It’s “What If?” Week at SB Nation, and we’ve decided to take a look back at a handful of key moments in Minnesota Wild history that, for better or worse, changed the course of the franchise. There are a lot of moments to choose from — the NHL Draft, the 2017 Expansion Draft, and even some trade deadline acquisitions.
So far, here are some decisions that we would change from Wild history.
Ryan: What if the Wild drafted Brock Boeser?
With the No. 20 overall selection of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, the Wild selected forward Joel Eriksson Ek from Sweden. Five years after being drafted, Eriksson Ek has turned out to be a pretty useful player for the Wild. In 2019-20, he set a new career-high in points with 29 in 62 games — not exactly an eye-popping number, but good progress for the 23-year-old. As one of the best defensive forwards on Minnesota’s roster, Eriksson Ek has carved out a role as a top penalty killer while playing key minutes late in games.
But what if the Wild drafted someone else? Someone by the name of Brock Boeser perhaps?
Minnesota’s decision not to pick Boeser was a bit surprising. On paper, Boeser seemed like a perfect fit in the State of Hockey. For one, he’s a Minnesota native, born just outside of the Twin Cities in Burnsville, but he was also regarded as one of the top goal-scorers in the draft, which he eventually ended up proving as rookie for the Vancouver Canucks when he scored 29 goals (equal to Eriksson Ek’s career-high in points) in 62 games.
Though the decision to select Eriksson Ek over Boeser (or Travis Konecny, who was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers one pick after Boeser) didn’t necessarily turn out to be a failure, one can reasonably consider it a “safe” pick that ended up costing Minnesota an All-Star caliber player. While Eriksson Ek is a middle-six forward who kills penalties — which, make no mistake, is an important role — the Wild could have had one of the better goal-scorers to enter the NHL in recent years.
Eric: What if the Wild didn’t blow the 2017 Expansion Draft?
Maybe this is just significantly tainted by the benefit of hindsight, but the 2017 Expansion Draft turned out to be a disaster for the Wild. A quick recap of what happened: Minnesota left forwards Eric Staal and Erik Haula and defensemen Marco Scandella and Matt Dumba unprotected. Former GM Chuck Fletcher worked out a deal with Vegas where the Wild would send Alex Tuch to Vegas. In return, the Knights agreed to take Haula instead of any of the other unprotected players and send the Wild a third-round pick as well. In their first season in Vegas, Tuch — playing in his first full NHL season — put up 37 points and Haula a career-high 55. Haula had spent most of his Wild career bouncing between the third and fourth lines, and it appeared he was benefiting from finally being on a scoring line every night.
So what could the Wild have done differently? It’s worth pointing out from the beginning that, no matter what, the Wild were going to have to send something of value to Vegas. But could the Wild have done something different and given up less?
For starters, Fletcher could have considered buying out Jason Pominville prior to the expansion draft rather than trading him afterwards. Pominville had two years left on a contract with a $5.6 million cap hit, and a buyout would have resulted in cap hits of $4.35, $1.85, $1.25, and $1.25 over the next four years. Considering that in Minnesota’s trade with Buffalo Sabres trade, the Wild essentially swapped Pominville’s contract for Tyler Ennis’ contract (two years left with a $4.6 million cap hit), the savings for the upcoming season would have been similar. Buying out Pominville would have meant the Wild could have protected Eric Staal, leaving Erik Haula as the only major unprotected forward.
Then there’s the issue of what to do with the defensemen. The Wild actually protected Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, and Jonas Brodin. Both because of how he has developed as a player (with the benefit of hindsight) and for salary cap purposes, it would have been better to protect Matt Dumba instead of Brodin. So if the Wild protected Suter, Spurgeon, and Dumba, they would leave unprotected Brodin and Scandella.
At this point, the Wild could have considered just cutting their losses. It is likely the Knights would have selected either Brodin or Scandella rather than Haula, and the Wild could have just accepted that. This is really where the benefit of hindsight comes in (so to an extent, it can be hard to blame the Wild front office too much). While the idea of giving up a player as talented as either Jonas Brodin or Marco Scandella for nothing sounds rather unappealing, the Wild ended up giving away two very productive players for next to nothing. And as the Wild try to plan for what the team will look like going forward, having a young, productive, long-term player like Alex Tuch would be incredibly helpful.
Kyle: What if the Wild didn’t fail the 2004 NHL Entry Draft?
Over the first three years of Doug Risebrough’s stint as General Manager of the Wild, the man later given a Voldemort-like title of “GM-who-shall-not-be-named” was actually a pretty good evaluator of talent and had some very successful draft picks. Between 2000 and 2003, Riseborough hit on Marian Gaborik, Nick Schultz, Mikko Koivu, Stephané Veilleux, Derek Boogaard, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Josh Harding and Brent Burns — all good-to-great selections who would play big roles on the team for the first 10-plus years of the Wild’s history.
However, 2004 was a year to forget, which began a string of drafts that hamstrung the Wild for the rest of its existence. And in a year where Risebrough selected a team-record 12 players, missing on just about all of them arguably set into motion every bad or ill-conceived decision for the years to come, including the trades for high picks and the questionable free agent signings in the seasons that followed.
Of the 12 players selected by Riseborough in the 2004 draft, only two ever even suited up for the Wild — Clayton Stoner and Anton Khudobin. Stoner did actually play five seasons for the Wild, but was more famous for killing a beloved Canadian bear than anything he did on the ice. Khudobin had four wins in six games for Minnesota after his seventh-round selection, but was traded in 2011 for two guys that would never play again in the NHL. But what hurt the most was completely missing on A.J. Thelen. Thelen, after being drafted from the Wild, was kicked off his Michigan State team for attitude issues, conditioning issues and underage drinking and then bounced around the WHL and ECHL for the rest of his injury-shortened career. Riseborough also missed out on second-rounder Roman Voloshenko, who had a promising first season with the Houston Aeros before dropping off the radar in his second year and heading back to Russia.
