Preview of the Minnesota Wild 2023-24 Season

Matt Blewett / USA Today

Opening night is almost here for the Minnesota Wild. After the last two seasons ended with heartbreaking first-round playoff exits, could this be the year where they push through the mental block and make a deeper playoff run? Here’s a preview of each offensive line and defensive pairing to start the season.

Top Line Needs to Pick Up Production After Playoffs Bust

The first line of Kirill Kaprizov, Mats Zuccarello, and Ryan Hartman should start the season buzzing. Not only did Zuccarello and Hartman each sign a new contract extension, but Kaprizov learned that he would be sporting an A on his sweater. They’ve also got the motivation to show that they are still good after the playoffs ended in a miserable fashion for them. 

While he’s gone through dry spells, Kaprizov seems to rack up points in his sleep. If he can focus on shooting the puck instead of the back-and-forth that he and Zuccarello sometimes get stuck in, he could easily end the season with 100+ points. He managed two 100+ point seasons, and he was on track for another one before his injury sidelined him last season.

Zuccarello has played the best two seasons of his career alongside Kaprizov, and he doesn’t appear to be slowing down yet. Going off of the past two seasons, Zuccarello should come away with 20+ goals and 40+ assists. 

Hartman played two seasons as the top-line center on a bottom-six salary. Now that he’s come into a bigger contract, he’s got to continue producing. Marco Rossi has been working hard to make the team, and if Hartman starts to falter, Rossi might get a chance up top. Hartman also needs to work on his temper. While his physical, rat-like style of play is what he’s known for, there have been too many penalties sparking him simply being undisciplined. He’ll need to watch out, or he’ll find himself demoted or even healthy scratched once the team has enough cap space to carry an extra forward.

Making the Magic Work Full-Time

When GM Bill Guerin traded for Marcus Johansson this past spring, fans weren’t too sure about the move. The last time Johansson played for the Wild, he was frequently injured, which left a bad taste in fans’ mouths. But skating alongside Matt Boldy and Joel Eriksson Ek produced some magic. Johansson had not only the ability to make plays but also the speed to keep up with Boldy. Ek rounded out their line with a good faceoff percentage, playmaking abilities, and good defensive plays. The biggest question for this line is whether the magic can translate into a full season.

Joel Eriksson Ek is arguably the Wild’s most valuable player. He does everything, and he does it well. Despite being bounced around a little after the GREEF line was broken up early last season, Ek managed a career-high 61-point season with 23 goals and another career-high 38 assists. One thing about Ek is that while he might have been a bit shaky his first few years in the NHL, he has managed consistent growth. Going into his eighth NHL season, it would not be a surprise if he continued to set career-high point totals and faceoff percentages. 

Matt Boldy signed a big new contract during a scoring drought last season and immediately went on a heater. Between November 3 and March 8, Boldly only had 11 goals. Between Kaprizov’s injury on March 8 and March 30, Boldy had 11 goals in 11 games, including two hat tricks. There’s no way to attribute his scoring tear to any one thing, but it probably helped that Johansson joined the team on February 28. It was a good way to show that not only could he cover for Kaprizov while he was rehabbing an injury, but that Boldy was also well worth the 7x$7 million contract that he signed.

Johansson quickly proved Wild fans and their initial assumptions wrong. He went from scoring 28 points in 60 games with the Washington Capitals to scoring 18 points in just 20 games with the Wild. His points per game doubled from 0.46 with the Capitals to 0.9 with the Wild. While Boldy got some fire under him from Johansson, it looks like he did the same for Johansson. If the magic is still there, Johansson could keep an almost point-per-game pace this season.

The Miscellaneous Line

At first glance, the WIld’s third line seems a bit haphazard. With Marco Rossi centering, flanked by Marcus Foligno and Freddy Gaudreau, it’s a bit of a conglomeration. But each player brings their strengths, and if they work together, they could be a fun line to watch.

Rossi is back and ready to try the NHL again. This time, though, he’s put on 15 pounds of muscle and changed his skating stride after a season with the Iowa Wild that saw him put up nearly a point per game. During preseason games, he’s been noticeably stronger and able to stay on his skates against grown men where last year he would’ve been knocked over. This bodes well for the young player, who has struggled with health issues that derailed his development. What does a successful season in the NHL look like? Ideally, it would be scoring a goal early on in the season and letting him use the confidence gained to set his own pace. 

