The time has come, folks. It might sound trite to say, but the organization is really at a crossroads. After failing to make the playoffs and losing their general manager this off-season, the Minnesota Wild will soon have to take stock and decide just where they are and where they want to be as a team. For a while, they were a team that, while not a powerhouse in their division, was at least all but guaranteed to be in the mix for a playoff spot. But now, not so much. They took a step back last season, but how far away are they from getting back to that guaranteed playoff spot? And have they reached the point where they consider it time to bottom out and embark on a full rebuild?
Let’s start by looking at the state of the present NHL roster. This isn’t an exact representation of what the lines will end up being, because the folks over at the Daily Faceoff don’t make the lines, but it’s a good enough approximation, for the sake of looking at roster strength. So here’s what we’re working with:
What these graphics tell us is that while there is certainly some talent on this team — particularly on the first forward line and the top two defense pairs — there isn’t a whole lot in the way of depth. They’re a little top-heavy, in terms of the talent distribution. Additionally, as we see from the rankings on the far right column, relative to other comparable lines and pairings across the league, the Wild are decidedly below average. For example, while they do have a strong first line, it’s still only the 25th best first line in the league (according to the player rankings from Corsica, which are used to compile the ratings for these graphics).
The Wild do, however, figure to have an above-average fourth line, relative to other fourth lines around the league.
*single streamer falls from the ceiling*
Jokes aside, this means that, as much as front offices love to pretend that their team is just a few key pieces away from legitimate contention, this certainly isn’t the case with the Wild. And while playing a tight defensive system can certainly mask some overall weaknesses in the roster (shucks, the New York Islanders rode this method all the way to the second round of the playoffs this spring), the Wild are looking more at having to come closer to completely overhauling their depth ranks in order to be, as we said, legitimate contenders.
But what if bolstering the roster through acquiring good and useful NHL talent isn’t the play, or at least not the central idea? What if this roster just is what it is, and all we’re doing is biding time until the kids are ready to slide in and save the team? Is that the solution that’s right around the corner?
The short answer, it seems, would be no. About this time last year, the Wild’s farm system was ranked 19th in the league by The Athletic and 20th by The Sporting News. And while the Wild did make some good pickups at this year’s draft — Matthew Boldy is an exciting addition to the pipeline, and Hunter Jones appears to have some early promise jumping out — there also weren’t many picks that were very “wow” worthy. The Minnesota front office did fine at the draft, but didn’t knock it out of the park. And with the graduation of former prospects like Jordan Greenway and Luke Kunin to the NHL, fans don’t feel terribly comfortable saying that these new additions really move the needle on that 2019-20 ranking of the farm team. Maybe it pushes them up a bit if other teams ahead of them have also really fallen off, but more than anything else, the Wild seem to be holding steady with that ranking.
This isn’t something we can just blame on former GM Paul Fenton either, as nice and simple as that would be. Chuck Fletcher’s drafting history while he was in charge of the team left some things to be desired, and all of that amounts to the Wild being left with a relatively thin prospect pool. They simply don’t have the volume of ready or close-to-ready prospects to flood the NHL and push them towards the category of “young team on the verge of breaking out.” Nor do they have the couple of pieces of really top-end talent that can step in and be immediately impactful, while also helping the rest of the roster be shuffled down to settle into roles more befitting of their true talent level. A re-emphasis on drafting well and building up the prospect pipeline can help the roster get to this point eventually, but it doesn’t happen overnight.
So it seems that the answer to the question “should the Wild just rebuild?” is a pretty resounding “yes.” But the more difficult question then becomes: “Will they?” Even if the Wild’s next general manager is someone like Ron Hextall — someone with patience and a keen eye for scouting and developing young talent — the question remains if he would even have the same amount of time and freedom as he did in Philadelphia to actually see out that full rebuild. Because while the ownership in Minnesota seems to be heavily invested in the team at least making an effort to be in the mix, in order to be competitive every season they need to admit some hard truths. And it is hard to envision the front office being comfortable with admitting, “We’re bottoming out here a bit and it’s going to be rough, but we’re rebuilding and it’s going to be good eventually,” as they were able to do in Toronto for example. And then what are fans left with? A team stuck trying to rebuild on the fly that’s neither good enough to advance past the first round (even if they do make they playoffs), and not bad enough to benefit from the chance to draft much higher-end talent in the first picks of the first round. And the product remains mediocre for much longer until something eventually breaks.
It would serve Minnesota well if they could take on the task of even close to a full rebuild. However, the question remains whether the powers that be would give the front office the space to do this, or if fans will just keep pretending that the team is just a few pieces away until the sun burns out. Only time will tell.