The team is looking to improve from last season’s first-round playoff exit.
The Minnesota Wild are looking to get over last season’s blues as they hit the ice for their first regular season game, visiting the Detroit Red Wings in the new Little Caesar’s Arena Thursday, Oct. 5.
Familiar faces have returned and departed in the offseason. The sentimental signing of Moorhead, Minnesota-native and former Wild forward Matt Cullen put smiles on the fans’ faces this summer. Cullen moved through the Minnesota hockey system, playing high school hockey in Moorhead and attending St. Cloud State to play college hockey. While Cullen did previously play for the Wild from 2010 through 2013, he was drafted by the formally known Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. Cullen made a pit-stop in Nashville before heading to the Pittsburgh Penguins to be a part of their back-to-back championship teams.
The league seems to be shifting further and further away from aggressive physical play and more skill-oriented. With the four-year, eleven-million-dollar contract given to former Buffalo Sabres skater Marcus Foligno, the Wild bolster their physical presence with Chris Stewart already on the roster. The Wild aren’t lacking the large physical game like they have in previous seasons because it’s not as necessary to succeed, but adding more of these kinds of players doesn’t hurt, unless you’re on the other team.
More recently, the Wild resigned longtime captain Mikko Koivu. Koivu will have played in a Wild sweater for 14 seasons at the end of this latest two-year extension, which is worth 11-million dollars according to the Wild. The captain was a finalist last season for the NHL’s Selke Trophy, given to the most defensively-adept forward.
Missing only two games last year, Koivu put up 58 points, with 40 of those points coming from the assist column on the box score. At 34-years-old, he has avoided major injuries over the last three seasons, an issue that has plagued him in the past.
Aside from the two old men returning to Minnesota, the Wild also locked up two of their young stars Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter for three and five years more each.
Granlund took a step forward in the 2016-2017 season that fans have long waited for, getting nervous that that day would never come. As a victim of a sensational sports media, expectations for Granlund’s ceiling had to be tempered. No longer was he expected to be the second coming of Sidney Crosby; the 25-year-old Finnish forward toppled his previous career-high points total from 44 to 69 in one season.
The national figurehead for the Wild, Zach Parise, is battling injuries to begin the year; he missed the first few practices of training camp and only returned to the ice last Friday, which is a concern for many Wild fans considering he missed all five playoff games last year. Parise missed 13 games over the course of the season and had a below average outing for a typical Zach Parise season. Parise had 19 goals with 23 assists last season and a plus/minus rating of -3, according to hockey-reference.com.
The defensive group continues to be led by Ryan Suter, who is heading into year six of the 13 year, nearly one-hundred-million-dollar contract that he and Parise signed in the summer of 2012. Matt Dumba also returns to the Wild after rumors of being traded or lost in the recent expansion draft to the Las Vegas Golden Knights.
Forward Erik Haula and prospect Alex Tuch ended up being the casualties to Las Vegas, which has its inaugural season this year. Young prospects like Joel Eriksson Ek soothe the pain of losing another one and a fan favorite in Haula.
Perhaps the Wild’s biggest standout performance of last year came from 25-year-old left winger Jason Zucker. Zucker was a prime candidate and almost was certainly heading to Las Vegas had Minnesota not used one of its protections on the young forward.
Tied with teammate Suter for the league-lead in plus/minus last season, Zucker finished the season with a +34 rating. Suter’s defensive partner Jared Spurgeon ranked third in the league for this category just one behind Zucker and Suter at +33.
One factor contributing to the Wild’s superb plus/minus rating is the all-important goaltender Devan Dubnyk. The goalie was statistically the best at his position throughout most of the season last year until the late-season collapse from the entire team. Dubnyk finished in the top 10 in Goals against Average (2.25/Game), Save Percentage (.923) and recorded a third-best 40 wins, five of those being shutouts.
After losing to its most previous head coach Mike Yeo in the first round of the playoffs last year, the Wild look to rectify the situation with this year’s roster. Key players were locked down over the summer and several savvy veterans were brought in to develop the young minds that provide a spark to the team.