The NHL is moving towards a start date of Jan. 13th, as Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic reported on Tuesday, the financial hurdles between the league and players association have not been sorted out. The schedule will likely be for 56 games to accommodate for the late start to the year, similar to what we saw in 2012-13, which was a lockout-shortened season.
Since that announcement of Tuesday, the Minnesota Wild had gone from being in the realigned Pacific Division -- as previously reported last month, to the Central Division on Wednesday, then back to the Pacific on Thursday night, per Michael Russo.
For those wondering why divisions are being realigned, the NHL is putting all Canadian teams into a division so they don't have to deal with the COVID-19 border regulations between the United States and Canada. Keeping all the teams up in Canada means they can play each other uninterrupted, and per Scott Burnside of The Athletic, the league wants to avoid the border issue as long as possible in 2021.
Now, Wild fans aren’t exactly going to be thrilled with 9:00 pm CT starts because of this new division format, and yeah, that’s a valid point because no one really wants to be up until 11:30-midnight during the workweek.
But besides the late starting time, this re-aligned division might actually benefit the Wild. They are coming into the new season with a re-vamped forward group and new goaltending tandem. It might take some time for the team to settle in and get comfortable with each other, because they are likely to have little time to gel in a shortened training camp and preseason before the puck drops on Jan. 13.
But why exactly would this division benefit the Wild? Well, they are no longer in the meat grinder of the Central Division. The Chicago Blackhawks, Winnipeg Jets, St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators would not be on the Wild’s calendar and they certainly would not have to compete with those teams for a playoff spot, at least not head-to-head.
(This is assuming St. Louis and the Wild swap divisions, per LeBrun's above report from Wednesday.)
The Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars and Vegas Golden Knights stand out as the best teams in the proposed division. But then you take a look at the remaining teams -- the Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks; and the Wild might fall above the rest.
|Special Teams||Shot Data|
|7||Vegas Golden Knights*||29.2||71||39||24||8||86||.606||224||209||3||2||0.21||-0.02||6.10||173||156||42||191||21.99||50||214||76.64||9||3||8.0||7.3||2450||9.1||2082||.900||6|
|28||Los Angeles Kings||28.6||70||29||35||6||64||.457||177||209||1||3||-0.48||0.01||5.51||139||165||33||193||17.10||43||190||77.37||5||1||6.8||7.5||2325||7.6||2079||.899||1|
|29||San Jose Sharks||29.5||70||29||36||5||63||.450||180||225||2||1||-0.62||0.01||5.79||140||187||33||189||17.46||32||224||85.71||7||6||10.3||9.4||2101||8.6||2140||.895||2|
Out of those four remaining teams, Arizona was the only one to get an invite to the play-in series when the league resumed in August. Meaning, Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose all were bad enough that they were told to just stay home, and they have not improved much from last season, so that is definitely going to be an advantage for the Wild.
Minnesota’s defensive core remains intact from last year and will once again be one of the league’s best. They finished second in the NHL last season in expected goals against, only trailing the Boston Bruins, thanks to their elite defense. With that same group returning, the Wild are among the top of the league again in that category.
Expected Goals Against Per 60 minutes played 2019-20 rankings (via Evolving Hockey):
Boston Bruins – 1.98
Minnesota Wild – 2
Columbus Blue Jackets – 2.08
Tampa Bay Lightning – 2.09
Colorado Avalanche – 2.17
With new goaltending acquisition Cam Talbot playing around league average for the Calgary Flames last season, the Wild simply need that from him behind that stellar defense to win some more games. Goaltending was very key for the Wild’s inconsistency last season, and it was addressed by general manager Bill Guerin during the offseason when he signed Talbot and traded veteran Devan Dubnyk to the Sharks.
Talbot burned out in Edmonton before finding his game again in Calgary. But playing behind a defense like Minnesota’s offers reassurance that he'll play well next season.
Meanwhile the Wild have revamped their forward lines, but they should generate confidence against rebuilding teams like the Kings and Ducks.
It would certainly benefit a player like Kevin Fiala, who should feast on those teams as he looks to put together his first full season of leading the Wild attack. It might also benefit Kirill Kaprizov, who finally will make his debut for the Wild in 2021 -- he just arrived in the Twin Cities last week in preparation for the upcoming season. There might be some growing pains for Kaprizov as he adjusts to the NHL but facing some lower-quality competition in this division might do more to accelerate that process.
Also factoring in here is first-round draft pick Marco Rossi, who could make the Wild roster despite being 19 years old. Would the Wild have been more likely to send Rossi back to Austria had they been playing in the Central Division? Are they now more likely to keep him in this re-vamped Pacific Division where he might have more chance to succeed right away?
All are questions worth pondering.
The Wild might have some consternation about playing road games start at 9-9:30 pm locally, but having this lower quality of competition in the Pacific Division will certainly play into their favor.
If you are in the camp of the Wild not making the playoffs to get a higher draft pick, then this division realignment is not in your favor. But with the way the roster is constructed for 2021, was a high draft pick even a realistic thought? Probably not.
Enjoy the ride (and late nights) of the Pacific Division while it lasts before the inevitable return to the Central.
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