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In The Central Division, Middling Is A Death Knell

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Vegas odds have Minnesota recording only 85 points next season. In a stacked Central Division, that’s just not good enough. So where does the team go from here?

NHL: Minnesota Wild at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Wild finished the 2018-19 season in seventh place within the Central Division. It doesn’t take Corsi stats to see that 83 points through 82 regular season games is not good. But that was last season. What about the coming one? Well...

The Minnesota Wild roster, as currently constructed, has been projected to achieve about 85 points next season based on Vegas over/under lines:

So, basically no change. That projection places the Wild squarely in no-man’s land: just good enough to not be in the race for the best lottery pick odds, and not good enough to make the playoffs. NHL history is full of such teams that pick in the No. 10-17 range in the draft and get nice prospects, but not the blue-chip players to really elevate the team’s prospect pool. Those teams are in it just enough at the trade deadline where they either stand pat or buy in the hopes of making a late-season run at the playoffs.

NHL points prediction for the 2019-20 season.

And, yes, it can happen. Everyone will point to the St. Louis Blues of last season and say “Why can’t that be us?” But as NHL media likes to remind people around American Thanksgiving, it’s rare that a team more than a handful of points out of a playoff spot at that time makes it in when the puck drops on the postseason. So what can be done?

At recent Vegas odds of 100-1 for the Stanley Cup this season, maybe it’s time to pick the direction that will lead the Wild franchise to future success. In other words, it’s time to rebuild. Oh yes, the (shouldn’t be) dreaded boogeyman of hockey terms. Because hoping to capture lightning in a bottle like the Blues this past season is not a realistic game plan for the 2019-20 season, and it’s hard to think that the Wild, as constructed right now, will make it into the postseason in the division they play in any other way.

That rebuild has possibly already been set in motion, as the Wild cut ties with former GM Paul Fenton on July 30. Fenton held the position just 14 months and the Wild have little to show for his efforts (or lack thereof) in that timeframe. The team finished dead last in the Central Division and only made one notable off-season acquisition - 31-year-old Mats Zuccarello. One forward does not a team make. Despite the league being awash with talented UFAs and RFAs this summer, the Wild only moved to sign an older (though admittedly good) forward. Their core are aging quickly and the window is closing on seeing Zach Parise and Eric Staal lift the Stanley Cup in Saint Paul.

Fenton was brought in during the 2018 off-season and given the tough task of making a standout competitor in a division already stacked. Was the Vegas projection of finishing in a complacent middle position the final knell for Fenton’s time as GM in Minnesota? While we can’t answer that question, we can offer some thoughts - and some hope.

First, firing Fenton affords the Wild the opportunity to hire a general manager with talent for acquiring current NHL star power while making smart drafting and prospect choices for the future of the franchise. With those tools, some improvements to the current roster, and a dash of luck, the Wild could look to finish above 85 points and hold a clinched playoff spot within the Central Division come April 2020. The Wild have August and part of September to search for a GM that fits their checklist of needs. Now is the time to take a breath and search in earnest, not in a rushed frenzy to fill the position. If the Wild play their cards right they could land a quality GM who can get them over the 85-point hump.

Second, the Wild have Mats Zuccarello waiting in the wings for his debut come October. Again, one forward does not a team make, but he is an incredible forward. All you have to do to see that is to look at his impact on the Dallas Stars during the 2019 playoffs. Zuccarello is the first crucial piece in bolstering a flagging roster. The forward corps will see a benefit of wisdom and hockey intuition (along with some sweet passes) from him. Come the deadline for trading in February, his impact on the team should prove a major draw for younger RFAs and veteran forwards looking for a fresh start. The import of Zuccarello’s name is bigger than his height and should help not only push the team past 85 points during the regular season, but also attract players excited to don the Minnesota jersey.

Finally, take some comfort in the recent success of the Toronto Raptors over in the NBA. From a team that struggled to find their feet in the first round of the playoffs in 2018 to NBA Champions in 2019, Toronto proved that you shouldn’t count the underdog out - ever. Much like making a splash by signing Zuccarello this off-season, the Raptors acquired Kawhi Leonard last summer. After making the addition of major star power, the front office acquired several other smaller but necessary components to make a championship team. They trusted the rebuild process and it paid off royally.

So will the Wild follow their northern cousins and build a championship team out of Zuccarello, Parise, Staal, and company? That remains to be seen. But acquiring a sharp GM and making it over the projected 85-point hump before the end of March 2020 are the first steps on that path. The Minnesota Wild need to hire that GM, plow past 85 points before the end of the season, and the rest will follow.

Trust the process, and hope that Vegas bookmakers have it wrong.