The 2021-22 season was a year of ups and downs for Minnesota Wild fans and the franchise.
Kirill Kaprizov, after another great season where he set franchise records in a single season for goals, assists and points, cemented himself in the upper echelon of NHL superstars.
Kevin Fiala set out to prove he was an offensive powerhouse unto himself. He arguably did so with a 33-goal, 85-point campaign while playing on the Wild's "third" line with Matt Boldy and Frederick Gaudreau, for all intents and purposes.
Jared Spurgeon rebounded from a so-so 2020-21 season and got some awards consideration.
At the beginning of the season, the Wild looked like a well-oiled machine and were chugging along, beating up their opponents and outscoring opponents 81-65 from up until Dec. 1. That output gave them the second-best record in the Western Conference — trailing only the Edmonton Oilers by a single point — with the league's third-best offence at 3.68 goals for per game, according to NHL.com.
Only an uncharacteristic stretch of lousy defense and sub-par goaltending could derail the fantastic pace the Wild set for themselves, and it did. Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kähkönen faltered in the coming months, and after a surprising performance of the tandem in 2021, they fell apart in 2022. From January 1 to the trade deadline on March 21, the pairing went a combined 18-11-2, which does a bit to hide the ugly the .903 save percentage by lead man Cam Talbot and the nearly three goals a night Kähkönen averaged.
Guerin's hand was forced, and outside goaltending help was added in the form of journeyman goalie Marc-André Fleury, fresh off a Vezina-winning campaign with the Vegas Golden Knights a year prior. At the expense of Kähkönen, who was shipped off to the San Jose Sharks to make room for "The Flower," the new goaltender brought some much-needed playoff experience and a heaping tablespoon of good vibes to the locker room.
The Wild recovered from their stretch of poor — maybe even a touch unlucky — defensive play, and they marched into the postseason as the second-best team in the Central Division.
Their regular season success fizzled in the hard-nosed first-round matchup against the St. Louis Blues, though, as they were defeated in six games. The defeat had many people trying to diagnose the reason they failed to beat a team that finished below them in the standings, but the problems that led to the defeat were numerous, and no one problem was more significant than the next. The goaltending was not good enough to steal games, but it was just fine. Specific offensive cogs weren't firing, although Kirill Kaprizov — the team's defacto leader on the ice — was doing everything in his power with seven goals, an assist and extremely feisty performances. It just didn't work out.
In the offseason, we've seen a lot of change. Cam Talbot, a surprising performer for the last two seasons, is gone. Kevin Fiala, a victim of his performance and the team's self-imposed salary cap hell, is with the Los Angeles Kings. The youth will be leaned on heavier than before, and the Wild have the prospect system to do it. The defensive groups are a bit tweaked, as Calen Addison will likely be given the best chance to prove that he is a quality NHL defenseman.
The future is bright, and it is here for the Minnesota Wild.
Storylines to Watch Throughout the Season
We are but mere hours from the start of the Wilds season, so here are a few things to watch for on the ice during the year;
- Kirill, the All-Around Superstar
- Marco Rossi, Matt Boldy and Calen Addison
- Jared Spurgeon's ascendence
- Can the goaltending keep it together
Another year, another season of jaw-dropping entertainment and play from Kaprizov. While it's unlikely that he'll top the 47-goal, 108-point season from a year ago, Kaprizov seems to be woven from the same cloth of player that identifies weakness in their game and drastically improves it in the offseason, much like Connor McDavid or Sidney Crosby. While defensively, Kaprizov isn't necessarily a liability — EvolvingHockey.com has him third in defensive value on the team, behind Selke-level forwards Marcus Foligno and Joel Eriksson Ek — the sky is the seemingly the limit for the little Russian powerhouse.
We can't wait to see him hit the ice, and he'll have a group of young players to lead on the roster.
Last season, Matt Boldy blew us away with his immediate ability to become a difference-maker on the Wild roster. Paired with Kevin Fiala and Frederick Gaudreau, Boldy set an astonishing pace as a 21-year-old rookie with 15 goals and 39 points in just 47 games. Despite not joining the team until January, Boldy managed to tally his first goal in his first game and a hat-trick in his thirteenth-career NHL game. Finishing tenth in scoring amongst rookies, Boldy garnered some much-deserved Calder Trophy attention, even though he played considerably fewer games than his competition.
For Boldy, there is an opportunity for him to seize the gaping hole in the offensive left by the departure of his running mate, Fiala. Some have raised concerns about his ability to keep up the production without the electrifying chemistry he shared with the Swiss-born winger. Still, Boldy has looked fantastic in the preseason and will have no shortage of offensively gifted players to play with. Tyson Jost and Marco Rossi should be able to help out Boldy.
Rossi, fresh off an entire season with the Iowa Wild in the AHL, where he notched 53 points in 63 games, looks to be one of the Minnesota Wild's most intriguing players. After having his development derailed by a well-documented and dangerous bout with COVID, Rossi has seemingly regained his über-prospect status after performing so well with Iowa and leading the NHL preseason in scoring, as inconsequential as that may be to regular season success.
