The Five Biggest Questions for the Minnesota Wild Regular Season

AP Photo/Abbie Parr

For the past two seasons, the Minnesota Wild have failed to make it out of the first round of the playoffs despite a talented lineup of players. As the 2023-24 season gets ever closer, here are the five biggest questions the Wild will need to answer.

When will Marco Rossi get top-line minutes?

The topic of Marco Rossi and how the club needs to approach his season this year is up for healthy debate among fans. There was an uproar when the club sent Rossi back to the Iowa Wild for the season last year, but it seems to have helped motivate him. After committing to stay in Minnesota all summer and work with the Wild’s skating and strength coaches, Rossi started training camp this year 15 pounds heavier than last year and with a better skating stride.

So, now that Rossi’s put in the work, when will he be rewarded? As it stands, they’ve left a spot for him to battle for during training camp. He’s been skating between Marcus Foligno and Freddy Gaudreau. This line could have some benefits. Rossi has the scoring touch, Foligno can patrol physically, while Gaudreau excels at the more defensive side. This could be an interesting line to watch.

But fans are quick to point out that Rossi was touted as a #1 center and should be given time on the top line. This is true. It is also true that the top line has had good chemistry in the past, and is it worth it to break them up and experiment? 

There is no right answer to this question. It’ll have to be a wait-and-see situation. After the very slow start to the season last year (including losing the first three games, all at the Xcel Energy Center), are fans willing to sit through a few losses while the lines are shuffled and experimented?

Which returning player will the Wild re-sign first?

After this season, three of the biggest free agents will be Marcus Foligno, Mats Zuccarello, and Ryan Hartman. All three are arguably large parts of the team, but the Wild still have one more season, with the worst of the salary cap looming overhead. 

Foligno wears the A and is a veteran player who’s also a loud voice in the locker room. He helped change the culture of the Wild into the more family-like atmosphere it is now. But he also had a noticeable offensive dropoff last year. Can he pick it back up and show why he wants to come back?

Mats Zuccarello not only has great chemistry on the ice with Kirill Kaprizov, but they’re also best friends. Do the Wild need to keep him around to keep Kaprizov happy? While Zuccarello struggled toward the end of the last season and into the postseason, he was playing injured. And looking at career stats, the past two seasons with Kaprizov next to him have been the two best seasons of his entire NHL career. But Zuccarello is 36. He’s playing great now, but will he drop off at some point? Any contract he’s offered would probably be short-term, but now that he has a family, is he looking for term? 

Ryan Hartman signed an incredibly team-friendly contract for $1.7 million a year in 2021. Since then, he’s been the team’s consistent number-one center. As far as top-line centers are concerned, most would probably never even consider a salary that low. Hartman’s gamble has paid off, as he’s been extremely noticeable alongside Kaprizov. But will he want to look elsewhere for a larger contract this time? Hartman was married this summer, and his wife is a Minnesota native, so there are plenty of reasons to stick around. But a hockey player only has a limited amount of years to bank money before retiring. Does Hartman look elsewhere for a bigger payday?

All three of these players can make an incredible impact on the team, and if they are all motivated by being in the last year of their contract, they could make a tough case for who to re-sign.

Will Minnesota see Jesper Wallstedt this season?

Fans are understandably excited for Jesper Wallstedt to come play in Minnesota. Anytime a club takes a goalie in the first round, there’s a good reason for it. Wallstedt was picked by Minnesota in the 2021 draft as 20th overall. He’s been a top goalie prospect for the past few years, and watching him play shows why. He’s cool and calculated in the net, positioning his big body in just the right places and swallowing pucks, making it almost impossible for the opponent to score on a rebound. During the first preseason game against the Dallas Stars this season, Wallstedt let in 3 goals but stopped 40 shots in an impressive display of his talents. 

That doesn’t mean that Wallstedt is ready for a full-time job with the big club. It is better to overbake a goalie prospect if a team is able to and it’s important to remember that Wallstedt is only 20 years old. If the Wild play their cards right, they could be training this prospect just right to be a starting goalie for years to come (or an amazing tandem with Filip Gustavsson).

But could fans see Wallstedt warm the bench? Sure. Hopefully, neither of the goalies are out at any point this season, but if they are, it’s incredibly feasible that Wallstedt could join the big club for a game or two. Last year, Iowa’s other goalie, Zane McIntyre, was pulled up for one game. Hopefully, this year, Wallstedt could take that spot if the Wild need him to. Of course, it also depends on how the Iowa Wild are doing. It isn’t fair to sacrifice their season if they’re fighting to the finish to take their goalie as a benchwarmer.

Can Filip Gustavsson prove that last season wasn’t a fluke?

Last summer’s Cam Talbot for Filip Gustavsson trade with the Ottawa Senators ended up being the surprise of the season when Gustavsson went on a run. Only Linus Ullmark was above Gustavsson in both save percentage and goals above average during the 2022-23 season. Before that, Gustavsson had played only 27 NHL games with the Ottawa Senators. He spent more of his time with the Bellville Senators in the AHL.

Gustavsson more or less split net time with veteran Marc-Andre Fleury last season, but this season could be different. Fleury is on the last year of his contract and, at age 38, could potentially retire at the end of this season. Either way, Gustavsson must prepare to fill the crease for more games a season in preparation for whenever Wallstedt is moved to the big club. With his new 3-year contract, Gustsavsson has a perfect bridge deal into Wallstedt’s assumed debut season of 2024-25.

Gustavsson plays a calm netminding style, much like Wallstedt, which hopefully is able to be replicated this season. If he can be even ¾ as good as he was last year, Gustavsson will be worth every penny of his new contract.

Who will play the most on the third defensive pairing?

Jon Merrill and Alex Goligoski look like they’ll be swapping in and out next to Calen Addison on the third pairing this season, just like they did for a large part of last season. The most interesting part of the third pairing is that, in a way, it’s set.

Addison started off last season on fire, quarterbacking the top power-play unit. The only problem was that it seemed to be to the detriment of his actual defensive job. After being asked unsuccessfully to step up his defensive game, he was eventually benched for 20 regular season games and all six playoff games. However, just like Rossi, Addison stayed in Minnesota all summer to work with the team on his defensive game. According to training camp practices, he’s also been given back his job on the top power-play unit.

Goligoski is in the last year of his contract, and at the age of 38, his contract includes a full “no move” clause that he’s refused to waive in the past. But he was also upset at mostly being a healthy scratch last season. After playing 70+ games for the past eight seasons (minus the shortened COVID year), Goligoski was only slotted into 46 games last year. He’s still in great skating shape, so will fans see more of Goligoski this year?

Merrill was a consistent feature on the third pairing, but as a defensive defenseman, he doesn’t get the credit that he deserves. Playing 72 games last season, he seemed to only get noticed by fans when he made a mistake. He might not put up points, but he’s still a solid third-pair defenseman.

So, who will end up beside Addison? And can Addison show his defensive side and keep from being a healthy scratch?

A Few Smaller Questions

  1. Who will wear the A? Joel Eriksson Ek, Jonas Brodin, Kaprizov, or someone else?
  2. Will the Wild carry a thirteenth forward or try to accrue cap space instead?
  3. Is Brock Faber ready to take on the likes of Matthew Tkachuk, Connor McDavid, etc.?
  4. Can Kaprizov continue to improve?
  5. Will Matt Boldy reach 40 goals this year?
  6. When will Mason Shaw be healthy enough to join the team?

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