It feels like the Stanley Cup Final just ended a month and a half ago, doesn't it? As the calendar prepares to flip to August, the hockey season draws nearer. Training camps are set to open September 17th across the league and preseason games starting on the 21st.
With six weeks left before camp, we're looking at the top five reasons to 'buy' the Wild heading into the 2015-16 season.
The Wild are returning almost everyone from last season
Why is this a reason to watch? Continuity for the Wild is something that was all too fleeting in the first few years since Mike Yeo took over as head coach. With a lot of roster turnover and an influx of younger talent melding with established veterans, the Wild needed to grow up together. The young, talented players that burst on to the scene in 2013 have now had three consecutive years in which they've made it into the post-season. Couple that mild success in the playoffs with the experience of three full seasons at the NHL in which they've overcome a lot of adversity, the Wild should be experienced and battle-tested enough to make it to the post-season again with the focus on the Stanley Cup.
After finishing with 55 points in 48 games in the lockout-shortened season in 2013 to barely sneak into the playoffs, the Wild have finished with 98 and 100 points in 2013-14 and 2014-15. While there has been improvement over the last few seasons, the Wild have only been good enough for a first Wild card berth. But standings points don't tell the whole story.
This Wild squad has changed it's style of play over the past season to a much more mobile, puck-possession style. With the emphasis placed more on controlling the puck, the Wild went from the 22nd ranked team with a 48.9 Score Adjusted FF%* to 10th last season, at 52.4%. This current squad is capable of good things and with almost the same team returning, that consistency and continuity should help the Wild to the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season.
The Wild may have one of the best defensive corps in the league
Sure this may look like a subjective comment, but the Wild do sport a defensively solid blue line. Jared Spurgeon may be the best defenseman in the bunch, especially win all three zones, but Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, and Ryan Suter are no schmucks defensively.
Omitted are Matt Dumba and Mikey Reilly as they did not play a full NHL season.
When the Wild make the additions of Matt Dumba and Mikey Reilly, the Wild should be able to provide more offense from the blue line and on the power play. As punchless as the Suter/Brodin pairing is offensively, the Wild should make up for it with the bottom-four. Scandella and Spurgeon already combined for 58 points in 64 and 66 games respectively, and adding an offensive defenseman like Mikey Reilly to the heavy shot that Matt Dumba possesses to the mix should provide some offensive potency.
The Stadium Series comes to TCF Bank Stadium
Since 2008, when the Buffalo Sabres hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins in an outdoor NHL game for the very first Winter Classic, Minnesota has been looking for a way to exhibit its hockey heritage on a national scale. Wild Owner Craig Leipold has been lobbying the league office for the annual January 1st outdoor game, but has been beat out by teams that have more star-power, Original 6 markets, and large markets.
While it's not the Winter Classic™, the Wild will get to host an outdoor game. On February 21st, 2016, the Wild will play the Chicago Blackhawks on an outdoor sheet of ice for the first time ever. The game will be held at the University of Minnesota's football stadium: TCF Bank Stadium.
Why the Blackhawks/Wild match-up? Ratings, Ratings, Ratings.
During last seasons Stanley Cup Playoffs, the 2nd round series between the Wild and Hawks drew outrageous numbers for NBC Sports Network. According to the website SportsMediaWatch.com, the first three games of the series, "rank as the most-watched telecasts of the postseason on cable."
NBCSN topped the two million mark for the first time in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Game 2 of the Wild/Blackhawks Stanley Cup playoff series drew 2.0 million viewers on NBCSN Sunday night, up 10% from Rangers/Penguins Game 2 last year (1.9M), up 46% from Penguins/Senators in 2013 (1.4M) and cable’s largest audience of the playoffs. The previous high was 1.9 million for Game 1 of the series on Friday.
According to NBC Sports, the Blackhawks’ win ranks as the most-watched non-elimination second round playoff game on NBCSN. The game also generated strong local ratings, earning a 14.9 in Minneapolis-St. Paul — the market’s second-highest ever for the Wild on NBCSN or CNBC.
Couple that with the fact that both teams are geographically close, and the potential to capture the traveling Blackhawks fans, and the match-up only makes financial, competitive, and historical sense.
Devan Dubnyk should have the goaltending position solidified
Devan Dubnyk signed a six-year $26 million dollar deal after the NHL Entry Draft back in June. After years of severe volatility in the goaltending position, the Wild finally have someone that should be able to provide consistency game-in, game-out. While his Vezina-caliber season will be highly unlikely for him to duplicate, he still should be a massive upgrade over the oft injured and aging Niklas Backstrom, and the inconsistent youngster in Darcy Kuemper. Save for his abysmal year in 13-14, he's been a pretty solid goaltender.
This graph compares Jonathan Quick and Dubnyk's adjusted save percentage. This was originally posted when the Wild traded for Dubnyk.
Ultimately, the Wild have made a gamble. It doesn't guarantee a win, but knowing his track record, and playing the odds right (in this case with a fair contract that makes him only the 20th highest-paid goalie in the NHL), the probability for success is higher.
The Central Division will have a different look
A cap-strapped Chicago Blackhawks team had to part ways with a few assets that helped them win the Stanley Cup. While the Blackhawks are still formidable, the balance in the Central has shifted and become more even. Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya are now Stars, Trevor Daley is a Hawk, T.J. Oshie won't be showing off his only skill in a Blues sweater. The Predators don't have Matt Cullen, the Avalanche still have Cody McLeod as and assistant captain (and they signed Francois Beauchemin). The Jets made the playoffs, may have Nikolai Ehlers coming up, and even may have a good goaltender in Connor Hellebuyck.
The Wild will have some changes on the bottom six and bottom pairing as Kyle Brodziak is now a member of the Blues. Mike Reilly will likely be on the big club as they start the season, and the Wild will likely promote some players from within. Again, these are minor tweaks rather than major overhauls to last years playoff roster, which could bode well for Minnesota. If everyone in front of you takes a step back, standing still isn't the worst thing.
But it won't be easy. Five teams made the post-season from the Central- even the worst team in the division finished with 90 points. Adding to the difficulty, six of the seven teams in the division were in the top 10 for Fenwick For percentage (score adjusted). That means that all of the teams (sans Colorado) played a puck possession game and were quite good at it. But despite the difficulty, by returning a strong team, and with the balance of power evening out, the Wild could make a move for a Division Championship.
*Score-Adjusted Fenwick For % measures a team's share of unblocked shot attempts when they're on the ice. The best teams generally get around 55%, and the pre-Parise/Suter Wild hung out around the 44% mark.