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  • The Wild Have Another Russian Player Everyone Is Overlooking

    Image courtesy of Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
    Brendan Johnson

    The Minnesota Wild are technically still in the playoff hunt despite missing several “must-win” games. That’s what makes the sport so damn fun. Even though this is a below-.500 team, they can still deliver some must-watch moments. They'll still surprise the opposition regularly. 

    Why are teams losing to the Wild? Minnesota has two of its top four defensemen out. Filip Gustavsson, the younger of their two goalies, has struggled to the point where 39-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury is carrying the load. Minnesota’s best two-way forward, Joel Eriksson Ek, is out for an undetermined amount of time. Two of their three biggest cap hits are for Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, who are playing on other teams.

    Why are these pesky Wildlings too stubborn to roll over and tank like many teams have in the past to leap up that draft board to secure the next big-time player? If the Wild were to be so blessed to get the next Connor Bedard or Jack Hughes on this roster, it would add around three to five wins to this team. The Vegas Golden Knights would be chasing Minnesota, not the other way around.

    Still, it's not like they have no help coming, even without a draft lottery player coming this fall. The Wild have two Russians who can alter the team chemistry while building towards a winning future. Danila Yurov has broken Vladimir Tarasenko's KHL points record for a 20-year-old. But we shouldn’t overlook another Russian on the fast track to the Xcel Energy Center. 

    Vladislav Firstov, age 22, is a 6-foot-1, 181 lbs. left wing from Yaroslavl, Russia. Firstov was selected in 2019 in the 2nd round with the 42nd pick. He just finished his KHL season playing for Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod and is now in Des Moines, playing for the Iowa Wild. The transition for these guys is a constant adaptation because they must continue to evolve as players and young men. Not only are they away from their friends and family, but they must learn a new language in a new country. 

    However, Firstov is no stranger to the United States, or even Iowa. He played for the Waterloo Black Hawks in the USHL during the 2018-19 season. There, he recorded 26 goals and 32 assists in 62 games before Minnesota drafted him, and he was a USHL All-Rookie by the end of the season.  From there, he played for the University of Connecticut during the 2019-20 season, tallying 11 goals and 12 assists in 34 games and making the NCAA East All-Rookie team.

    Firstov should be productive quicker than Marat Khusnutdinov and Danila Yurov. He has played in many different leagues and has been productive at every level. Firstov is a big-bodied player who can extend plays while offering top-six skills. If Minnesota allows him to learn and mature around a young Russian group led by Kirill Kaprizov, he could blossom in St. Paul.  

    If Kaprizov helps Firstov and Yurov as he has with Khusnutdinov, it will speed up the process of getting acclimated to the NHL. That’s an intangible that Bill Guerin counted on when he started seeking out highly-skilled Russian players like players, which many teams overlook. (Though, it must be said that Firstov was selected during Paul Fenton's regime.)

    Guerin positioned his locker room correctly to make these kinds of transitions go smoothly. Not just to help them play well on the ice, but to build a comradery between these players from all over the world who make Minnesota their home away from home. Minnesotans will welcome them because of their exciting play style, and that combination should make the Xcel Energy Center electric on game days. Maybe someone like Khusnutdinov isn't familiar with the language the fans speak, but the energy in the air is universal. With 18,000-plus fans excited to see these players' displays of athleticism, sportsmanship, and team play, they will feed into the team, and vice versa.

    The NHL salary cap is expected to rise to approximately $87.7 million for the 2024-25 season, the league announced at the Board of Governors meeting Monday. The Wild still have that dead cap space, but having potentially three Russian players -- Yurov, Firstov, and Khusnutdinov -- on rookie contracts in the fall and ready to play on this level can help them compete. With the NHL team largely in place for next year, plus the new faces developing in the system already, Guerin can focus on a short list of players that he'll need to shape this young, motivated group into contenders.

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    The Wild need a Russianov line at some point. Get some combination of Russian forwards together with names ending in "ov". It's gotta work...

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    I love your enthusiasm and positive take on the Wilds potential future.  Sometimes I get down about the extended contracts given out at the beginning of this season but it does seem we have very good prospects that are close to earning a spot on the team and that we will find spots for them in St. Paul.    Hope springs eternal.  Especially for sports fans.  

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    There's a lot to like about the potential of the team...in a year or so.  If Firstov gets added to the mix, you just add more depth to a team sorely lacking it.  I'm not going to expect everyone to hit big.  However, Firstov, Yurov, Ohgren, Heidt, etc. have the benefit of a team with about 3-4 known scorers, a couple good defensive forwards or depth options, but a lot of fluctuating or older pieces.  If you can't beat out anyone in the bottom six other than Foligno or Khusnutdinov, that's on the player and the development.

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    On the old site, Stanley kept up with Firstov and kept reminding us of him. I've kept tabs on his statistical improvement which has been really good for a season and a half.

    I think the main issue with Firstov is going to be compete level, and that requires strength/weight. It looks like his listed measurements are still from his U-Conn days. I cannot imagine he wasn't in the gym fiercely last offseason to produce a season like this one. He's got to be bigger now.

    But, with a quick look at stats, he's played 2 games in Iowa with nothing to show for it offensively. I have no idea where he's playing in the lineup, but I do know that Iowa, who has been bad this season, won both games.

    In other news, Farjestad who was ranked #1 going into their playoffs is down 3-0 to Nogle and Ohgren has been shut out. To be fair, Farjestad has not scored many goals in this series, so the whole team is down. He might get into a few games by the end of the season! I'd love to see him here with 9 to play.

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