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  • Minnesota's New Faces Should Bring New Results In the Playoffs

    Aaron Heckmann

    After failing to get past the first round of the playoffs for five straight seasons, the Minnesota Wild undertook a roster overhaul. One major effect of the retool is that Bill Guerin orchestrated moves that would leave the organization with four pending free agents: Marcus Johansson, Nick Bjugstad, Nick Bonino, and Ian Cole.


    The acquisition of these players resulted in more questions than answers. How would chemistry be affected? How would they perform this season? Was their flexibility, being able to play center or wing, really a positive when Johansson has struggled at both positions?


    There were so many concerns with the roster that this felt like a transition season Guerin would use to build for the future.


    Well, know now that the Wild have clinched a postseason berth and are poised to make some noise. They have proven that they are a playoff team, and it doesn't look like they will miss the playoffs anytime soon. The roster should be getting better next season, with several notable prospects like Matt Boldy and Marco Rossi expected to join the big club.


    Minnesota's latest acquisitions could help them to get farther than they ever have in their 20-year history. Outside of the 2003 run, they've mostly had mediocre playoff results. Most of Guerin's acquisitions bring a valuable asset to the table, and surprisingly, they have been much better than they could have been. Rather than roster misfits, they have helped provide stability to a certain degree.


    The Wild didn't need them to be anything special; their free-agent acquisitions just had to be positive contributors. Players like Calder frontrunner Kirill Kaprizov, noted game-breaker Kevin Fiala, and one of the league's best centers in Joel Eriksson Ek would be leaned on to drive winning. Not to mention that the Wild already had one of the best defensive corps in the league.


    Let's start with Kaprizov. His transition from the KHL to the NHL has been seamless, and he's already an NHL star. His 26 goals are tied for seventh in the league, and he has registered 47 points in 52 games, and he has also been above-average defensively. He has transformed the team and is easily the most talented player ever to wear a sweater for the organization. There is no doubt that he could steal a series for the Wild with how dominant he has been in his rookie campaign.


    Cam Talbot, who signed a three-year contract in free agency, has provided stability in the net. He has been everything the Wild needed him to be this season. He boasts a .918 save percentage and has saved 8.4 goals above average. Talbot has allowed 3.52 more goals than expected based on the quality of shots he has faced this season. While it is certainly below-average, it is much better than Devan Dubnyk's minus-19.99 GSAx average over the past three seasons, among the worst in the league.


    It is important to note that Talbot's numbers aren't necessarily a representation of his play this entire season. He has allowed 8.2 goals more than expected over his past four starts, which likely is near the worst in the league over that span. But before that, he was near the top 10 in the league in that metric. His recent dip in production could be related to his extensive workload. Regardless, there is no doubt that he will be a massive upgrade over Dubnyk in the playoffs. The fact of the matter is that a hot goalie can completely alter a team's trajectory in the playoffs.


    Bonino struggled in the first half of the season but has improved his game in the second half. His 3.7 defensive goals above replacement rank seventh league-wide. Not only has he been one of the better defensive forwards in the league, but he has helped keep the Wild afloat in the faceoff circle. The veteran forward has 23 points in 51 games, plus he's had playoff success in the past, winning two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins.


    Bjugstad hasn't stood out this season, but he has provided the Wild with some much-needed depth down the middle. While he's only notched 15 points in 40 games, his underlying numbers have shown positive signs, including his strong offensive numbers in terms of expected goals and Corsi. He's been an average player so far, but depth is always important in the playoffs.


    Cole hasn't exactly been great since he arrived in St. Paul. He's allowed 2.23 expected goals against per hour at 5-on-5, which is just below average. While he hasn't produced offensively, he increases Minnesota's scoring rate at the sixth-highest rate per Evolving-Hockey. At the very least, he's been a good third-pair defenseman.


    Johansson hasn't worked out and has been the Wild's least impactful forward this season. He holds a 44.62 percent share of shots and a 42.72 percent share of expected goals. He's been a liability on the ice, albeit his injury likely didn't help. However, he tallied 11 points in 22 games in the 2018-19 playoffs for the Boston Bruins. The question is whether he can be a playoff producer this year despite his poor season.


    Minnesota's new faces have provided some strong depth, and Talbot in net could potentially be a huge reason why the Wild make some noise in the playoffs.


    Data via Evolving-Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, and Hockey-Reference.

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