National Hockey League rule changes during the previous 15 years have turned it into one that highlights speed, skill and offense. The Minnesota Wild, on the other hand, is more of a remnant of a bygone era. Since their inception, their calling card has been about strong defense and grinding away on offense. Jacques Lemaire kicked it off, Mike Yeo reformed it and Bruce Boudreau strengthened the Wild’s long-ingrained philosophy.
Bill Guerin is trying to change that.
It’s getting clearer and clearer as to how Guerin wants to build his team. It's something that has been echoed by the head coach. The Wild desires to play fast. To morph into a fast, up-tempo team on the ice, it must ditch the dump-and-chase systems of past coaching philosophies. It also requires the personnel in place that can play that style.
The Wild have the defense in place to play fast. The forwards have some pieces to execute a new offense. Kevin Fiala is a puck carrying monster. Kirill Kaprizov, Joel Eriksson Ek along with prospects Matt Boldy and Marco Rossi all have the skill and tenacity to play an up-tempo puck-possession game. That’s where Marat Khusnutdinov, who was taken in the second round last year, comes in.
The Wild traded up to pick 37 and are gambling on Khusnutdinov’s offensive upside. So far that offense hasn’t shown up in the KHL. The Moscow-born center only has one assist in 11 games played for SKA St. Petersburg. Adjusting to the KHL has been a bit tougher for him. It’s tough to find much traction when skating against adult men for the first time and only playing 7:22 per game. However, he’s getting the minutes playing in the MHL, the equivalent of juniors for the KHL. He's seeing the production too. With three goals and 11 assists in 10 games, it's more in line with what he's shown in the past.
If the fact that he isn’t lighting it up in the KHL concerns you, just know that he’s just a few days shy of being eligible for the 2021 draft. He’s a young 18 year old who will need to learn to play against the more experienced, physically stronger opponents. That will come.
It’s his speed that will help an overhauled Wild team. Khusnutdinov’s scouting reports talk about his skating, agility, and most of all, speed. Everything he does on the ice is done at a fast pace. He reads the play quickly, makes quick decisions and has the speed to do it all.
But there’s more to building a fast team than simply adding speedsters to the roster. A team needs defensemen who can quickly get the puck up ice. The Wild have that already in place for years to come. Forwards that can backcheck and create turnovers in the neutral zone are crucial. Look at the scouting reports of the last few draft picks, they all have that ability in their game. However, the most important piece of the playing-with-speed puzzle begins and ends with owning the puck.
According to the Neutral Zone Tracking project conducted in 2016, a controlled zone entry results in an unblocked shot attempt nearly twice as often as an uncontrolled entry. Put simply, carrying the puck across the blue line pays better dividends in terms of shots than a dump-and-chase method.
Fiala is already great at zone entries. Kaprizov is yet to be seen. Khusnutdinov controlled possession of the puck on a staggering 80 percent of his offensive transitions. That’s an astounding mark for an 18 year old. Even if Khusnutdinov didn’t possess the skating and speed he does, that kind of control on entries is advantageous for his team to drive offense.
And that’s just one aspect of Khusnutdinov’s overall game.
His game doesn’t stop at the blue line. He funnels everything to the net. Watch his highlight videos and it’s apparent that he will stop at nothing to get the puck to the net. Normally, players of his stature stick around the perimeter. At 5'9" he isn’t afraid to make a center lane drive to the net by burying his head and making a play.
Khusnutdinov fits Guerin's future plans for the Wild. He possesses the tools needed to play fast by controlling the puck and being great in transition. While he must continue to develop and show that he can play against men, the thought of him alongside the crop of young players the Wild will feature in just a couple of years is enticing. Hitting a home run with Khusnutdinov is consequential in the re-making of the franchise into a fast and skilled team that will thrive in the modern NHL.
This article is part of a series profiling the Wild’s Top 10 Prospects. Khusnutdinov came in at No. 7. Brennan Menell was number 8.
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