Maybe if Riseborough had kept his drafting momentum, things would have turned out better — especially when the Wild could have had Drew Stafford or Travis Zajac in the first round, or Blake Comeau, Alex Goligoski or David Krejci in the second.
Zeke: What if the Wild hadn’t traded for Martin Hanzal?
The first 58 games of the 2016-17 season had gone extremely well for the Wild. With a record of 39-13-6, as well as a franchise record 12-game win streak in December, it really seemed like the Wild had a legitimate shot at winning their first Stanley Cup.
In their next game, at home against the Chicago Blackhawks on February 21, Minnesota lost 5-3. While it was a very close game throughout, the Wild were absolutely dominated on the scoresheet and in the face-off circle by Jonathan Toews, who recorded five points in the game. It seemed to expose a potential weakness at the center position for Minnesota, and with the three recent playoff defeats at the hands of the Blackhawks, this seemed to scare Minnesota’s management into making a move.
It didn’t take long for Minnesota to make a trade, and just five days after the loss to Chicago, the Wild acquired Martin Hanzal, Ryan White, and a 2017 fourth-round pick to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for a 2017 first-round pick, 2018 second-round pick, and a conditional 2019 fourth-round pick. At first, the move was mostly applauded by fans, as it seemed to show that the Wild were all in on winning the Stanley Cup.
Unfortunately, things didn’t work out as planned. While Hanzal wasn’t horrible with 13 points in 20 regular-season games with the Wild, it was clear that he wasn’t a very great skater, and didn’t really fit in with the Wild’s fast-paced and high-skill style of play. Not to mention that his acquisition bumped Erik Haula, who was playing very well as their third-line center at the time, down to the fourth line, which did seem to have an effect on the chemistry of the bottom two lines.
Following the trade, the Wild went into a bit of a slump to close out the season, going 10-11-2 in the last 23 games, ultimately blowing the Central Division championship to Chicago. The playoffs didn’t go much better for Minnesota, as they fell into a 3-0 hole and ultimately lose their first-round series against the St. Louis Blues in five games. While a lot of that was due to Jake Allen playing absolutely out of his mind, the fact of the matter is that it was obvious it wasn’t the same team that had won 12 games in a row in December, and it ultimately led to them blowing their best shot at a Stanley Cup in the franchise’s history.
While we will never know how the rest of the 2016-2017 season would have gone for Minnesota had they not made the trade for Martin Hanzal, we can make a safe guess that the outcome would’ve been better than another first-round exit.
As the old saying goes, don’t fix something that isn’t broken.
Kurt: What if the Wild tanked for Connor McDavid (and it actually worked)?
While the Wild were well out of the Connor McDavid sweepstakes in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, as he was selected first overall and Minnesota was not a lottery team that season, fans can still dream about the possibilities that could have come with McDavid in a Wild sweater.
McDavid came into the league expected to be the next great generational talent, and it’s safe to say he has answered the call so far. He’s finished in the top two in the NHL in total points in three of his first four seasons, and is tracking to do the exact same thing in his fifth season.
As we look at the current formation of the Minnesota roster, one can argue that there isn’t a single player who can be pointed to on a nightly basis as a true superstar. Kevin Fiala seems to be tracking towards an elite level of play, which will most likely make him a focal point of the franchise if he agrees to a long-term deal. But currently, he only sits at 54 points, which leads the Wild. On the other hand, McDavid currently has 97 (!) points on 34 goals and 63 assists.
The even crazier thing is that McDavid isn't even the point leader for his own team, but still sits at second overall in the league in the point rankings.
If the Wild had a player like McDavid, it would only lead to more players flourishing thanks to the attention he would receive. In turn, this would create more scoring opportunities for players like Zach Parise or Fiala and the rest of the Minnesota roster.
Another thing to consider is playoff implications. In the first three seasons after McDavid entered the league, the Wild were bounced in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs despite a few solid regular-season campaigns. But in the end, it’s playoff victories that matter. Could McDavid have been the missing piece that would have gotten the Wild out of hockey purgatory?
Logan: What if the Wild hadn’t traded Niederreiter?
Based on goal and point totals alone, it’s safe to say that the Carolina Hurricanes got the better end of the deal when they swapped Victor Rask for Nino Niederreiter at the 2018-19 trade deadline. Rask floundered once in a Wild sweater, only getting his skates wet in 23 games and barely registering on the scoresheet in the process. By the end of the season, he had only two goals and one assist to his name, and his penalty minutes were higher than his points total (four compared to three).
Meanwhile, Niederreiter turned around what could have been a mediocre season. Through 36 games with Carolina, Niederreiter recorded 30 points (14 goals, 16 assists), which was good for seven more points than his first half of the season with Minnesota. His time in the penalty box also increased twofold (20 minutes compared to 10), as he was involved in more physical plays on the ice while helping Carolina chase their playoff dream. Niederreiter also picked up a few more points in the postseason as Carolina marched through 15 hard-fought games that experts hadn’t picked them to win. With his new team, Niederreiter saw the most playoff action since the 2013-14 season with the Wild.
Assuming that it wasn’t spite from being trade, if Niederreiter had kept those same numbers for the rest of the season with Minnesota, it’s just possible that his quick work around the net may have been the missing ingredient to edge Minnesota into the playoffs once more. One man does not make a team, but Nino Niederreiter definitely makes his team better, whether it’s Minnesota or Carolina. The same can’t be said for Victor Rask.