So far, we’ve looked at how the Minnesota Wild match up with the crème de la crème of the Central in the Nashville Predators and the Winnipeg Jets, and also how Minnesota slots in against the muddled middle, the St. Louis Blues and the Dallas Stars. So far, we’ve yet to find a team that Minnesota compares favorably to, or will likely finish ahead of in the standings. Now, we’ve reached the bottom of the standings, with two teams that had some definite flaws last year — yet still finished above the cellar-dwelling Wild in points — and also made significant upgrades in the offseason via trades and free agency. Let’s take a look at the Wild’s chances of climbing the ranks against the Colorado Avalanche and the Chicago Blackhawks.
You probably aren’t surprised to hear that both the Avalanche and Blackhawks were significantly better than the Wild in the offensive zone in 2018-19. Chicago, despite finishing with only 84 points in the standings for a distant sixth in the Central, was in the top 10 in terms of goals per game, goals at even-strength, and 5-on-5 Corsi per 60. And when you field a roster that includes point-per-game producers Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews as well as a 40-goal scorer in Alex DeBrincat, your offense doesn’t need significant additions. The biggest offensive move the Blackhawks made was trading away Artem Anisimov for Zack Smith, which was less a “hockey trade” than it was a deal to shed salary, clearing the way for new deals in 2020 for DeBrincat and Dylan Strome, who will both be RFAs.
Colorado, on the other hand, went big on offense, bringing in Nazem Kadri, with his 30-goal, 60-point, and five-game suspension potential, Joonas Donskoi, who had 30 points each of the last two seasons with San Jose, as well as bottom-six guys Andre Burakovsky and Pierre-Édouard Bellemare. Kadri will take the second-line center role replacing Carl Soderberg, who was traded to the Arizona Coyotes. The deal was mostly for cap space, which is odd considering the Avalanche have, well, a mountain of cap space already.
Chicago’s offensive core is stellar, but outside of Strome and DeBrincat, the rest are approaching the backside of their careers. Colorado’s core is young and hungry, and has arguably the best top line in the Central with Nathan McKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, but the rest of the lineup is either new or unproven. The Wild fit somewhere in the middle of all that, with aging stars going for one last gasp, and a bunch of young guys that need to step up in order for Minnesota to take a step back towards the playoffs. However, you can set your watch to Kane, Toews and MacKinnon, and for that reason alone, the Avalanche and Blackhawks have the edge on offense heading into the season.
Where the Blackhawks and Avalanche may have had the edge on offense in 2018-19, the Wild defense had the slight advantage over Colorado, and blew the Blackhawks out of the water. The Wild had the definite edge in terms of keeping the puck out of the net and puck possession, and had a top-10 penalty kill, which was leaps and bounds better than both the Avalanche and Blackhawks, the latter being the worst team in the league with a man in the box.
Let’s face it… the Blackhawks were bad on defense in 2018-19, and they knew it. They spent big in the offseason to revamp their defensive corps, bringing in Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta via trade, adding to a group that includes perennial all-star Duncan Keith and up-and-coming Erik Gustafsson. The Blackhawks also made a somewhat surprising goaltender signing in free agency, bringing in 2019 Vezina nominee Robin Lehner from the New York Islanders to enter the season with Corey Crawford as arguably the strongest tandem in the NHL. On the other hand, while the Hawks made significant additions, the Wild and Avalanche both lost more than they gained. The Wild did not add defensively in free agency, instead watching Nate Prosser and Brad Hunt leave for deals with other teams. The Avalanche spent a great deal of defensive capital when they sent Tyson Barrie to Toronto in the package that brought back Kadri, and the team also lost Patrik Nemeth and Semyon Varlamov. The Avalanche will now depend on their young blueliners Samuel Girard and Cale Makar, while hoping that Erik Johnson and Ian Cole can get and remain healthy.
In net, Crawford and Lehner makes for a formidable duo in Chicago. Philipp Grubauer will take the reins in Colorado, having almost single-handedly carried the Avalanche to the playoffs with a March to remember, earning a .955 save percentage and going 7-0-2 over his last nine starts of the regular season as he led his team to the second round of the NHL playoffs. Wild netminders Devan Dubnyk and Alex Stalock have their work cut out for them, and need a bounce-back year to keep up with the pack.
As for the Wild, with Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, a healthy Matt Dumba, and a resurgent year from Jonas Brodin, Minnesota can count on being able to compete with the Avalanche and Blackhawks on the defensive side of the ice. In net, it’s another story. Dubnyk needs a year more like 2016-17 than 2018-19, and Stalock needs to be able to reliably give him nights off. If all that happens, there’s no reason the Wild defensive corps can’t still be the class of the division, despite the moves that the Blackhawks and Avalanche have made.
How Will The Wild Fare?
Considering that the Avalanche made the playoffs in 2018-19, and the Blackhawks are led by perennial all-stars, the Wild are already starting with a little bit of a disadvantage. Defensively, the Wild should be as strong as they have been in recent years, and the return of Dumba will only solidify that fact. Offensively, they still need a lot to go right. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Wild will be able to pass one of these two teams in the standings, whether it’s the aging Chicago Blackhawks or the young Colorado Avalanche. Getting by both of them and potentially grabbing the second Wild Card spot? That might be a little bit too much to ask.
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