Joel Eriksson Ek, Marcus Foligno, Mats Zuccarello, Minnesota Wild, Minnesota Wild Season Preview

Minnesota Wild Roundtable: Season Preview 2023

With rookie camps starting this weekend, training camp and preseason next week, and finally, the regular season after that, it was time to throw some season preview questions out for our Minnesota Wild writing team at The Hockey Writers to answer. Tyson McKay, Tomas Morgan, and Mariah Stark went through some of the hard-hitting questions facing the Wild this coming season.

1: Which Wild Player Are You the Most Nervous About, and Why?

Tyson: I’m going to go with Marcus Foligno here. I think he has so many talents that are critical to the Wild’s success when he is playing well, but he has had tendencies to become so emotionally involved in a game that he starts hurting the team rather than helping it. With a contract year coming up, I would love it if he could find a nice middle ground where he is an energy-type power forward without going over that line so often.

Tomas: I am most nervous about Marcus Johansson, as the player came over last season from the Washington Capitals and played very well in just 20 regular-season games. He managed almost a point per game (P/G) with 18 points (six goals and 12 assists), playing on a line with Matthew Boldy and Joel Erikson Ek. I think that Johansson will be effective on this line, but I think expectations have to be realistic.

It is unreasonable to think that in a full 82-game season, Johansson will keep up his 0.9 P/G pace with the Wild when it was his first season in seven years where he finished with over 40 points. Johansson has also been plagued with injury issues in the past, and the risk of him missing many games still looms heading into his 14th season.

Mariah: Originally, I was going to say Marco Rossi, but then I thought a little more about it, and I think he’ll crush whatever nerves I have pretty quickly. Foligno is the player I am worried about, as he greatly frustrated me during the last postseason. His march to the penalty box and his continued lack of discipline wasn’t the only reason the Wild struggled, but it didn’t help.

Marcus Foligno Minnesota Wild
Marcus Foligno, Minnesota Wild (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

That is the main reason Foligno makes me nervous. His problem with discipline can’t happen again this season, and while I believe he can overcome that and stay out of the box, the big question is, will he? He knows what’s at stake, especially with his contract up at the end of this season.

What would help my nerves is seeing him control himself right away when the season starts, and while defending his teammates is excellent, there’s a time and place. Plus, he showed he can score goals; I would love to see him start on that path again. He’s a significant physical presence, and he helps the Wild not be pushed around but scoring goals and playing defense ultimately wins games.

2: Which Wild Player Are You the Most Excited About, and Why?

Tyson: I am a big goalie guy, and I know that he is unlikely to play many games this season, but my answer is Jesper Wallstedt. From the moment the Wild moved up in the draft to select him, I have been a superfan, and as time has gone on, I have only become more confident that he will be a cornerstone of the Wild franchise. Looking forward to that debut.

Tomas: Personally, I am super excited about Boldy. He had a tremendous sophomore season last year and showed that he can be a dominant force in the NHL. His ability to shoot the puck and beat players one-on-one is a gift many do not possess in the league. He will be the driving force of that second line, and if Dean Evason ever wants to juggle up the lines, the potential of a Kirill Kaprizov and Boldy duo on the first line would be exciting to see.

Mariah: I probably sound like a broken record to most people, especially if they’ve watched any of our roundtables on YouTube, but I have to say Brock Faber. Some may be surprised I didn’t say Kaprizov, but he goes without saying, and he’s always exciting to watch. Faber is the new kid on the block, so to speak, and after seeing him play just a handful of games between the regular and postseason last year, it left me wanting to see more.

I don’t know that I’ve seen someone so young jump on the ice as calm and composed as he did last season. What made it even better is that he’s a defenseman, and of course, he made a mistake or two, but what rookie hasn’t made a mistake? Even 15-year veterans make mistakes. I’m excited to see him play more than a handful of games and what he can do with that opportunity. He’ll likely be in the top four next to Jonas Brodin, and I think he’ll be a great fit. Hopefully, he can also score some goals; he got pretty close to scoring his first in the NHL last season.

3: Who Will Get the “A” on Their Jersey?

Tyson: It has to be Eriksson Ek. The best natural center on the team; everyone saw what happened last season in the playoffs when they were without him; he is irreplaceable. He is locked in long-term on an absolute bargain and plays massive minutes as a key player five-on-five, on the first power-play unit, and on the penalty kill. If you want to reward players that do it all, it has to be him.

