The Minnesota Wild are looking to win the Central Division for the second time in franchise history. The last time they won a division title was in 2008, when they played in the Northwest Division. However, it led to a first-round exit against the Colorado Avalanche.
Why should the Wild want to win the Central, or even the Western Conference? Because if they don't, the Avalanche are one of the teams Minnesota could face in the first round. That's not a history we should want them to repeat.
The Wild are desperate to have luck go their way. After three straight postseason losses, Dean Evason knows that the regular season outcome doesn't matter if they can't get past the first round. Minnesota sports teams have a long history of failure, but Bill Guerin has done a splendid job of constructing a roster capable of getting to a playoff appearance with nearly $13 million in dead cap money.
Now all Evason needs to do is construct a playbook to get Minnesota through the West, which despite being wide-open, should still be a challenge. He can’t waste another good season of hockey, especially with the cap situation getting worse next year.
Right now, Evason has settled into regular lines, with Matt Boldy, Joel Eriksson Ek, and Marcus Johansson looking strong. But what happens when everyone gets healthy? Kaprizov will take the top line spot once he gets back, of course. But beyond that?
Gustav Nyquist will likely come off of IR soon, and there's not an obvious spot for him now. Minnesota's third line of Brandon Duhaime, Freddy Gaudreau, and Oskar Sundqvist makes a solid Top-9 at even strength. But they didn't get Nyquist to play on the fourth line, which is also rolling. How does Evason handle that?
He needs to spread the wealth and extend his playbook. How?
Here's an idea: Playing Kaprizov, Mats Zuccarello, and Matt Boldy on separate lines.
That sounds wild, but it's not like Kaprizov and Zuccarello haven’t been separated before. If anything, this can be a way for Evason to throw a curveball at the opposing team to get his scoring going. The three main offensive sparks would be on different lines.
Breaking up his playmakers makes for interesting possibilities. Kaprizov can perform exceptionally with Eriksson Ek, who is also known to adjust his performance for the better in the playoffs. Why not have these two together on the same line? They already play the power play and 3-on-3 together. Meanwhile, Sundqvist (seven points in 12 games) could be a good fit, using his 6'3" frame to make space for Kaprizov.
Boldy and Johansson are a solid combination right now, to the point where Evason shouldn't mess with it even if he shakes things up. Gaudreau would be a fit with them, bringing the defense Eriksson Ek brought.
Ryan Hartman and Zuccarello have strong chemistry, even without Kaprizov. Why not see what Nyquist can do playing with them? As for the fourth line, Marcus Foligno can play with a mix of depth options like Connor Dewar, Ryan Reaves, Sam Steel, Mason Shaw, and Duhaime.
That's just one possibility. Evason can mix up combinations to take advantage of specific match-ups. The depth should be utilized at its fullest, and the deeper in the playoffs Minnesota goes, the more guys can play. But with Kaprizov, Zuccarello, and Boldy coming in waves, they can lead the charge for nearly the whole game.
Evason can even shuffle Johansson, Nyquist, Sundqvist, Gaudreau, Hartman, and Eriksson Ek around as the playoffs continue. That's another way to throw off the opponent.
And if they struggle in the playoffs, they have even more depth to use in the minors. If the offense doesn’t get the job done early on, what do they have to lose? The cap squeeze isn’t going anywhere, and the Wild have the best prospect system in hockey right now. Why not use it to spark chemistry for next fall?
Marco Rossi is waiting in the wings, primed for ice time with Kaprizov. Adam Beckman can continue the chemistry he showed with Eriksson Ek and Boldy. Calen Addison can come off the bench and spark the power play, if needed. There are so many options.
They can also spread the wealth in net. Right now, Filip Gustavsson is earning the opportunity to start in goal in Game 1. But Marc-Andre Fleury has a winning history, he can absolutely make starts in the playoffs, too. It depends on who’s giving the team the most stability at the moment.
The hot hand plays Game 1, but if that starter falters, they must play the other goalie in Game 2. This team can’t afford to go down 2-0 in a series, especially with a rusty Kaprizov. Evason will need to think fast. He and the Wild aren't like the other contenders out West; they have something to prove.
If the Wild make a playoff, it'll be their depth that powers them, stepping up in case of injury and keeping them fresh. The playoffs are going to be a hard fight. Who is really made for this?
Evason has a ton of line combinations to choose from, but he's going to have to pull the right strings to get this team far. Will he change or repeat history? We'll see. Soon he'll have a seven-game series where he'll need to prove his worth.
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