The Minnesota Wild had a rocky 2015-2016 season that saw their previous head coach Mike Yeo fired after a horrible start to the 2016 calendar year. Further, they ended their season on a sour note as they backed into the playoffs by losing their last 5 games in the regular season and then lost to the Dallas Stars in 6 games in the first round of the playoffs. Following that early playoff exit, expectations for this season were often low, but expectations rose throughout the offseason.
First, the Wild hired a veteran head coach in Bruce Boudreau, who had a stellar regular season record and a disappointing playoff record. Then the Wild had a good free agency by not overpaying any of the big named free agents and by signing Eric Staal and Chris Stewart to short and relatively inexpensive contracts. These smart moves helped raise many fans’ expectations, but the most common expectation for the Wild through training camp was likely still that the Wild would find only moderately more success than last year. A little over halfway through the season, the Wild have the best record in the Western Conference, and the expectations for the Wild have been raised. Moving forward with the rest of the season, the Wild can realistically expect some award nominations, career best seasons from multiple players, and a great playoff seeding.
Bruce Boudreau has been everything Wild fans expected so far and more as he’s helped the Wild rebound after last year to find more success than most of the club’s history. While the Columbus Blue Jackets’ head coach John Tortorella is the current favorite for the Jack Adams Award, Wild fans can easily expect Boudreau to be the runner up. The Jack Adams Award is given to the coach who is judged to have contributed the most to his team’s success, but considering its history, maybe fans should be thankful Boudreau isn’t the favorite.
Devan Dubnyk, despite some rocky games recently, is still leading all goalies with at least 14 games played in both overall Save Percentage with .936 and Goal Against Average with 1.88. There have been some rumblings about other goalies such as Sergei Bobrovsky or Braden Holtby winning the Vezina Trophy for the league’s best goalie, but Dubnyk is still the overall favorite as he had an outstanding first half of the season and continues to be more than just reliable for the Minnesota. A lot can happen the rest of the season, but even if Dubnyk doesn’t continue to lead all goalies in multiple categories, it’s safe to expect he gets plenty of votes for the Vezina.
With the help of Boudreau and John Anderson, the Wild’s younger core has taken another step this year as multiple players are on pace for career high seasons in points. Jason Zucker has already surpassed his previous best season of 26 points with 33 points this year, and Mikael Granlund is only two points away from tying his career best 44 points. Meanwhile, Charlie Coyle is six points away from tying his career best 42 points and Nino Niederreiter is seven points from tying his career best 43 points. While less flashy than the Top 6 players, both Erik Haula and Jordan Schroeder are also on pace for career best years in points. With 8 points, Schroeder has actually already tied his best season a member of the Wild and reached that mark in 7 fewer games. He’s also only one point away from matching his career best of 9 points, which was with the Canucks in 2012-2013.
On the back end, with the leadership of Scott Stevens, five of the Wild’s defensemen are on pace to match or surpass their career best years in points. Ryan Suter is on pace to match last season’s 51 points and Christian Folin is on pace at least to match his career best 10 points if he can regain his play from before his injury. Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba, and Jonas Brodin are all on pace to pass their career highest totals by somewhat large margins. Brodin is three points away from tying his career best 19 points. Dumba is four points away from tying his best of 26, and Spurgeon is six points away from tying his career best of 29 points. Dumba and Spurgeon are currently on pace to be close to the 40 point mark by the end of the season, which has only been passed 6 times by Wild defensemen (Suter, Brent Burns, and Marek Zidlicky each had two seasons above the 40 points mark).
If the playoffs started today, the Wild would play against the Calgary Flames, who currently hold the second Wild Card spot with a few more games played than those immediately behind them. There’s still a lot of hockey left to play in the regular season, but the Wild have set themselves up nicely to be in line for home ice in the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-2008 season when they won the old Northwest Division regular season title. The Wild can realistically win the Western Conference title this year as their play has improved exceptionally well, the Pacific Division still isn’t great, and the Central Division is uncharacteristically weak this year. The Wild have multiple games in hand against the top teams in the West and has at least a four point lead over the next closest three teams. Interestingly, the Wild have played three more away games and six less home games than the Chicago Blackhawks. At this point, the West is the Wild’s to lose, and they should find themselves well positioned for playoff success at the end of the regular season.
The Wild’s superb play through 48 games has changed nearly everyone’s expectations from the beginning of the year. Most Wild fans only expected moderate success and multiple pundits even expected the Wild to be out of the playoff race by now. With great goaltending, great defense, and a rising offense, it’s realistic to expect the Wild to win the Western Conference and at least, win several award nominations. It’s still a little early to make playoff predictions, but it’s also realistic to expect the Wild to find more success in the playoffs than previous years.
What do you expect of the Wild for the remainder of the season? Will any other Western team compete for the conference title? Could a Wild player get nominated for and possibly win any other end of year trophy like the Norris?