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  • The Minnesota Wild Must Forge A New Identity

    Image courtesy of Isaiah J. Downing-USA Today Sports
    Tony Abbott


    The Minnesota Wild are eliminated from the playoffs and playing out the string for the next four games while moving their focus to the future. After the Colorado Avalanche stomped out the last embers of the Wild's playoff hopes, The Athletic's Joe Smith asked coach John Hynes what was needed to make up the gap between them and the Central Division's playoff teams. Presumably, this is both head-to-head as well as in the standings.

    Hynes laid out the goals for next year. "Some size, some speed, some depth," he answered. "When you look at the top teams in the Central, they're big teams, they're fast teams, they're deep teams. And they play a heavy game."

    That sounds oddly like the kind of team Bill Guerin tried to build in Minnesota. "I think it's simple here: We're just not a pretty team," he told the media back in October 2022. "When we don't play hard, heavy, physical... we struggle. And when we are, we're good." Dean Evason, their former coach, preached the virtues of banging down low and getting hammered.

    Minnesota could play that way because they had the personnel to do it. Joel Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno formed the core of that identity, but they had plenty of help. Jordan Greenway, Nico Sturm, and Brandon Duhaime were all big-bodied forwards who skated well, and contributed to the banging and getting hammered in the bottom-six while Minnesota's stars shone.

    As the squeeze of the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter buyouts intensified, though, size was the first thing Guerin threw overboard to stay under budget. Minnesota traded Sturm to Colorado at the trade deadline in 2022, where he helped the Avs win a Stanley Cup. The next season, Guerin flipped Greenway to Buffalo for a second-round pick that became Riley Heidt. And once again, the Wild shipped size to Colorado in Duhaime at March's trade deadline.

    Eriksson Ek and Foligno are still around, yes, and Ryan Hartman and Kirill Kaprizov will mix it up despite not being the biggest players. But that identity of heavy hockey, molded by and in the image of former, old-school power forwards like Guerin and Evason? That's gone.

    It's gone, and more importantly, isn't coming back. The Wild don't have the cap space to add size on the trade or free agent market. Nor do they have a prospect pool that is equipped to replace players like Greenway and Sturm. Minnesota's top prospects -- Danila Yurov, Liam Öhgren, Heidt, and Marat Khusnutdinov -- all fall in between the 5-foot-11 to 6-foot-1 range. Big enough, but hardly the imposing team the Wild were two years ago.

    It's easy to be a fatalist about Minnesota's lack of size. Looking at the NHL's average height and weight by team shows the Vegas Golden Knights at the top of those, and Minnesota way down in last place. Vegas is a lot better than Minnesota, so size mattering checks out.

    Until you spend about 15 seconds looking a touch deeper. Look at that, the Cup-contending Avalanche are 28th in the NHL in average weight, just two pounds above the Wild. Their Central Division rivals, the playoff-bound Nashville Predators, who've eaten Minnesota's lunch for the past three years, are 24th. The going-nowhere New York Islanders and the cellar-dwelling Montreal Canadiens are the second and fourth-heaviest teams in the league. 

    If Colorado and Nashville play heavy -- and they do -- it doesn't seem like size is the main component in doing so. That's good news for the Wild, but not if they go out and try to chase the size they lost. Not if they try to impose their old identity on this new club.

    What's Minnesota's identity now? Nominally, it's that hard-working, physical style, but again, they arguably don't have the personnel to embrace that anymore. More importantly, that hard-working/physical style shown by someone like Hartman reads differently to the referees. Minnesota's accrued the fourth-most penalty minutes in the NHL -- not bad for the smallest team in the league! -- and that's because players like Hartman have a reputation for reckless play. That turns heavy play into a liability pretty fast.

    So what's left? The Wild are going to have to reorient their team around offensive punch to succeed in the future. They have one of the most lethal top power play units in the NHL with Kaprizov, Eriksson Ek, Mats Zuccarello, Matt Boldy, and Brock Faber. That top line of Kaprizov, Eriksson Ek, and Matt Boldy is good enough to be an identity in itself, in the way that Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak set the tone for the Boston Bruins for many seasons.

    Their incoming wave of prospects may not be the biggest or fastest crop of players, but they fit into the high-octane offensive mold of Minnesota's top players. Marco Rossi is 5-foot-9, but gets to the net like Eriksson Ek and has 21 goals (18 at 5-on-5) to show for it. Heidt is the kind of smart, heady distributor Zuccarello is today. Yurov surpassed Kaprizov in scoring as a 20-year-old in the KHL. Öhgren brings a combination of size, possession-driving, and dual-threat offensive ability that can remind you of Boldy.

    If Minnesota can successfully bring those players along in a relatively quick fashion and have them be a 1B unit for their power play, they have a chance to have elite special teams. It can't hurt to have that influx of offensive skill at 5-on-5, either. 

