The injury bug bit the Minnesota Wild hard in December. Wild fans have seen Matt Dumba, Jonas Brodin, and Jared Spurgeon miss games to illness or injury. Joel Eriksson Ek left last Monday's loss to the Dallas Stars in a sling. Brodin tested positive for COVID this week. Freddy Gaudreau was also on the COVID-19 Protocol list this December. Jordan Greenway was banged up last week. Even the prospects haven't avoided missing time, including Matt Boldy and Marco Rossi.
The bad news isn't only that the Wild have had a rash of injuries. It's that those injuries have almost targeted the vulnerable spots on the Wild. Dumba, Brodin, Spurgeon, and Eriksson Ek are among Minnesota's biggest contributors. The Wild's prospects were robbed of valuable game time to prove they can play in the NHL right now. And it's no surprise that Minnesota's momentum skidded to a halt once those injuries started compounding.
But the Wild seems to have avoided actual disaster. Brodin may not miss a game from his bout of COVID (which is good if Brodin is genuinely at low risk of spreading the virus further after five games, which is its own discussion). General manager Bill Guerin told the media Thursday morning that Spurgeon and Eriksson Ek would return in around two weeks.
These six weeks of injury hell brings up an interesting question, perhaps one that'll be answered soon. Which Wild player can the team absolutely not live without? Let's take a quick look at four candidates.
Wild fans have long known how good Brodin is, but this year that admiration is turning up to 11. Now people really know how good he is. After getting second billing to Ryan Suter on Minnesota's left defense for years, Brodin is now filling a Suter-ian role.
Brodin leads the Wild with 23:35 minutes a night, particularly playing the toughest match-ups and most significant defensive situations. You can maybe argue that he's slipped a little because of this step up, but Brodin still ranks in the top-25 of both expected goals against at 5-on-5 and Evolving Hockey's Goals Above Replacement for Even-Strength Defense.
He's not only bringing defense to the table anymore, though. We see a Brodin who jumps into the play more than ever before. The Wild are being rewarded for this with a half-point per game from him, a career-high. And he's being rewarded with more power play time, with Minnesota scoring about eight goals per hour with Brodin on the man advantage.
Anecdotally, it does seem like things tend to fall apart for the Wild without him. Their four-game losing streak coincides pretty well with Brodin's health in question. Losing him in the opening minutes of Game 7 against the Vegas Golden Knights also didn't help much.
If not for a Siberian sniper upstaging him, 2021 would be remembered as the Year of Eriksson Ek. Coming into the year, he scored 24 goals in his 210-game career. In the last 12 months, he's racked up 32 goals and 53 points in 91 games (including playoffs).
This breakout was built on a strong foundation: Eriksson Ek's defense. Like Brodin, Eriksson Ek is expected to play the hardest minutes and completely neutralize the opponents' top forwards. He does that, and Minnesota out-scored opponents 55-38 with him on the ice at even-strength in 2021.
Few players control the front of the net on both sides of the ice like Eriksson Ek does. He parks himself in front of there on offense, looking for rebounds, tips, deflections, and opportunities to draw penalties. On defense, he shuts that down as completely as Mikko Koivu back in the day.
And, of course, Minnesota perhaps has less depth at center (at least, for high-end skilled players like Eriksson Ek) than anywhere. Unless they call up Marco Rossi, their choices are to put in the Freddy Gaudreaus and Nico Sturms of the world. Nice defensive players, but there's a reason why Evason leans on Eriksson Ek much more heavily.
Minnesota went years having strong pieces but no superstar to tie things together. That is, until Kaprizov's arrival.
Last year, Kaprizov re-wrote the Wild's rookie record books, setting franchise-highs for goals (27) and points (51) in only 55 games. He sailed to a near-unanimous Calder Trophy win and finished 15th in Hart Trophy voting for League MVP.
And he's arguably been better this year. On pace for 98.4 points, Kaprizov seems destined to be the first Wild player to break the 90-point barrier and has a shot at eclipsing the century mark. He might be the most skilled player in Wild history. If he isn't, he's undoubtedly second.
Minnesota hasn't yet (knocking on wood as hard as humanly possible) faced the prospect of playing without Kaprizov yet, so we have no idea what it's like. Well, except for all those years where Minnesota had a solid team, but no one like Kaprizov. How did those turn out?
Spurgeon might fall in the running here for timing reasons and recency bias. The Wild already played a stretch without Spurgeon, and Minnesota reeled off seven straight wins during that time. So, it seems like he's replaceable, no?
Hardly. The Wild have been uncharacteristically bad defensively since that Nov. 20 injury. They rank in the bottom-10 of virtually every defensive category: Shots allowed, shot attempts allowed, expected goals allowed. Strong goaltending (.927 at 5-on-5) masked a lot of flaws exposed by Spurgeon's absence.
Brodin and Matt Dumba may be the Wild's first pairing now. But Minnesota is built on having two stellar defense pairing eating 20-plus minutes a night. When Spurgeon's in the lineup, they have that.
Everyone gets stretched when they don't have him (or Brodin or Dumba). Brodin and Dumba play 25-27 minutes a night. Alex Goligoski has to carry the load alongside Jon Merrill, who's suited to a third-pair role. Dmitry Kulikov plays with Jordie Benn, making for a less effective pairing than with Merrill.
There just isn't an easy way to replace the Wild's captain and leader on the blue line. Minnesota must ensure he's healthy before he returns because they'll badly need him down the stretch.
Now that we've laid out the cases, it's time for you to vote:
All data from Evolving Hockey unless otherwise indicated.