There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Minnesota Wild heading into the season. A surprising amount of roster turnover took place this summer. The Wild traded their top offensive ace in Kevin Fiala, and also Cam Talbot and Dmitry Kulikov. The brass wisely didn't re-sign Nick Bjugstad or Nicolas Deslauriers. However, new, younger players will have to step up in those roles.
Ultimately, the Wild got worse this summer.
For starters, replacing Talbot for Filip Gustavsson was risky. The 24-year-old doesn't have much of a track record, but in his defense, Gustavsson was on a poor Ottawa Senators team. Still, it’s a gamble because Marc-Andre Fleury wasn't exactly performing like a bonafide No. 1 starter once he arrived in Minnesota.
If Gustavsson can’t perform to expectations, the Wild may have to make a move for a goalie down the line. Minnesota's defense will be another area to watch this season, specifically how veterans Alex Goligoski and Jon Merrill play.
In August, the Athletic's Dom Luszczyszyn wrote an NHL offseason improvement rankings piece. He had the Wild losing three wins with their moves, ranking them 27th in the league. It was primarily due to the loss of Fiala. The Wild probably took another hit after the recent Kulikov trade, even after adding Sam Steel.
There are a couple of potential silver linings, though. Unsurprisingly, the Chicago Blackhawks were below Minnesota at 28. The St. Louis Blues appeared at 30th, losing Ville Husso and David Perron. However, if Jordan Binnington can put up the numbers he did in his emergence during the Blues Cup run, they'll be just fine.
So the major storyline will undoubtedly be whether the Wild's depth is up to the test, especially in the second half of the year. Let's face it, there might be growing pains early. Injured Jordan Greenway and Merrill won't be ready to start the season. Marco Rossi and Calen Addison will be getting acclimated to the NHL, and there could be some lineup adjustments here and there.
Even though depth faltered at times last season, there's reason to believe that their depth is still unmatched. Ryan Hartman stepped up last season, scoring 34 goals and 65 points. The Wild need to figure out who the next Hartman is in the lineup. Aside from the top line of Kirill Kaprizov, Hartman, and Mats Zuccarello, there are potentially going to be a lot of moving parts and uncertainty up front.
Once healthy, Dean Evason's security blanket, the GREEF line, will need to lead the depth to success. They were among the best defensive lines in the NHL last season, allowing 1.63 expected goals per hour at 5-on-5 play — the eighth lowest rate in the league. The trio also allowed a league-low five goals last season when together and combined for 59 goals in all situations.
Fortunately, the Wild have 13 credible forwards, creating some competition when Greenway is back from injury. Tyson Jost and Freddy Gaudreau are two forwards to keep an eye on. Gaudreau has a good chance at starting on a line with Matt Boldy and Rossi, while Jost takes Greenway's spot.
Coming off a career-high 44-point campaign, Gaudreau will have an important role this year. Hopefully, he will be able to replicate his numbers from last season.
"I think my feelings personally on Freddy are well known by now, and I think it's an organizational feeling now," Dean Evason told Michael Russo in a recent sit-down about the upcoming season. "You could play Freddy Gaudreau anywhere. ... He's a Swiss Army knife. He can play in every position."
Gaudreau was worth 0.8 wins last season and finished with a 58 percent actual goals rate and 54 percent expected goals rate.
If there's anyone the Wild need offensively to take the next step, it's Jost. He's entering a contract year and has a lot of potential. There was a stretch last season where the 24-year-old flourished in an elevated role. Still, he wasn’t able to materialize anything.
The fourth line will likely consist of Steel, a major question mark, centering Connor Dewar and Brandon Duhaime to start the year. When Dewar and Duhaime weren't with Deslauriers last season, they had decent numbers. They had a 52 percent expected goals rate in almost 130 minutes played.
If the Fiala-less Wild don't want to fall behind in a tough Central Division this year, their depth will need to perform as advertised — among the best in the league. But the influx of prospects will also be critical to the Wild's success. Whether the brass wants to admit it, they're banking on Rossi and Addison succeeding this season.
A young player like Boldy will look to avoid the sophomore slump and build on his rookie campaign. The 21-year-old scored 39 points in 47 games and was worth 2.5 wins last season. A strong sophomore campaign would help fill the void left by Fiala.
There's no question the Wild are a strong, balanced team. It's been shown again over the past few seasons, and Minnesota has gotten offensive contributions from all over the lineup. But the Wild's depth and balanced lineup will finally be tested this season because the team's lack of pure scoring talent just got exacerbated even more with Fiala's departure.
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