Joel Eriksson Ek Minnesota Wild
Joel Eriksson Ek, Minnesota Wild (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Tomas: With the departure of Matt Dumba, I believe that Brodin or Mats Zuccarello will get the “A” on their jersey. Brodin has been a part of the Wild organization for 13 years now. Drafted 10th overall in 2011, he has become one of the most underrated players in the league. He knows the franchise inside and out and is respected in the locker room. Coach Evason only ever talks highly of Brodin, as there is not much to nitpick in his game. He would make a perfect alternate captain replacing Dumba’s leadership presence on the blue line.

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Mariah: This one is tough because I feel the main choices are Brodin and Eriksson Ek, and you can’t go wrong with either choice. However, they have to decide, and I would lean towards Eriksson Ek. His efforts to return during the last postseason with a broken leg gave the team a newfound energy it greatly needed, even if it only lasted a short time.

His personality and voice will be an excellent middle ground between Foligno’s boisterous attitude and Jared Spurgeon’s quiet demeanor. He also leads by example with his play and is one of the most controlled players on the Wild’s roster. He did have a higher number of penalty minutes, but he rarely put his team at risk, with all his penalties being minors. They’ll be in good hands whichever way the Wild go, but Eriksson Ek is my favorite choice.

4: Does the First Line Stay Intact? (Zuccarello, Hartman, Kaprizov)

Tyson: I think the season starts that way, but I don’t think it ends that way. If Rossi can get his feet firmly planted in the lineup, I think he is a much more natural fit at the center position than Ryan Hartman, and on the flip side of that, I think Hartman’s game fits much better with Freddy Gaudreau and Foligno on the third line.

Tomas: The first line stays intact heading into the season. The three different dynamics that these players bring are completely different, which is why the line works so well. Zuccarello is a shifty player with incredible playmaking ability. He has a great hockey IQ and always seems to slip away from defenders and find open ice or wait for that extra half-second to find an open pass.

Mats Zuccarello Minnesota Wild
Mats Zuccarello, Minnesota Wild (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Hartman brings a never-say-die level of effort to this line. He is constantly in on the forecheck and is a pest to play against. This, matched with his reliable defensive zone play, makes him a great center on this Wild line. Kaprizov is the heartbeat of this line and team. He is one of the most dynamic players in the league, with and without the puck. There’s no question that he can drive his own line, as he has been doing it since entering the league three years ago.

That being said, I would like to see Evason experiment with Boldy and Kaprizov when down a goal or two in a game. But for now, with the cap situation, I can’t see him putting his two best talents on the same line, as he needs to balance out the rest of the lineup.

Mariah: Yes, I think this line will find its magic from two seasons ago; however, there is one possibility this line will change, and it would be because of Rossi. If Hartman can’t find his chemistry, the coaching staff may slide Rossi in there and see if he can spark things. It would take a lot to separate Kaprizov and Zuccarello, but Hartman is the piece that can easily be moved. If Rossi were to move up, it would take some time; the Wild aren’t a team that makes hasty decisions.

5: Who Do You Think Surprises Everyone This Season?

Tyson: The newly signed Filip Gustavsson seems determined to become a full-time number one. Many people seem to think his performance last season was a blip on the radar and that he will not be able to continue that level of play. Still, I think there is a good chance he will surprise everyone by being statistically a top-ten goaltender in the league once again.

Tomas: The goaltender Gustavsson will turn a lot of heads around the league this season. He tracks the puck well and is rarely caught out of position. He finished seventh in goals saved above expected in the 2022-23 season and fifth in goals saved above expected per 60. He should be granted the number-one starting role this coming season and should play 50-plus games. With continued growth from the young goaltender, he could be a Vezina Trophy candidate.

Filip Gustavsson Minnesota Wild
Filip Gustavsson, Minnesota Wild (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

Mariah: This one was tough for me; I had two players in mind for this answer but wanted to choose one. My original choice was Johansson, but then Connor Dewar popped into my head, and I had to switch my answer. Dewar showed a lot of potential last season, especially on the penalty kill, with three shorthanded goals right behind Frédérick Gaudreau.

Dewar has more speed than most people realize, and he’s pretty talented with moving the puck; he needs to do so more during five-on-five play. However, he’ll be on a line with Brandon Duhaime and Patrick Maroon, so it’ll be interesting to see what that line comes up with this season.

