and Eric Staal should find it easier to execute more properly themselves as well. Youth could very well be the key that unlocks the experience, just as experience unlocks through a greater focus, that wisdom and passion of youth.
Joining young defensemen like 24-year-old Matt Dumba, 26-year-old Jonas Brodin and Nick Seeler could be 2018 first-round pick defenseman Filip Johansson.
Stashed away in the Swedish Hockey League this past year, the addition of Filip Johansson would add someone with a similar game to Jonas Brodin. At still only 19-years-old, he may have further development to undertake before coming across the Atlantic.
Jared Spurgeon is the oldest of the young defensive players on the Wild at 29-years-old; his progress and leadership will be another key to this seasons success. Spurgeon is one of the major pieces linking the old school of alternative captain defenseman Ryan Suter to the new school a decade his junior. Taking a more active role in leading the youth would aid in developing growth and comradery between the generations, and that can only mean better hockey for the Wild.
Devyn Dubnyk came to the Wild after a mixed stint in Arizona midway through the 2014-15 season. He quickly found his home in the net in Minneapolis, having his best seasons in the “state of hockey”. At 33-years-old he is not a “spring chicken” anymore, as the idiom goes. The Wild have known that youth in this position going forward will diminish their capacity to bottom out in “rebuilds” as opposed to “retools”.
Alex Stalock is 31-years-old and backing up Dubnyk currently; while a serviceable backup, he is not the future of the team. The youth movement at this position is down in Iowa, with the AHL’s Iowa Wild.
At 23-years-old, Finnish Kaapo Kahkonen‘s first season in Iowa finished with the team’s best record ever. They reached the Calder Cup playoffs for the first time ever in 2018-19 as well, with 23 home wins for the program. He was even called up to Minnesota during the season for spells as well during his productive season in Iowa. Kahkonen proved a revelation for the team and another season at such a pace could see him called up at the end of the 2019-20 campaign or start of the 2020-21 campaign.
Joining Kaapo Kahkonen in Iowa this upcoming campaign will be former Minnesota Golden Gopher goaltender 23-year-old Mat Robson. Second-round pick, 18-year-old Hunter Jones may follow Robson there unless he’s put into the ECHL’s Allen Americans. With such promise and Kahkonen’s own budding ability, Jones should get his chance in Iowa to impact the team on his way towards Minnesota by his early twenties.
What It All Means
The youth movement that permeates the Wild’s first team and farm system is exciting and diverse. Last years down campaign was a blip on an otherwise consistent six years of previous progress. With veteran presence permeating each position, mixing in youth liberally would expedite the youth growth and impact. The Wild can rebound by utilizing that wealth of youth and talent instead of attempting to shield it. Some teams can allow their farm system to develop over long stretches of patient years while veterans hold down the team. The Wild this season are not that team, and if they keep the veterans like Parise, Staal, Koivu, Suter and Dubnyk, utilizing them to advance the younger talent is a crucial role of that experience.