A lot of the Minnesota Wild's offseason has been fraught with roster losses and drama. The Kevin Fiala trade may have fueled the Wild's prospect pool, but in the meantime, his 85 points are gone. Cam Talbot, a credible 1B goalie, rejected the idea of being Marc-Andre Fleury's running mate and forced his way out of town.
But the real worry in Minnesota is half a world away in Russia. Kirill Kaprizov has been trying to enter the United States this summer and apparently can't. It's ostensibly a work visa issue, but geopolitics makes the situation much more fraught than typical immigration roadblocks. Will the Russian government restrict NHLers' travel next season? You can't look at what's happened to Ivan Fedotov and rule that out.
If Kaprizov can't play for Minnesota next year, that's 80 goals and 193 points wiped out between him and Fiala. That's incredibly devastating, unless, of course, you don't mind Minnesota taking a gigantic step back. Get ready to start hearing fans pushing for a tank season.
There's a segment of the fanbase that believes the Wild can't truly compete because they've never tanked. They look at the success of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, and Colorado Avalanche. Those teams won 12 of the last 14 Stanley Cups, and top-2 draft picks are the foundations of all of them.
You get those picks by doing two things: being bad and being lucky in the lottery. The Wild are historically neither of those things. They've finished in the bottom five of the league once in their history. When they participated in the lottery, luck (and, therefore, a top player) evaded them.
That's why, even after a team-record 113-point season led by a true superstar in Kaprizov, you heard folks embracing the tank. Or at least part of the reason. The other part is that between Connor Bedard and Matvei Michkov, NHL teams have two can't-miss superstars to chase for the first time since Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel in 2015.
These two players are true phenoms. Bedard put up almost two points per game in the WHL... two years ago, at age 15. Last season, he racked up 51 goals and 100 points in 62 games as a 16-year-old. His 1.62 points per game almost matched Leon Draisaitl's draft-eligible year (1.64). What he's doing is otherworldly.
Michkov is almost as impressive and will be a guaranteed top-3 pick next year despite a KHL contract that runs through 2026. He was a point-per-game in the MHL, Russia's junior league, at age 15. He scored over a goal per game in that league last year at 16, and his 1.82 points per game were third all-time in the league. The only better players were 19-year-old Nikita Gusev and 18-year-old Nikita Kucherov. He has no comparable.
So if there's a season to lose two star players and put all your eggs in a 38-year-old Fleury's basket, this is it. The only question is: Is that even possible, even in a worst-case scenario?
Remember, the Wild had 113 points last season, fifth in the NHL. They'll have to finish sixth-worst in the NHL to get even 15%-ish odds at a top-2 pick in 2023. The sixth-worst team last year was the Chicago Blackhawks, with 68 points. We're talking a 45-point gap between those two ranges.
Don't get us wrong, losing Kaprizov and Fiala is a decent yeast to kick-start a loaf of disappointment. By Evolving Hockey's Standings Points Above Replacement, Kaprizov was tied with David Pastrnak for the 13th-most valuable player last year, worth about 7.3 points in the standings. Take him and Fiala (4.5 SPAR) away, and you've got -- a 101-point Wild team. Still almost a guaranteed playoff spot. Only 33 points to catch Chicago for sixth-worst in the NHL.
Now, that might not quite capture Kaprizov's value to Minnesota. After all, a rising tide lifts all boats, and Mats Zuccarello and Ryan Hartman benefitted from playing with Kaprizov. This probably overestimates Kaprizov's impact, but let's cut Zuccarello and Hartman's SPAR in half without Kaprizov to tie that line together.
That brings Minnesota down to 97 points. That would've tied them with the Nashville Predators for the third Central Division spot -- or the second Wild Card (and a date with the Avs) as a reward. Joy.
The problem with a tank is that the Wild have a good roster without Kaprizov headlining. It's just not a flashy one. It's built to grind out 3-2 wins in the regular season. When Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon, Joel Eriksson Ek, and Marcus Foligno are on your team, there's just a limit to how bad you can get.
The fact is, too, those flashy players may be there even with Kaprizov and Fiala gone. Matt Boldy (4.7 SPAR in 47 games) will be on the roster full time, joined by AHL running mate and top prospect Marco Rossi. With no Kaprizov or Fiala to defer to, Dean Evason may just try to get them as much playing time as possible in a development year. Chances are, they'll make up at least some of the value lost by their departing stars.
Giving Calen Addison a chance on the blueline would help, too. He provided nearly a point in the standings in just 15 games. Put it this way: If the Wild could wring two points worth of value out of Dmitry Kulikov and Jon Merrill last year, the NHL-ready Addison should have little trouble.
But hey, let's be optimistically pessimistic here. Let's say Rossi and Addison struggle and provide no value, leaving them a 97-ish point team. You know what the great equalizer is? Goaltending. And the Wild could have a disastrous situation on their hands after losing Talbot.
Except Talbot was already giving the Wild almost literally nothing last year. He provided 0.1 SPAR to the Wild in 49 games, almost exactly replacement level. Through 27 career NHL games, new goalie Filip Gustavsson has 0.5 career SPAR to his name. How bad can it get from there?
Let's assume the worst-case scenario. Let's Gustavsson struggles in a backup role next season, matching the -1.6 SPAR he gave the Ottawa Senators last year. That would force the Wild to give about 60 games to Fleury. Now, let's say Fleury has a Philipp Grubauer-esque disaster of a season. Where does that put them, then?
Well, if Fleury matches Grubauer's -7.2 SPAR — worst in hockey last season by almost two points and third-worst in the Analytics Era — that takes another nine points off the table for Minnesota. Take out the five SPAR their goalies earned last year, and you've got 83 points.
That's 15 points to make up, still. And sure, they got good breaks last year, like, say, a 15-7 record in overtime. But even if you reverse that to 7-15, that only knocks them down to 75 points. No Kaprizov, no rookie impact, historically bad goaltending, and bad breaks would give them about a one-in-10 chance of a lottery win.
Another variable here: Other teams have Russian stars, and every lousy team knows what's waiting at the end of the tank rainbow. Chicago's already offloading everyone of value. Why would the Seattle Kraken or Arizona Coyotes make a push to be good? If you're a middling team like the San Jose Sharks or Winnipeg Jets, why gun for 85 points again?
It's understandable to look for the light at the end of the tunnel, and if you're Team Tank this summer, no one's gonna stop you. Just know that this scenario will fall more into the pipe dream category than realistic, even if many things go badly for Minnesota. The light you're looking for probably isn't in ping-pong balls but in the star-caliber prospects we've met along the way.