It's January 14, 2015, and the Minnesota Wild are 18-19-5, with awful goaltending and little hope. The pressure is on Chuck Fletcher to turn things around or risk a disastrous season. And in the Star Tribune, one columnist asked the Wild not to make a season-saving trade.
It appears that Jim Souhan's column from that time is scrubbed from the internet, leaving an imperfect memory to recall what happened there. But the gist of the column was: The Wild are bad and should embrace it. What's the point? Especially with Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel as potential lights at the end of the tunnel.
In retrospect, the column looked silly. Fletcher ignored the Strib's advice and traded for Devan Dubnyk, which salvaged the season. Minnesota went from last place in the Central Division to winning an honest-to-god playoff series. Back then, the Wild were allowed to do that, you see. It's hard to say that they shouldn't have made the move, especially when Dubnyk provided years of stability in net for a win-now team.
On the other hand, that turned out to be the last time Minnesota won a playoff series. They are 0-for-8 in series since then, with one missed postseason. Maybe Souhan had a point?
The Wild are in a similar, though not identical, situation this year. The 2014-15 and 2023-24 versions of this team are both win-now squads with playoff ambitions. Both have greatly disappointed and find themselves on the brink of irrelevancy in January. Each version is in major need of a spark, or they'll find themselves in Draft Lottery Land.
Their differences suggest that Souhan dust off that 2015 column and run it again. The 2014-15 Wild had $15 million tied up in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, two very-good-if-not-great players at their peaks. The 2023-24 Wild have $15 million tied up in Parise and Suter's buyouts, which makes a season-saving trade impossible. Their only spark can come from within. Players like Kirill Kaprizov, Jonas Brodin, and Jared Spurgeon need to get (and stay) healthy.
The other major difference between these two teams is their position in the competitive window. Say what you want about the 2014-15 Wild, but the goal was to be in the mix for a Stanley Cup, and there were legitimate hopes that they could accomplish what they set out to do. But despite an 11-3 start from John Hynes after a mid-season coaching change this year, few believe Minnesota has what it takes for a deep playoff run. Fletcher had to save the season because his job was on the line. However, Bill Guerin has the rope to take a bad season on the chin (at least from an on-ice perspective).
Why not get in a desperately needed tank year, then? They're literally already halfway there, in line for the league's sixth-best lottery odds entering Game 42 of the season. It shouldn't be hard to finish the job, get a high pick, and add that to an Under-24 core, including established young players in Matt Boldy, Brock Faber, and Marco Rossi.
Well, you've got to get into the team's mindset. The players aren't going to tank. Hynes isn't going to tank. The front office has to do the tanking, which will never happen with Guerin. He's too proud. He's focused on winning and winning now. Guerin is throwing everything he can at winning, even to his team's long-term detriment.
But sometimes you don't have a choice, as the Wild have learned through 41 games. The bottom has fallen out of a team that posted back-to-back 100-point seasons. And if they don't have a choice and keep being this bad, that's probably a good thing for the franchise long-term.
Like in 2015, a prize awaits one lucky lottery winner in the 2024 Draft. If you're splitting hairs, Macklin Celebrini isn't quite the generational-type player that McDavid or Connor Bedard were coming out of the draft. But is he close? You better believe it. Celebrini doesn't turn 18 until June, yet he has 11 goals and 27 points through 16 games at Boston University. He looks like a dead ringer for Eichel, a fellow Boston U product. That means he's a virtual lock to be a star and almost definitely a superstar.
Of course, only one team will win Celebrini. And let's face it, does anyone expect it to be the Wild? So what happens when the NHL, ahem, rigs* the draft lottery for the Chicago Blackhawks again, and Minnesota's stuck with the seventh overall pick?
Good news. Right now, it looks like the Wild should be very, very happy to be in that spot, even if they don't get that lottery luck. As deep as most people thought the 2023 Draft was, 2024 might also be an ideal year for a team to fall toward the bottom of the standings.
See that comparison between Celebrini and Eichel above? That comes from Hockey Prospecting, which projects players' likelihood of becoming stars (scoring 0.7-plus career points per game as a forward and 0.45-plus as a defenseman) based on their NHL Equivalency (NHLe). It's imperfect, for sure, but it's a solid predictive tool. And it predicts big, big things for the Class of 2024.
These odds are going to be in flux over the coming months. We're at about the halfway point of most junior/college seasons, so players have plenty of time to raise or lower their stocks. But based on this class' production so far, six players are at a 70% likelihood or more of reaching stardom: Celebrini, Ivan Demidov, and Cole Eiserman at forward, and Zayne Parekh, Zeev Buium, and Artyom Levshunov on defense.
As you recall, the Wild are currently on track to draft sixth overall, depending on lottery bounces.
Add in forwards Nikita Artamonov and Berkly Catton, then defenseman Carter Yakemchuk, and we have nine players who currently project at 50% or more to become stars. The Wild could get bumped down three spots from their tanking spot now (via the standings or lottery) and still be guaranteed one of those nine guys.
How rare is that? Hockey Prospecting has comprehensive NHLe data dating back to 2005, so let's look at how many prospects in each draft had 70%-plus and 50%-plus odds of stardom after their draft year:
If we weren't spoiled by last year, we'd be looking at an unprecedented 2024 draft. In most years, you have one player you can feel confident in turning into a star player. If you're lucky, there are two of those guys. There's never six, until last year and this, that is.
As tantalizing as it is to have those six names or more at the end of this season, it's important not to put the Wild's draft card before the horse. There's still a half-season's worth of time between now and anyone's draft position being solidified.
Not to mention, Minnesota has gotten much "help" to get to their spot in the league's cellar. Between Spurgeon and Brodin, they've had to miss a half-season's worth of games to weaken the blueline. Kaprizov, Boldy, and Mats Zuccarello have had to combine for another 23 missed games. Their goaltending has had to spend 41 games with an .895 save percentage, "good" for 25th in the NHL.
A lot's had to break right to go this wrong. And unfortunately(?) being this bad won't get easier.
According to The Athletic's Dom Luszczyszyn, Minnesota has faced the fifth-toughest strength of schedule this season, which has to have something to do with their predicament. Will they rebound now that they have the second-easiest second-half schedule? It probably can't help them raise their Celebrini odds. Especially not if the Wild get healthier anytime soon, and it's not like they can sell off their veterans at the trade deadline and get worse.
Like it or not, the Wild aren't going to try to embrace this unplanned tank. That doesn't mean it can't happen, though. It might not be pleasant in the short term, but if the Wild can be dragged kicking and screaming to pick in the Top-6 range this season, it may be worth it over the long haul. Whether you're rooting for that or not is up to you.
*For legal reasons, we are joking because jokes are legal. Ha ha! This is us laughing at our joke!
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