SPOILER: The Wild aren't making the playoffs.
I know the Wild overcame long odds last season. The Wild had a 3% chance of making the playoffs last season at the end of December, and then hot goaltending kicked down the doors for the Wild. But it's pretty safe to guess it's too late to save the Wild's season, and that means it's time to take a look ahead, to the future.
No, that doesn't mean tank the season in order to get Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. The odds of the Wild earning that draft position is probably even less than them making the playoffs. And it doesn't mean intentionally lose games down the stretch, either.
There's been a lot of talk in the media about the Wild's young players perhaps being rushed to the NHL, instead of being "properly" developed by getting big minutes in important roles. With big NHL names like Zach Parise occupying the Top-6, that kind of ice time has been really hard to come by for the Under-25 crowd.
This makes sense of course, when the Wild are in the thick of the playoff hunt. If the Wild's #1 priority is to win games, at whatever cost, it makes sense for the Wild, and Coach Mike Yeo, to rely on options that are the most established over dealing with the growing pains of younger players. But right now? Development should be the Wild's priority.
Here are 5 easy experiments the Wild would benefit from trying, and better yet- these wouldn't be likely to hurt the Wild's chances of winning by a significant margin.
Move Mikael Granlund to the Wing
After a very nice second half and playoff run, Mikael Granlund looked to be on the precipice of a breakout year for the Wild, being slotted in between Zach Parise and Jason Pominville on the top line. That hasn't even come close to happening, as Granlund has seen his points production plummet despite being in perhaps the most ideal situation he could possibly have been put in.
With his stagnating offensive output, and injury concerns over the last few seasons (concussion issues last season, wrist injury in December), it's come into question whether Granlund is going to be physically durable enough to handle the rigors and defensive responsibilities of being a Top-Line Center™.
The solution? With a big ol' shout-out to Alec Schmidt for intriguing me with the idea in the first place, I'd say put Granlund on the wing. Maybe it keeps Granlund healthier. Maybe the lessened defensive responsibilities will allow Granlund to focus on the offensive game Wild fans have been counting on since he was drafted in 2010. Either of those results would be a boon to the Wild, should they work out. According to Michael Russo, the Wild brass has considered it, leaning towards center for his speed down the middle.
A big concern with Granlund moving towards the wing is that it leaves a Top-6 Center-shaped hole in the Wild. But luckily, the Wild have an interesting option to potentially fill that role.
Charlie Coyle, Top-Line Center™
The Wild have been trying out Charlie Coyle at Center throughout significant portions of the season, and he's found intermittent success, scoring at a better pace than last season, but not enough to register as impressive to anyone.
Perhaps a reason for Coyle's underwhelming performance (which, by the way, still has him scoring more points per minute than Granlund) is his usage? No one's saying that Nino Niederreiter or Jason Zucker are bad players, they're not, but Coyle's seen more of a defensive deployment than the Top-6, and doesn't play with the elite teammates.
It doesn't seem to be a coincidence that in a short stretch where Coyle got to play with Parise and Thomas Vanek, Coyle was productive, most notably in a two-assist game vs. the Predators. Unfortunately, Coyle's run in that spot was cut short when Granlund returned from injury, before he could prove whether he could handle that role.
Coyle's big, strong on the puck, and has skills, even if they don't show up as often as we'd like. This lost season gives the Wild a chance to put Coyle into an ideal situation, and see if he can produce as a center in the NHL.
Distribute Defensemen Ice Time Evenly
The Wild have been grasping at straws for a third-line pairing that's reliable, only to decide the situation is "Play our best defenders a lot". And that worked last season, as the Wild leaned on Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, and Jonas Brodin all the way to the playoffs. This season, Yeo's put more trust in Marco Scandella, giving the Wild four defensemen playing more than 22 minutes per night, with Suter leading the NHL with approximately 200 minutes a game.
There's no reason that Suter should play 200 minutes per game, or even a more reasonable number, like 30. The Wild have him under contract for 10 more years, meaning running him into the ground when you're 7 points out of a playoff spot in January is ridiculous. The Wild would benefit from resting Suter and letting other players develop. My proposal? The Wild should strive for this ideal:
Suter: 22 minutes
Spurgeon 22 minutes
Scandella: 21 minutes
Brodin: 21 minutes
Folin: 17 minutes
Dumba: 17 minutes
This enables everyone on the Wild to avoid being overtaxed, and provides an opportunity to let Folin and Dumba develop with a TOI load worth keeping them in the NHL. This might actually cost the Wild some points this season, but the development and rest should pay dividends down the road.
Take Haula Out of the Doghouse
Erik Haula, partly because of conditioning issues, has been buried on the Wild's depth chart this season. The versatile, speedy forward has bounced around between different linemates and teammates all season, being a healthy scratch at times this season.
This simply can't do. Not now. It doesn't serve the Wild's interest to continue to put Haula in positions where he can't use his offensive talents, and with ice time that makes producing points consistently a pipe dream. The Wild need to get Haula going, and we can combine the first experiment with this one and have a Granlund-Haula-Niederreiter line. Boom, Granlund's on the wing, Haula gets put in a position to succeed offensively, and Niederreiter gets to be excited about his linemates. Everyone's happy.
Hey! Let Someone Else Try the Shootout!
We all know the shootout order: Parise, Koivu, and Pominville.
And there's good reason for it: It works. Parise and Koivu both have success rates north of 43%, and Pominville has a not-too-shabby 36% rate.
So what's the problem?
Here it is: There's no opportunities for younger players to be relied on in those spots. Granlund, Niederreiter, Coyle, and Zucker have a combined 8 shootout attempts for the Minnesota Wild. Not this season, in their careers. Eight.
This is another thing that could potentially cost a point or two down the stretch, but if you want to see these players become prominent members of your team, it would make sense for you to put those players in situations.
And man, who doesn't want to see more goals like these?
Fire Matt Cooke into the Sun
I would expect this to garner some controversy in the Wild's front office, as Craig Leipold would not only want to not waste the remaining 3 million on Cooke's contract, but even with the considerable funds this would raise on Kickstarter, it's a very expensive proposition when you consider the cost of firing a human being into the sun in what I assume would have to be a humane and dignified way.
So, having established that this is a pipe dream, let's settle for "Dump Matt Cooke". On a team that isn't making the playoffs this year, and has solid depth options in the minor league, Cooke's value to the Wild isn't all that much. Would his playoff experience / veteran guy in the room thing / ability to eliminate players be valuable to some team? I would guess some front office would think so.
Trading Cooke allows a lot of possibilities for your fourth line. You can either give a two-way guy like Jordan Schroeder a run, potentially creating a scoring fourth-line with Ryan Carter and Justin Fontaine. You can try to spark a guy like Brett Bulmer, who has been awful in Iowa, but has had some success in a short time in Minnesota. You could allow Tyler Graovac, who had a promising couple of games for the NHL club to get a big-league role. I would bet on any of those options to yield better results than Cooke right now, and they'd come at a fraction of the cost, with the upside that whatever young player you'd put in that spot would benefit.
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We haven't seen Yeo manage a team with no stakes since his rookie year as a coach, and his philosophy has changed greatly in that time. I would hope that Yeo, who's gotten more open-minded about diverging from an old-school mindset, would recognize the value in trying some of these things for an extended run in an effort to develop players.
He may not do it, either because he prefers maintaining the status quo, or because he feels his job is safer if he squeezes a few more points out of this team than if we went a more developmental route. But not trying some outside-the-box deployments, and continuing to curtail the minutes of young players despite no playoff-related incentive to do so would be a disservice to his team. If there's a gift at all to this season, it's the freedom to experiment with this team.