    There's no shame in the Wild diverting from the identity of those Guerin/Evason teams. There might even be an upside to it. We've seen those Wild teams built on playing heavy hockey flame out in the opening round of the playoffs several times. How high was their ceiling? What did Guerin-ball get them, exactly? The Wild are at the start of a turnover that will be intensified as more of their most talented prospects start filtering onto the team. It's not time to impose an old, outdated identity on them, but to find a new mantra that adapts to their strengths.


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    Someone send this article to BG and Hynes! I would add that the early "rugged" Wild teams played that way naturally and as they leaned into that identity they became more of a goon squad and forgot about being skilled. Having said that I think BG is looking for players that play bigger than they are so I'm guessing this article will age very well. 

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    I like this article, mainly because it articulates what I've been saying for a few years now. The Wild are in transition. The identity that Brackett has drafted for is a great skating, puck moving team not necessarily concerned about size. 

    In case this has escaped Shooter, that will mean that the identity of the team will change, has to change. Will the fanbase like the change? 

    Skill is coming, and lots of skill. To me, I'd love to see a team that is able to roster 3 scoring lines and 1 shutdown line. I'd love to have a team that has plenty of skill and can tie up larger teams in knots with their edges. But, I'd want that team to not lose the hardworking attitude we've always had and to have an ability to have heavy shifts when needed. Instead of a team identity, I'd be looking more at a line identity. 

    Now, with the defense it is obvious. Strong skaters, puck movers, but not too small. Brackett likes to top out at about 6'2" and always looks for skating first. He didn't draft Spurgeons, but some of these guys are a little on the undersized category. 

    I'd like a defense that can quickly gain transition, move the puck up the ice and fire bombs from the point with an ability to join the rush. Yes, 3 sets of very good all round pairs. Yet, I still want them to be able to throw the big hit when needed. 

    From a development standpoint, the main need is bulking up. It isn't always for dishing out punishment, many times with the skilled guys it's for being able to take the punishment. The 2nd need is edges. Quick east-west directional changes are needed. Most of these guys can skate real well north-south already. These 2 things are fundamental. 

    3rd is conditioning. This should be a really well conditioned team, and they'll need it to outwork opponents for 82 games + playoffs. And, with the D, you just keep rolling out the pairings, they have similar skill sets and should be able to play in all situations. 

    What does this give us? A very deep roster. Throw in 2 excellent Swedish 'tenders and we've got ourselves a very nice team. 

    There is 1 more thing and this may be the most important thing: That all 5 players play as a unit. Nashville comes to mind with this, that was my takeaway when we played them. They all moved as one unit. We did not. 

    I think some of this can be solved when Heinzy has his first training camp. My hope is that he works them hard, and tries to stretch their boundaries. I'd like to hear about the size and speed, how he tested the edges, and how he challenged all of the players, not giving the vets a break. 

    I anticipate that next season will look similar to this one in identity. This is mainly due to having the old guard mixed with the new guard. Some will feel lost. Hopefully they can adapt and move into the new identity. 

    One big question we have to ask: Will we be coached by what our skill set is? Some of Heinzy's ideas may need to shift. But, hard work and finishing checks never goes out of style!

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    Metallurg won today, Yurov with no points. They're up 3-2 in their series.

    Interesting find, the Metallurg goalie is Ilya Nabakov. Anyone wonder what ever happened to him?

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    Hitting is part of nhl hockey. Especially the playoffs. No team wins the cup without physicality. So this Billy idea of speed and skill winning a cup is  ridiculous.  All you have to do to beat a Billy team is clog up neutral zone and make us dump puck. Our darlings can’t handle going and getting it in the forest of big d. . For offense you just play down low and lean on our weak d core . They’ll give you the middle in no time . Having  a 1 b power play isn’t going to make up for this. 
        Hitting is playoff hockey. It’s why it’s good. You tenderize the other team in first few games of series so by the end they are making mistakes and run down. We don’t put pressure on anyone. We dance around the outside . 
        Billy never built a heavy team. He had a few heavy bottom six forwards but that’s it. Heavy hockey on good teams is throughout the lineup. Heavy hockey isn’t goons that cross check ankles , yell at refs , or throw sticks at refs. Heavy hockey is trouba patrolling the blue line keeping the other teams forwards  honest by making them keep there heads up.  Colorados top line plays heavy hockey and ours cant . That’s why they win cups and we play golf. . 
       I’m dumb founded others like this idea of a skilled speed team . We dont have the skill or the skill coming to be what others fantasize about. We don’t have Sid Crosby s coming to make a 1 b power play unit to make up for our weak small team.  We gave up that chance by not selling assets so we’re stuck with middle of road prospects that are undersized.  Add that to the cap issues and this team is going nowhere fast. 
        I think this was the worst season of wild hockey I saw in years . No fight . No accountability. I watched lazy players not show up to start this season. Then once the found there game it was a game of wimps getting bullied on a nightly basis . I see this season as little kids being bullied all year. We embarrassed ourselves against every good team . How can that be good hockey. Continually being embarrassed in games against good teams for 20 + years is old. This year watching the babies and listening to there excuses tells me we don’t have anything close to playoff material on this team. You have to move out half the team to get playoff mentality players  and Billy can’t and won’t. So it’ll be  at least another 4 years of watching wimps be losers and we’ll keep telling ourselves it’s the state of hockey. The state that produces the most nhl players but can’t produce a gm to get the job done. 

