The Minnesota Wild begin the 2019-20 regular season Thursday night in Nashville to face off against the Predators.
After former general manager Paul Fenton made a few “tweaks” to the Wild roster by making a series of trades of three popular players, this might be the most anticipated Wild season in recent memory. With the team in a state of flux, having missed the postseason for the first time in six seasons, the Minnesota Wild have a bunch of questions to answer this year.
Here are five big questions facing the Wild for the 2019-20 season:
Can Matt Dumba return to form?
It took a lot of effort to finally get fans to see the light on Dumba. A young defenseman who has a blistering shot, but is prone to taking risks, can create a maddening roller coaster of emotions from the fanbase. Dumba has instead turned heads with his goal-scoring prowess.
Last season, he broke out with 12 goals in 32 games played. At the time he was injured, he led all NHL defensemen in goals. A torn pectoral muscle derailed not just his season, but has been identified as one of the pivotal points to the Wild’s downward spiral out of the playoff picture.
Good news. Dumba is healthy and looks like his shot is back, just as strong as ever. Head coach Bruce Boudreau, Wild GM Bill Guerin and his teammates all hope that Dumba can pick up right where he left off. His 0.62 goals per 60 were tied for best in the league among defensemen with Carolina’s Dougie Hamilton, albeit in considerably fewer minutes because of the bum pecs.
Dumba simply does things offensively for this team that few others can match, with fewer able to match that output for as long.
The question is whether or not he can return to form. Missing nearly nine months of real hockey can put a player behind the 8-ball as they take time to get back up to speed and rekindle the chemistry with his teammates. A side effect of missing so much time will also be the added pressure to perform.
We saw it with Nino Niederreiter. After a season mostly lost to a fractured fibula/high ankle sprain, Niederreiter returned the following season hoping to be a go-to player for the team. Instead, he ground his stick into sawdust with his desire to show that he can be a 30-goal scorer. He struggled, found himself dropped down the lineup, and then traded for Victor Rask at midseason. Dumba will have to guard against placing too much pressure on himself. He’s prone to his mistakes when he ultimately tries to do too much.
Speaking of rask, what are the wild going to do with him?
That was partially answered when the Wild placed J.T. Brown on waivers on Sunday. Rask is going to be with the NHL club and likely start as the Wild’s 13th forward. That means he’ll be a healthy scratch and taking in the game from the press box.
That’s $4 million that is not going to play games on a regular basis for the Wild.
Our own Giles Ferrell labeled Rask as a buy-out candidate in his year-end review. The trade was bad, remains bad and for Rask, he’s going to have people breaking down every single mistake he makes. Rask is likely a good guy, but a good hockey player he is not.
What will the Wild do with him? They’ll look to unload him much as Don Waddell did to Fenton. It won’t happen because the jig is up on Rask. They’d have to trade a good player and assets to offload him to another team. That kind of deal is dangerous for a new GM. Eating the final two seasons of his contract is not ideal either, yet it might be the only option to avoid that vaunted buyout money on the books. It looks like Rask might be a highly-paid 13th forward for the time being.
Maybe he could just retire.
Will the Wild maintain all this synergy?
Guerin hasn’t had a lot of time to make his mark on the roster. Yet, after a month in the position, he has seemingly found a way to drive away all the dark clouds hanging over the franchise. By reports, the team was spotted singing “Kumbaya” around the campfire on their team bonding retreat during the preseason in Vail, Colo.
OK, maybe not campfire songs, but the team appears to be putting their best face on and Guerin is getting the buy-in from the roster.
That’s a striking difference from the reports coming out of the locker room near the end of last year that the room had fractured. While players have been quoted as saying that those reports were mostly over-blown, this was the second time during the Zach Parise/Ryan Suter era where a fractured locker room has been reported. The first time came around the firing of Mike Yeo. Reports then were about a divide between the veterans and the younger core.
So while the Wild certainly seem to have moved on, and the troubles are water under the bridge, the question is: for how long? When the losing starts to mount, and another swoon hits the team, how long will this team remain tight? Have they truly buried the hatchet, or will angst and consternation bubble to the surface when things don’t go their way?
What’s reasonable to expect from Kevin Fiala?
Fiala was named a “game-breaker” by Fenton. Fenton believed in Fiala so much that he dangled one of his better trade assets in Mikael Granlund to only one team — the Nashville Predators — to obtain him in a 1-for-1 deal. Granlund had back-to-back seasons of 69 and 67 points before last year. Fiala hasn’t broken 50 points once in his five seasons in the NHL. He came close with 48 points back in 2017-18. It was a big gamble to trade for a player that hasn’t quite established himself in the league 1-for-1 for Granlund who has shown the ability to be a solid playmaker.
The good news is that there is some there there. He has scoring talent, and can score points in the NHL. Prior to arriving in Minnesota, his points per 60 in each of the last four seasons would rank in the top 40 among all Wild players during that same time.
He can score.
He can skate.
He also carries the puck.
Can he carry a team? His stats looked really good when he was on a team that was stacked with good centers, a solid defense, and forwards that play with his creativity. The trade may have been a shock to his system, but those same rate stats plummeted since joining the Wild. With the Preds, his GF/60 was 2.43. That’s a number that would rival the best seasons of any Wild player the last five years. It dropped to 0.93 GF/60.
The Wild have their struggles scoring. Last year, after the trade deadline, Minnesota was a brutal team that got shut out a bunch. Fiala didn’t necessarily help the downtrodden club. However, can we expect a 50-point season? Can we see him push for 60 points?
We just don’t quite know what the Wild have in Fiala. He’s got some solid rate numbers. The underlying puck possession numbers, especially on the defensive side of the puck, leaves a lot left to be desired. For Minnesota’s sake, it’ll need him to be the game-breaker that Fenton believed Fiala can be.
Can Devan Dubnyk carry the team?
Dubnyk did not have a good year last year. He rose to the occasion against the Winnipeg Jets to give his team a chance through four games in the postseason. He also started the same way last year, by keeping the Wild afloat until the team could start scoring again. The Wild goaltender was going strong until the Wild took on the Washington Capitals on Nov. 13. Up to that point, Minnesota was 11-4-2. That also happened to be the night when the NHL’s version of Vontaze Burfict, Tom Wilson, took Dubnyk out with a heavy collision in the netminder’s crease. The primary point of contact looked to include Dubnyk’s head.
Dubnyk didn’t get back up from the 10 count. He wasn’t the same the rest of the season. Before the hit, just 17 games, the team’s goals-against average was sitting at 2.59. After the hit, let’s just count the Capitals game plus the next 16 for equal sample, the GAA rose to 3.12. That’s a recipe for a 6-11 stretch.
As Dubnyk goes, so go the Wild. He’s been a top goaltender in the league since joining the Wild.
He’s also had some stretches where his dreadful play had a role in the Wild losing a sizable chunk of games. Some analysts think that it has to do with fatigue and that the Wild are playing him too many games. The problem is that the backup goalie, Alex Stalock, hasn’t earned the ability to take more games from Dubnyk.
The Wild brass are hoping to change that this season, but will the commit to it? Can Dubnyk keep the Wild afloat for the whole season?
Minnesota is entering a season that should decide the direction the team will head in the near future. We can only let the season play out to figure out these answers and whether they can really compete for a playoff spot, or head for more change and tumult in a rebuild.