It's not a secret this Minnesota Wild squad has taken a step back since last season. With nearly half a season worth of work behind them now, the Wild still have yet to ice what anyone would consider as a real complete lineup. Roster turnover was high during the offseason which left Wild GM Chuck Fletcher scrambling to shore up any leaks in the ship.
Are the Wild really that far off though? Was the loss of Erik Haula and Alex Tuch that big a loss? Was packaging Jason Pominville and Marco Scandella together and shipping them off to the Sabres that big of a game changer? The easy answer on both fronts is yes. The correlation between players coming or going is probably the most visible metric against team performance, and one even the most casual of fans can spot with minimal effort.
Through 40 games just a season ago the Wild boasted a 26-9-5 record, good enough for 57 points and placed the Wild 2nd overall in the West and 7th in the NHL for points, just 3 points off the pace being set by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Fast forward to today, we're sitting with a 21-16-3 record, 45 points, 9th in the West, 16th in the NHL, and 1 point removed from the final wildcard playoff spot. My how things have changed.
While the Wild have struggled this season, sometimes playing like they've been waiting for something (*cough* Zach Parise), while the rest of us were just waiting for the Wild to start playing a more consistent game. The kind of Wild squad that inspired such excitement throughout much of last season before the wheels came off. While ultimately the Wild do need the play the game still, there’s more to this team's current position in the league than just their on ice struggles.
The introduction of the Vegas Golden Knights seems to have turned the West on its head. Nobody in their right mind was coming into this season thinking a ragtag bunch of roster castaways (albeit the best group of castaways expansion has ever seen) would roll out 56 points in just 38 games to start their season. What’s more is teams like the Winnipeg Jets taking a huge step forward this season, and the St. Louis Blues under Mike Yeo are another team I think a lot of Wild fans thought (or hoped anyway) would struggle under Yeo’s defense-first system.
Even bigger surprises are the Chicago Blackhawks who are having a rough stretch and are actually behind the Colorado Avalanche in the standings right now. The Edmonton Oilers, the sweethearts of the league with Connor McDavid captaining that ship right into the ground. The Calgary Flames are a team many thought were ready to make the jump, but they can’t seem to get out of their own way either. Make no mistake about it, the West is turned upside-down.
Besides the Golden Knights setting a bomb off in the Western Conference, some of the Wild’s struggles has decidedly been due to the injury bug being a frequent visitor to Minnesota this season. We forget, the Wild were incredibly healthy last year. Zach Parise played his first game of the season, and we are only 40 games in. Mikael Granlund has missed 5 games due to injury, Jared Spurgeon has played in only 31 games this season, and Devan Dubnyk even missed some time in the infirmary. One of the bigger blows in the injury department has been Nino Niederreiter who has missed 11 games in two different stints so far this season.
Thursday when the Wild take on the Buffalo Sabres it will mark the first game of the season where the Wild will ice what most would consider their most complete lineup when Nino returns to the lineup. Just 41 games in and we’ll finally get a taste of this team at 100%.
All this together kind of has me on edge with this team. It’s been a struggle to keep one's head on straight with how the Wild have sputtered out of the gate. It’s not something Wild fans are particularly used to. Most seasons the Wild come soaring into the season and fall apart later, whereas this season it looks like the opposite might be true.
Part of my struggle this season has been trying to figure out if this is a good team, or a not-so-good team. During the offseason, the Wild didn’t seem to get any better on paper and in practice that seems to be confirmed. Yet I’ve withheld judgement on this team because the West is a mess, and Parise being out the whole season just doesn’t lend itself well to figuring out just what to make of this year’s Wild. Parise is certainly not going to win any scoring titles, although his offensive presence will certainly help. What I’m looking to see now is that infectious, 110% effort attitude that Parise carries with him on the ice for every single shift. Not only will Bruce Boudreau have another winger to work into the lineup, but when the rest of the team sees how Parise plays his game, it should start rubbing off on those around him, especially the younger generation who have struggled to produce at the level we saw last season.
Parise is a difference maker in more ways than just on the score sheet. With him coming back into the lineup, our expectations as fans need to rise. A lot of this season feels like a letdown. The excitement level around the Wild isn’t quite there like in seasons past. It’s like we’re travelling down this same old road we’ve been on for the past few seasons now. We know exactly where this road leads us and quite frankly, we’ve grown tired of that destination. Perhaps part of this letdown has to do with how well the Minnesota Vikings are doing right now. But despite that, despite the West being a mess, despite roster turnover, and despite injuries suffered, this Wild squad should still be good enough to make some noise in the second half of the season. They should be good enough to make it into the post season again, and with the West as it is, making a good run next spring should not be out of the question.