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    20+ years of watching hockey religiously I’ve never seen a player yell at the refs in playoffs and then go to the media and sh-t talk some more about the refs. . I’ve never seen in my 20 years a guy cross check the ankle of another out of frustration.  Embarrassingly immature. I’ve never seen a player throw a stick at a ref . Talk about stupid. Hockey would be even more dangerous with doorknobs throwing or swinging there sticks like weapons. It’s always been a no no just like kicking with your skates. Just disrespectful to the game and dangerous. 
        I’ve never heard of an organization that didn’t have a cap guy. I’ve never heard of a gm berating someone that others call salt of the earth out of town . I can’t remember GMs or teams being investigated until recently. Chicago, hockey Canada , Pittsburgh and the wild. I definitely can’t think of a gm that’s been investigated twice by two different teams.  Now I can say I have seen this thanks to Billy’s lack of leadership. 
        This is the crap Billy needs to fix. The culture of no accountability and terrible management. Prospects aren’t going to fix this.  The team is going nowhere for multiple reasons but it starts at the top with a guy who’s never held to account. Billy

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    Great comments by all.  I don't have that much profound things to say or expert advice to add.  It's just to me the Wild  seem unorganized and display very little desire to play.  IMO the big guys they had brought in produced very little.  I think they did more harm than good.  They extensions of aging veterans with no movement contracts seals their fate for a few years.  I agree this team lacks much identity going forward.  But to me the NHL lacks a good identity in general.  That's a topic for another day.  

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    14 hours ago, Dean said:

    Hitting is part of nhl hockey. Especially the playoffs. No team wins the cup without physicality. So this Billy idea of speed and skill winning a cup is  ridiculous.  All you have to do to beat a Billy team is clog up neutral zone and make us dump puck. Our darlings can’t handle going and getting it in the forest of big d. . For offense you just play down low and lean on our weak d core . They’ll give you the middle in no time . Having  a 1 b power play isn’t going to make up for this. 
        Hitting is playoff hockey. It’s why it’s good. You tenderize the other team in first few games of series so by the end they are making mistakes and run down. We don’t put pressure on anyone. We dance around the outside . 

    I completely agree with Dean's take here in these 2 paragraphs. But, this is what Brackett drafted for. And, just to let you know he picked these types of guys on purpose, he also did the same thing in later rounds without picking up size and without picking up goaltending. Now, with the goaltending, it could be that Guerin is not interested in wasting a pick on goaltending after having gotten his #1 in The Wall, and he'd rather pick up goalies a little more developed.

    Chicago had quite a run last decade being a small, skilled team. They had Saad, Kane, Panarin, Hossa as forwards and Keith on defense. Toews was a great leader, and clutch. They had 2 things that I noticed about them: 1) Incredible sticks that could tip pucks and block passes. 2) In the last 10 minutes of a game, they had an extra gear that they went to, many times tying and winning in regulation. 

    I don't think this is the type of team that Guerin is trying to build, or for that matter, Brackett. But if you look at the guys that Brackett likes, they are the smooth skating puck handlers. Those guys aren't over 6'2" because guys over that height are not usually smooth skaters at 17. So, you get shorter guys.

    But that is no excuse for not bulking up to be able to play heavy in the N. And in our development, it doesn't seem like anyone is putting a priority on this. A 5'11" 205 lb. guy can play heavy. He has leverage and is thick. You know who matches that description? Kaprizov. You know what else Kaprizov can do? Move east to west better than taller guys. 

    So why is Beckman 6'2" and still 190ish? Why is O'Rourke 6'2" and 190ish? He plays a hard physical game and will kill himself in the N. These are just examples, but every defender that Brackett has drafted needs some meat on the bones. Every forward Brackett has drafted needs the same except for last draft. Our goalies should not be our biggest players!

    Even the skilled guys, whose calling cards are sick passes and goals need the extra size to ward off the cross checks, hooks, and trips as well as the physical contact especially in the home plate area. How does this message not hit home?

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