The Minnesota Wild season is finally upon us.
More so than any of the past few seasons, I sense an uptick in anxiety along with the excitement this year. For the first time in Bill Guerin’s tenure as general manager, the Wild are entering the season with expectations.
Entering last season, the Wild were fun. We were going to get to see a full season of NHL-hardened Kirill Kaprizov, and the biggest question in many fans’ minds was “how do you get Kevin Fiala a line-mate?” This year the question of the year is much scarier: “How do you replace Fiala?”
The good news is that the best NHL teams face scary questions after a good season. That’s why the season starts in October.
Tonight, the scary story coming to town is the New York Rangers, and the boogeyman is goaltender Igor Shesterkin. The Rangers tore through the league last year with a 110-point regular season and a run to the Eastern Conference Final.
The strength of the Rangers is an elite core of offensive players highlighted by Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin. While defensive depth is the largest personnel issue on this roster, Shesterkin largely reverses that problem by saving everything that the defense gives up. They also possess one of the best defensemen in the league in Adam Fox, whose superpower is his passing and vision in the offensive transition.
The Ranger’s winning strategy last season was built from Shesterkin out: to shelter the leaky defensemen, the forwards supported lower in the zone than normal. Shesterkin made the easy and shined on the odd high-danger chances that he did face. From there, the team’s offensive stars counter-attacked with lethal efficiency off the rush. As their opponents’ frustration mounted, the Rangers would draw penalties and put Fox to work quarterbacking their elite powerplay. If head coach Dean Evason is itching to test his off-season improvements to the team’s penalty-killing units, tonight will be a baptism by fire.
This strategy is extremely effective as long as Shesterkin is in net. In the Eastern Conference finals, the Tampa Bay Lightning were able to defeat it because they sport one of the best neutral zone forechecking systems in the league, so the Wild will need their defensemen to stay disciplined at the line.
The Rangers were league average when short-handed last season, so it’s likely best for the Wild to stay out of the box tonight and avoid a special-teams battle. If the team does end up in that situation, watch for rookies Calen Addison and Marco Rossi to give the team a shot in the arm. This offseason, head coach Dean Evason highlighted that personnel changes are expected to improve the power play rather than scheme adjustments.
Projected Wild lineup
Kirill Kaprizov — Ryan Hartman — Mats Zuccarello
Tyson Jost — Joel Eriksson Ek — Marcus Foligno
Matt Boldy — Sam Steel — Frederick Gaudreau
Connor Dewar — Marco Rossi — Brandon Duhaime
Alex Goligoski — Jared Spurgeon
Jonas Brodin — Matt Dumba
Jake Middleton — Calen Addison
Marc-Andre Fleury will get the start, I’m sure. Puck drop is at 7:00 p.m.
Who steps up to fill in for Kevin Fiala?
There are three possible answers to this — number one is “nobody.” That one would really suck, so let’s ignore it.
The obvious answer to the question is Marco Rossi. All this kid has ever done is produce — he scored a point per game in the AHL and slaughtered everybody when he played in the OHL. Given that he was ramping back up from illness last season, he could be even more effective this year than in 2021-22. While he won’t match Fiala’s 33 goals and 85 points, Rossi’s defensive game could make up some of that difference.
On the other hand, the obvious answer is rarely the right one when it comes to sports. Rossi is only a rookie starting on the fourth line, so he likely won’t fully replace Fiala even as a defensive upgrade. The good news is that even if Rossi can’t replace Fiala, we can re-create him in the aggregate.
If the Wild can bolster Rossi’s production with improvements from Matt Boldy, Connor Dewar, and Brandon Duhaime, the team can chug along at the same clip as last year.
How do the new guys look?
Steel, Dewar, Duhaime, and Jost are the forwards who are going to try and add make up for the lost production of Fiala. They are also the four players most likely to lose a spot to Jordan Greenway when he returns from injury. It’s as close to a sure thing as you see in the NHL that he’ll return to the GREEF line with Joel Erkisson Ek and Marcus Foligno, bumping Jost down the lineup and creating a logjam in the bottom-six. If one of these two lines finds chemistry or some of these wingers look irreplaceable, a picture will start to take place.
Along with those guys, the obvious excitement for rookies Marco Rossi and Calen Addison is coming to fruition tonight. Both have been tabbed as every-night players barring a disappointment, and fans who know Minnesota’s prospect system have been clamoring to see these two players in the NHL for over a year.