He'll be given every chance to succeed by starting the season with the team. Although head coach Dean Evason has him centering the "fourth" line on the depth chart, tiered designations have never made much sense with the Wild, as ice time seemingly gets spread out fairly evenly between the units. Ol' Deano will be affording Rossi some powerplay time, a rarity for an NHL rookie, even one with Rossi's pedigree.
It isn't a bad idea, as Rossi has the chops, and for the most part, the Wild powerplay has been below average — at times putrid — for the last couple of years, finishing last season with a 20.5 percent conversion rate with the extra man. Nowhere to go but up with this group, and maybe with the addition of an offensively gifted defenseman, the powerplay can get its act together. That's precisely what Calen Addison provides.
At times last year, Addison looked like he was giving no choice to general manager Bill Guerin and Evason to play him. Tagging in for only 15 games during the season, and despite only tallying two goals and two assists in those stints, Addison would look like the Wild's best defenseman on some nights. If it wasn't for the logjam of wily vets and quality backs in front of him, there's no doubt Addison would have seen more time with the club. With the departures of a few notable defensemen from the Wild's roster this offseason, he'll be given the same chance Rossi will, with a quality opportunity to make an impact with consistent ice time and some responsibility on special teams.
Addison won't be the only player to watch in the blueline, as another key player will continue his ascendance into elite territory. Jared Spurgeon is beloved amongst the team and Wild fans alike. While he is the captain of one of the most exciting franchises in the NHL, he is perhaps a bit underrated and underappreciated amongst the casual fan. After rebounding from a mediocre 2020-21 season, Spurgeon finished last season with a single fifth-place vote for the Norris Trophy — awarded to the league's best defenseman — despite finishing the season with 40 points and being a defensive stalwart. Spurgeon was the seventh-most valuable defenceman according to EvolvingHockey.com's WAR model that, which isolates a player's value on both ends of the ice. Entering his 13th NHL season, and the fate of the Wild's defensive performance firmly in his hands, it will be an opportunity for Spurgeon to receive some long overdue attention.
After all, the defense will have its work cut out for it, as they have an interesting situation developing behind them in the net.
The Wild have handed the goaltending fate to 37-year-old — soon to be 38 — beloved goalie Marc-André Fleury and 24-year-old, a former second-round pick, Filip Gustavsson. Fleury was serviceable in the short 11-game stint with the Wild after the trade deadline, posting a 9-2-0 record with a .910 save percentage and a 2.74 goals-against average. Flipping to the defensively structured Wild from whatever was going on with the Chicago Blackhawks was no doubt a shock to the system and would take some getting used to. Nevertheless, questions arose about his performance in the first-round playoff matchup, although the goaltending was never the issue in the six-game loss to the Blues. Fleury has been elite in the twilight of his career, although the cliff in performance for goalies has always been steeper than it is for skaters, so it will be something to monitor during the season.
Fleury SHUTS THE DOOR pic.twitter.com/PPBQenJ2MA— Hockey Wilderness (@hockeywildernes) May 5, 2022
If Fleury cannot handle the bulk of the starts, the team will have to rely on Gustavsson to make a difference. He hasn't shown it in the past — 27 starts since 2020 with a career .905 save percentage — but he had the promise of an NHL-level starter at one point, and at 24 years old, Gustavsson has plenty of room to grow.
Player to watch
He's got all the opportunity in the world, and the sizeable, soft touched forward from Boston College has the talent to be a real difference maker for the Wild. His ability on the powerplay went untapped last season, but with his running mate gone in Kevin Fiala, he'll have the chance to make the most of the ice time. We are beyond excited to see what he can do in his first full season in the NHL.
MATT BOLDY FIRST CAREER HAT-TRICK pic.twitter.com/dbuDXvNHhJ— Hockey Wilderness (@hockeywildernes) February 15, 2022
If he continues his current developmental trajectory, Boldy may be the Wild's next superstar.
Matt Boldy leads the Wild in points
Bold, we know.
Boldy has the ceiling of an elite-two way forward. The Kaprizov line will steal all the demanding defensive attention, and the GREEF line of Jordan Greenway, Joel Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno will steal all the challenging defensive assignments. If Boldy stays off those two units, he has the chance to champion an elite, bum-slaying third line and feast on the depth-related shortcomings of most NHL teams.
Kaprizov will always be a beast, so that stands in the way of this prediction becoming a reality.
Marco Rossi becomes the team's first-line center by the new year
Rossi has slaughtered his competition at every level. While Evason has Rossi starting the year on the defacto fourth line, it won't be long before he usurps Ryan Hartman as the top-line pivot and maybe even makes a run for the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie.
We believe in Marco.
Check out more of our Wild predictions here.
Stats via Evolving-Hockey and Hockey Reference unless otherwise noted.