Even though Rossi can physically handle himself now, Foligno is a nice, physical player to skate next to him. Foligno can help clear space for Rossi to make plays. This could be another Boldy/Johansson situation where they can help each other. Even though Foligno’s 21 points last season is on par with an average season for him, it didn’t look great next to the 42 points from the 2021-22 season. Foligno struggled a bit when the GREEF line was dissolved. Could this new quirky line combination put the scoring bug back in Foligno? It would be great to see him hit the 30-point mark.

Gaudreau is a player that most fans don’t seem to understand. Outside of being a shootout king, Gaudreau is busy doing the invisible, mostly defensive work on the ice. Unfortunately, that means that he’s mostly noticed when he makes a mistake. But there is no doubt about it: Gaudreau is an important player. While he’s playing wing currently, he’s a decent center who can take the faceoff if Rossi is kicked off of the dot. He’s also a good playmaker who can help the team out of the defensive zone. Gaudreau might not be the most prolific scorer, but he still managed 38 points last season, 19 goals and 19 assists. His career-high was 44 points in 2021-22. If he and Rossi get some chemistry going, maybe he could come close to that again.

The Grinders

The fourth line has been the engine driving the team in the past. While Ryan Reaves has been switched out for Pat Maroon, Brandon Duhaime, and Connor Dewar are still together on the fourth line. There’s no doubt that this line will once again bring physical pressure. Maroon already showed that he’s not going to allow any shenanigans after he fought Jamie Benn during the preseason. The only wrench in the plan could be what to do when Mason Shaw returns to Minnesota. Do they rotate the fourth line? Or will there somehow be a hole in the lineup that needs plugging anyway? It’s a wait-and-see.

During Dewar’s first full NHL season, he made his mark on the penalty kill. He managed to score three short-handed goals and get one short-handed assist. Even though he’s the smallest on the fourth line, even counting Shaw, he still has no problem making a stand. Duhaime seems to fight anything that moves, but Dewar is a bit more selective. It would be fun to see him score some more shorties this year, though.

Duhaime took a bit of time to sign his contract this summer, but he’s been fully committed to the Wild since he was drafted by them in 2016. Duhaime is a player who is physical and also manages to bring some comedy relief to the game. The big problem last year was his battle with injuries. Two different times, he had to go through concussion protocol after getting into an ill-fated scrap. While fighting is part of Duhaime’s game, he needs to be a bit more picky about who he fights and why. Last season, he only played in 51 games. Let’s hope he plays a lot more than that this year.

While Maroon is plugging into the spot that Reaves vacated, he is a different sort of player. At some points last year, Reaves seemed reluctant to fight or be physical when it seemed like an obvious time to drop the mitts. Maroon, on the other hand, has already fought Benn in the pre-season, seemingly as payback for the playoff series shenanigans. Maroon is also a more skilled player. While he isn’t quite as big as Reaves, he brings better stickhandling and faster skating. He also brings with him a winning pedigree and a veteran presence that can help move this team through the 82-game grind.

The Odd Couple Will Reunite…Eventually

Jared Spurgeon and Jake Middleton were one of the best defensive pairings in the league last season. The Wild are expected to score 5-on-5 goals 61.18% when these two are on the ice. The best part of their pairing might just be that they are almost complete opposites of each other. While Middleton brings the size and a penchant to fight, Spurgeon uses his small size and speed to take pucks to the net. Spurgeon likes to get in on the offense while Middleton hangs back. They complement each other.

Spurgeon is currently battling an upper-body injury sustained during the pre-season. He’s currently listed as week to week, so he won’t be back for at least a handful of games. The good thing is that Spurgeon is a consistent player. When he is back in the lineup, he’ll play the same way that he always does. The biggest complaint when it comes to Spurgeon is that he seems to disappear in the playoffs. Is there a way that Spurgeon can change that? It’ll be something to watch late in the season.

Middleton might not be as good as Spurgeon, but his tendency as a stay-at-home defenseman allows Spurgeon to roam. He also can offer the physicality that Spurgeon doesn’t have. Despite claiming to not be very offensive, he managed to end last season with 15 points, three goals, and 12 assists. It’s hard to know if he’ll manage to tie that point total. It might depend on how long Spurgeon will need to sit out.

The Veteran and His New Right-Hand Man

The new defensive pairing of Jonas Brodin and Brock Faber has been talked about ever since Faber signed last spring. With the reality of Matt Dumba leaving the Wild staring everyone in the face, it was quickly decided that Faber would be the natural successor next to Brodin. These two defensemen could potentially become one of the best shut-down pairs in the league.

