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The Minnesota Wild Are Legitimate Stanley Cup Contenders

Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Wild’s 19-6-1 record is the best in the Central and is among the best starts in franchise history. Their 39 points is tops in the entire league, too. The dominant start has been quite a surprise in the hockey world. Pre-season expectations had them as a good playoff team, but not a top team in the league. But after an offseason of high-profile names departing and no major upgrades, few had them as being dominant.

But make no mistake, this roster is showing through the first two months of the season that good is an understatement.

Something special is brewing and contending may just be a new reality in Minnesota. Another layer that adds to this incredible start is that the Wild have been without their captain and one of the league’s best blueliners in Jared Spurgeon. Despite that, MoneyPuck pegs the Wild’s Stanley Cup odds at a 9.5% chance to win the Stanley Cup, the highest in the NHL as of Dec. 9.

Were the Wild’s missing pieces identified, fixed, and placed accordingly to complete the puzzle? It sure feels like it because everything is coming together perfectly. Ever since general manager Bill Guerin‘s arrival in Minnesota, he’s pushed all the right buttons and has gone without any alarming mistakes. The roster has flourished in the post-Ryan Suter/Zach Parise Era, thanks in large part to an impressive ability to identify depth pieces that compliment his roster.

Guerin brought in Frederick Gaudreau, who has a strong impact defensively, on a cheap two-year deal. He elevated Brandon Duhaime from the Iowa Wild, who has made his presence known on the fourth line along with teammate Nick Bjugstad, who was re-signed for one year. He picked up Rem Pitlick off waivers and since then, the 24-year-old Minnesota native has 10 points in 16 games despite limited depth minutes.

But Guerin’s masterstroke last offseason was bringing in Dmitry Kulikov and Jon Merrill on the third pair. The pair has utterly dominated the opposition and has been one of the best defensive duos in the league. Not only have they combined for 24 points, but their 63 percent expected goals rate is the fourth-highest in the league.

It doesn’t end there, because the Wild are simply unrivaled in their depth. Ryan Hartman and Marcus Foligno have been two of the biggest players behind the Wild’s success. Both are on pace to crush their career highs in goals and have emerged as legitimate middle-six pieces. Hartman and Foligno have combined for 24 goals and hold a 58 and 55 percent expected goals rate, respectively.

Minnesota’s depth has been sensational this season, but its stars have been impactful, too. The reigning Calder Trophy winner, Kirill Kaprizov, is showing he’s worth every penny of his lucrative five-year extension. He has 32 points in 26 games to begin the season, tied for fifth in the NHL. He continues to be the dynamic offensive player the Wild desperately needed him to be.

Kevin Fiala is struggling to get on the scoresheet, but it’s not because of a lack of effort or chances. There’s no question that his four goals and 17 points in 25 games are underwhelming for a supposed game-breaker. But his 58 percent expected goals rate is one of the best on the team, and he racks up a ton of shots. His shooting percentage is at a career-low, so that will boost the Wild’s game even further when he returns to form. Hopefully, the floodgates open after Thursday night’s goal against the San Jose Sharks.

Like Kaprizov, Joel Eriksson Ek signed a long-term extension in the offseason, and it’s already paying dividends. The 24-year-old center has 11 goals and 19 points in 26 games. He is on pace to crush his career-high of 19 goals set last season. 

The Mats Zuccarello contract continues to look better than expected. His first two seasons were good, but the 34-year-old playmaker is playing his best hockey since his arrival in Minnesota. He has 21 points in 20 games and has a 56 percent expected goals rate at 5-on-5.

The Wild rank first in the league in goals per game and 10th in expected goals per game at 5-on-5 and it’s due to everyone — both the stars and depth — buying in. There’s no question that the Wild have excelled offensively, but their strong defensive results are a huge reason the team is where it’s at, especially considering their earlier goaltending issues.

Minnesota allows only 2.14 expected goals against per hour, the third-best rate in the league. Spurgeon, who returned to injury on Thursday night after missing the previous eight games, has been fantastic this season. The second pair of Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba has held its own so far this season, too.

After some early-season concerns, Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen have been solid as of late. In the past eight games, the tandem has a .946 save percentage and has saved 9.07 goals above expected. If the Wild want to continue its winning ways, strong goaltending will have to continue.

Give Dean Evason credit, too, because his adjustments and personnel decisions have clearly made an impact. As a result, there’s no doubt that he will be in the Jack Adams conversation.

There is no doubt the Wild are showing that they can contend, and the numbers back it up. If the Wild continue buying in as they have in these first two months, they’ll be the first team in Wild history that can truly match up well to the titans of the NHL. And as high of a bar as that is, Minnesota’s dominance may mean the expectations should maybe climb even higher.

All Data via Evolving-Hockey, Natural Stat Trick and Hockey-Reference 

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Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

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