This time last season — kind of — just days away from training camp, just weeks away from the first preseason game, and about a month away from the season beginning and real hockey games that matter being played, it was all about one thing. A hyper-focus on Kirill Kaprizov and what he could truly bring to the NHL and the Minnesota Wild.
No one really thought about whether or not this team would perform overall, it was all about one young dude finally making his way to North American hockey five years after he was drafted. Did anyone truly think about the make-up of the blue line? Goaltending? What Ryan Hartman could bring to this team? I mean, sure. For those that are trying to fight their way through every bit of analysis and tear apart this team by tooth and nail to discover what they are truly, then I am positive that they thought about Nico Sturm. But for those that want to just see the overarching arc of a Wild storyline, it was all Kirill.
What he did during training camp, who he was hanging out with, how damn sick he looked in the practice jerseys — it was all about him and no one can blame anyone for solely focusing on what he can do on the ice. He’s so damn special, but this is now his second year (after he signs his new contract) and the honeymoon period of a team and its new star is softening; a muted, underlying excitement that isn’t outwardly expressed so adamantly like it was before the 2020-21 season.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love this goddamned team and its quirky-ass approach to the game of hockey. But now it’s a little more regular to see an All-World talent on this team and we are spending our time looking forward to other prospect debuts and the supporting cast doing what they can do.
I won’t specifically mention Matt Boldy and Marco Rossi, because we all know just how exciting they are as forwards that can make the team out of training camp and have us sitting on the very edge of the very edge of our seat during a meaningless preseason game. But the overall expectation — the meaningfulness of this Wild team — has changed and I am not in the right position to determine what is right and what is wrong. The beauty of following a team is enjoying the ride and if you are disappointed, then it might make the later cycle of victories sweeter. But then again, this is Minnesota.
Last season, we were all completely beside ourselves when the Wild became the main focus for a couple weeks of the season. It was certainly Kaprizov that drew the neutral eyes, but this team was surging and at one point was competing with the juggernaut Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights for the top spot in the division, leaving the rest of the teams completely alone and naked and afraid.
It was a wonderful time and shortly after, they crumbled under the weight of slightly more expectations and was brought back to earth a little bit. But still, they boast incredible talent throughout the lineup so it’s just difficult to really set what we want and expect from them during this massively transitional season.
It’s not like they’re contenders out of nowhere or going to be tanking their way to a top pick. The Wild are in the middle ground where they have really good players in their late-20s and a burgeoning young core of prospects that are going to be slowly shouldering their way to the front of the lineup so that we can enjoy the show. They are not here yet, but certainly some will be making the debuts this season and it signals nothing more than that this is still a team wanting to establish their young players for long-term success.
Should we have expectations? Sure, and of course I can’t determine what everyone thinks or should think. If you want the Wild to be in the Stanley Cup Final, all the power to you (and I wish I had your optimism). But we can only expect the current core to continue what they have been doing for a while. Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, and Matt Dumba will be doing their excellent job patrolling the blue line and the young talents of Kevin Fiala, Joel Eriksson Ek, and Kaprizov, will be leading this middle-timeline core to keep the older guys in check. Little pockets of age groups that will carry this team and keep us at least invested into watching what they can do.
This season is going to be a weird one that is full of those debuts and minor expectations for guys that will be here for multiple years. There is pressure of course, to simply be competitive, but nothing overbearing that is defining the entire season. If they don’t even make the postseason, we can still sit back and accept that this team has a decent future ahead of them with the players that they have in a certain age group and are always going to be continuing to at least try. And that’s kind of what makes the Wild a special team in this regard. It’s the beautiful tranquil landscape of the middle ground.
Regardless of the calm feeling when it comes to the overall story, we should still expect the minor improvements. The development of the young players, the stability of the already-here core, and the not-completely-shitting-the-bed of the older guys. There is simply no way that we cannot have those hopeful assumptions that those players will cobble together a solidifying season that puts them in the “Future Contenders” category to store away and keep precious.
I think next year is where it really starts, but this one is still up in the air with the minor, thoughtful expressions of concern for little details. But maybe I’m just a weird sicko that overthinks things.