Brodin is one of the only defenders in the league who can keep up with and cut off Connor McDavid, all while skating backward. Brodin’s biggest challenge this year is probably more off of the ice than on the ice. After skating with his best friend Dumba for almost ten years, Brodin will need to get used to a new defensive partner. Like Spurgeon, thankfully, Brodin is a consistent player. He is calm under pressure, and no matter who his partner is, he will continue to be one of the best shut-down defenders in the league.

Faber might be relatively new to the NHL, but no one would know that just by watching him. After jumping seamlessly from the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers team straight into the NHL, Faber quickly established himself as a solid NHL player. During the six-game playoff series against the Dallas Stars, Faber was not on the ice for any Stars goals. While he was playing third pairing and was somewhat sheltered, Faber is still completely ready to take on some of the NHL’s biggest stars. Neither Brodin nor Faber are very offensively inclined, so it’ll be more interesting to watch exactly how much play they can shut down on the ice.

Only Two Out of Three Can Play

There are three more defensemen, and they all seem to have their roles. So, who will be in the lineup consistently, and who will be in the press box? Or will the team choose to have a rotation? While Spurgeon is out with his injury, all three will have to play. But once he’s back, there’s got to be a decision.

Calen Addison is vital to the power play. The Wild had one of the top power plays in the league while he was quarterbacking. The problem came when his defensive play was lacking and didn’t seem to improve with time. Addison ended up benched for the last quarter of the season. With a team whose salary cap is as tight as it is, there is no room for a specialist. But Addison stayed in Minnesota over the summer and worked out with the team. Even more impressive is the fact that he went the entire summer without a contract, signing one just before training camp. Both Addison and Guerin are betting on him to play better this year. The best possible outcome is that Addison has beefed up his defensive play 5-on-5 but can still produce offensively on the power play.

Jon Merrill is a defenseman who tends to make the smaller plays. Like his teammate Gaudreau, he tends to only be visible when he’s made a mistake. It’s important to remember that for every mistake he makes, he’s made a hundred good plays throughout the night. Merrill is a solid third-pair defenseman who brings his best every night. Without seeming to, Merrill actually played 73 out of 82 games last season. He doesn’t put up a lot offensively, but he can hold his ground defensively. 

Alex Goligoski might be aging, but can still play at an NHL level. While it’s unknown if he could still play a full 82-game season, he makes a good argument that he can. He’ll start the season by filling in on the top pair with Middleton. This is exactly the situation where Goligoski is necessary to have around. He can jump into top pairing minutes in a heartbeat because he’s played in the league for so long. The one sticking point is that he wants to play consistently. Last season, Goligoski played just over half of the games in the season but wanted to play more. The sticking point is that he also doesn’t want to waive his no-trade clause. There isn’t a clear path for both the coaches and Goligoski to be happy with how much he’s playing. Everything depends on injuries and the salary cap.

The Vet and the New Star

Last year was an exciting year for goaltending. After bringing in Marc-Andre Fleury at the 2022 trade deadline, Guerin traded Cam Talbot to the Ottawa Senators for Filip Gustavsson. Going into the 2022-23 season, the goaltending was a big question mark. The four-game homestand to start the season made things even worse. Not only did the Wild lose 3 of the 4 games, but the Wild goalies let in a combined 23 goals. The goalies managed to pull things together and managed to have a good season. The question this year is when Gustavsson will take over the starting position in the net.

Fleury is starting his 20th season in the NHL and still isn’t showing signs of slowing down. Although there is plenty of speculation that he will retire after this season, he could feasibly keep playing. That being said, the writing on the wall is that Fleury will not get as many starts as he did last year. His biggest job this year might be mentoring Gustavsson on being a starter. 

Gustavsson came in as a relative unknown to Minnesota with a bad record after playing with the Senators. That wasn’t helped by the first homestand. But somehow, in November, Gustavsson found his stride and didn’t lose it until after the playoffs started. In fact, taking away those first few games, Gustavsson ended the season as the second-best goalie in the league. Can he do that again this year? The Wild asked him to work on his conditioning this summer, and he’s definitely returned looking more fit. Now Gustavsson has to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke while he works to take on more starts than he has ever before. 

Storylines to Follow This Season

  • The chemistry between Joel Eriksson Ek, Matt Boldy, and Marcus Johansson
  • Marco Rossi centering an interesting line with Marcus Foligno and Freddy Gaudreau
  • The Jonas Brodin and Brock Faber pairing
  • Filip Gustavsson fighting to take over as the starting goalie

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