ST. PAUL, Minn. — After their six-year streak of making the playoffs came to an end, the Minnesota Wild went through an eventful summer in which the major change was made in the front office, not to the roster.
The Wild were the fifth-lowest scoring team in the league last season. Among their top seven point producers from 2018-19, four will be at least 35 years old by midseason.
There’s no surprise, then, that the external expectations for success are scant.
“That’s good. Let them pick us to be at the bottom,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “But we believe in ourselves, and we’re counting on surprising people.”
With stalwarts Zach Parise and Ryan Suter coming off strong post-injury performances in 2018-19, there is precedent for Mikko Koivu (knee) and Matt Dumba (shoulder) to do the same a year later after their absences last season contributed significantly to the decline. Just as helpful toward improvement might be an extra edge the Wild have brought to the ice this fall.
“Every team that didn’t win is going to say it has a chip on its shoulder,” Boudreau said, “but all I know is when they predict you to be 32nd in a 31-team league, it might piss you off a little bit.”
The first jolt came at the end of July when owner Craig Leipold fired general manager Paul Fenton after less than 15 months on the job. Bill Guerin was hired to take over and restore some trust from the players.
“We’ve got guys who have won in this league for a long time,” Guerin said, “and I’m confident this group is going to bounce back.”
The last moves Fenton made before he was fired were signing free agents Mats Zuccarello (five years, $30 million) for more offence from the top-six forwards and Ryan Hartman (two years, $3.8 million) for more toughness on the fourth line. The length of Zuccarello’s contract raised eyebrows, considering the Wild now have five players 32 or older among their eight highest salary cap charges. His experience, however, can’t hurt a team that could have as many as five players 23 or younger (centres Luke Kunin and Joel Eriksson Ek and wings Kevin Fiala, Ryan Donato and Jordan Greenway) among the top three lines.
After Fenton traded mainstays Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund last winter before the deadline, there wasn’t much left to change on the roster in the summer. Right wings Eric Fehr and Pontus Aberg and defencemen Nate Prosser and Anthony Bitetto, all bit players, were free agents who went elsewhere.
To keep up in the West, the Wild will need some of those under-24 players to break out. Fiala is under the most scrutiny, an underachieving 11th overall pick from the 2014 draft who came from Nashville in the deal for Granlund. Having a healthy Dumba, one of the NHL’s most productive defencemen, and Koivu, one of the best defensive forwards in the league, will go a long way toward helping the Wild play at their potential. Dumba had 12 goals in 32 games last season.
“If I can contribute 30 toward this team, I think we’re going to be pretty well off,” Dumba said.
After leading the league in percentage of goals by defencemen last season (20.9) and finishing tied for fifth in percentage of points by defencemen (26.3), the Wild have Dumba back to skate with Suter on the first pair. Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin are next, giving them one of the deepest blue line groups in the game.
While Devan Dubnyk has been one of the most durable goalies in the NHL, he has been more vulnerable lately. Last season, Dubnyk finished 14th in goals-against average among netminders with 27 or more games and tied for 21st in save percentage. Following their lowest goal total in five years, the Wild need a strong offensive start to the season to support Dubnyk during a daunting early schedule.
Starting Oct. 3 at Nashville, the Wild play six of their first seven games on the road. Including the home opener on Oct. 12 against Pittsburgh, they face three teams that hit the 100-point mark last season.
The Wild tumbled down the stretch, going 4-9-1 over their final 14 games to finish 37-36-9. They landed in last place for the first time in 13 years, when they were in a five-team division under the NHL’s prior alignment. Even if Zuccarello can provide a scoring boost, Dumba re-establishes his pre-injury productivity and the presence of Guerin brings some badly needed positive vibes, the Wild face a steep climb back to the playoffs.
The Central Division is stacked, with defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis, Nashville, Winnipeg, Dallas and Colorado all having qualified for the post-season last spring. Boudreau has the second-best record among active head coaches, behind only Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper, but a best-case scenario would be getting one of the two Western Conference wild card spots. Missing the playoffs is more likely than not, with Guerin bound to take a patient approach to building a contender.
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Dave Campbell, The Associated Press