6: Who Takes Over the Top PP Spot Aside From Calen Addison?

Tyson: Strictly staying with defense, I think this is a major hole in the Wild’s lineup right now. There are no truly offensively-minded defensemen on the roster aside from Calen Addison. Spurgeon has times where he makes great offensive plays and can be solid on the powerplay, but past him, I am not sure which defender you slot in.

Tomas: Alex Gologoski will most likely have a spot on one of the two powerplays come opening night. He has experience playing on the powerplay while with the Arizona Coyotes. His mobility with the puck makes him a defender who can walk the line and utilize his great playmaking ability. Although some may want to see what Faber can bring offensively, I think it is best that he gets a half-season or so of NHL hockey under his belt before he’s given more responsibility.

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Mariah: If Addison can’t step up it almost has to go to Spurgeon. I wanted to go with Brodin as a surprise, but he’s their penalty kill guy, and Spurgeon did accumulate a lot of power play time last season. I’m really curious to see how the Wild tweak their power play with not only Dumba gone but also John Klingberg, who they had brought in last season to help their power play at the trade deadline.

7: Which Special Teams Are You the Most Concerned About?

Tyson: Definitely the power play for the same reason as above. That second powerplay unit is a massive question mark and had basically no production last season, partly because they didn’t get much ice time. I think this is an opportunity for Rossi to step in and make a difference, as there is a good chance he is the most offensively gifted player on that second unit.

Marco Rossi Minnesota Wild
Marco Rossi, Minnesota Wild (Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Tomas: Once again, the Wild have a lack of scoring depth, making my biggest concern powerplay unit two. Rossi is a question mark heading into the season, as he only had one point in 19 games last season. He could potentially be a focal point of the offense if he adapts to NHL play and can produce at a similar level as he did while playing in the American Hockey League. Johansson and Hartman on the wings both bring some finishing touch and the ability to win battles along the boards if needed in the offensive zone.

My concern comes mostly with Gaudreau. Although he had a 20-goal season in 2022-23, he is not a player who should be on a second powerplay unit. The Wild may struggle to score with the second unit on the ice again this season as they do not have any game-breaker on the line. Let’s hope that Evason only uses them to give the first unit a rest.

Mariah: Penalty kill, it’ll always be penalty kill for me. It’s great to score on the power play, but teams have to be able to defend when they take penalties. The Wild struggled greatly during the last postseason because of their inability to kill off penalties. They used to be known as one of the teams with the best penalty kill in the league; they need to get back to that in 2023-24.

8: What Wild Game Are You Most Looking Forward to This Season and Why?

Tyson: Easy question because I am going to my first Wild game on Oct. 17 when they are in Montreal facing the Canadiens. It’ll be just the third regular season game, and it’s against a team that has struggled lately but has started putting together some decent pieces; hopefully, that means it’s an exciting game to watch.

Tomas: I am most looking forward to the second game of the season against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ryan Reaves. The Maple Leafs signed him for three years on July 1, and the Wild quickly replaced him with Patrick Maroon. The history between the Maple Leafs and Maroon from multiple playoff runs between the Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning, and Reaves’ ability to acclimate to a locker room and stand up for his teammates will set up a duel of the heavyweights. The game should bring high intensity between two out-of-conference teams that always seem to play intense hockey against one another. Could this be the start of an out-of-conference rivalry?

Ryan Reaves Minnesota Wild
Ryan Reaves, former Minnesota Wild, current Toronto Maple Leaf (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Mariah: Mine is more of a personal reason because while I love the Wild, one of my all-time favorite players is Sidney Crosby, so whenever they play the Pittsburgh Penguins, I always try to go. So, of course, Feb. 9, 2024, is on my radar as that’s when the Penguins come to town. However, don’t worry, Wild fans, just because he’s one of my favorite players doesn’t mean I want his team to win.

It’s unclear how much time Crosby has left in his career, as he just turned 36, so I’ll pay closer attention every time the Wild play the Penguins. Regardless of whether you’re a Crosby fan, he’s had a great career and hopefully has a few more years left in the NHL.

Wild’s Upcoming Season

The start of the regular season is just under a month away and will be exciting for the Wild. They have most of their core back and will look to show what they’re truly capable of. Hopefully, they learned from their mistakes last season and can make a deep run in the postseason, as Wild fans deserve to see it.

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