The Wild’s stop-and-start season is one game from coming to an end after a 3-0 loss to Vancouver on Thursday afternoon in the best-of-five qualifying round of the NHL’s return to play, but even if Minnesota ends up heading home on Saturday, general manager Bill Guerin should consider his time in the Edmonton bubble well spent.
What’s the gift in potentially playing only four games after a four-plus month pause caused by the coronavirus pandemic? That’s easy. Guerin got one more opportunity to see his roster in a high-pressure environment against a talented young team in the Canucks. In some cases, this might only confirm things, but that’s better than having the season called off in mid-March and attempting to judge players based on a hot stretch of regular-season play under then interim, and now full-time, coach Dean Evason.
The biggest takeaway for Guerin is that he has one dynamic forward on his roster, and in order to make the Wild a Western Conference contender he will need to build around that guy with new pieces. Right winger Kevin Fiala is the exact type of game-breaker that former GM Paul Fenton said he would be when he sent Mikael Granlund to Nashville at the trade deadline in 2019.
Fiala scored three goals in the first two games against Vancouver before being held off the score sheet, along with the rest of his teammates, on Thursday as the Canucks took a 2-1 lead in the series. But simply going by the stat sheet, doesn’t tell the story of Fiala’s ability to take over a game. Fiala had nine shot attempts in Game 1, 11 in Game 2 and 13 entering the third period of Game 3. His four shots on goal led all Wild forwards.
Before anyone jumps in and points out that Fiala already had proven himself as a special player before the pause, keep in mind many of us wondered if he would continue to look like a star when the break ended. He has.
In an attempt to jump start the Wild after a 4-3 loss on Tuesday, Evason juggled his lines and moved Jordan Greenway off the first line with Fiala and center Eric Staal and replaced him with 36-year-old Zach Parise. One can only imagine what Fiala could have done if newly signed winger Kirill Kaprizov, who is expected to be a dynamic talent himself, was eligible to play in this series. Or how Fiala might have benefited from playing with Staal when the now 35-year-old was in his prime.
The first line isn’t the only place where Guerin is getting an important, and possibly brief, look at what he has and what needs to be changed. Greenway was moved off the first line because he had spent the first two games doing what amounted to a Charlie Coyle impersonation. In other words, Greenway has size (6-foot-6, 225 pounds) and some skill, but if he doesn’t use those things his presence isn’t that valuable.
Greenway did seem to be a better fit on a much-less flashy but hard-working line that included Joel Eriksson Ek at center and Marcus Foligno on the other wing. Perhaps the most important thing Guerin has witnessed in Edmonton is that you can move Alex Galchenyuk from wing to center, but eventually he’s going to prove that he was nothing more than a throw-in in the Jason Zucker trade and letting him walk as a free agent is the only option. Yes, I had thought after the Wild’s summer camp and the first game of this series that I might have been wrong about Galchenyuk but Games 2 and 3 were a reminder that first impressions are usually correct.
The real issue will be what to do with winger Mats Zuccarrello, who was moved from the right wing with Galchenyuk and Foligno to the left wing with Galchenyuk and Luke Kunin. Zuccarello, 32, is completing the first season of a five-year, $30 million deal that is looking like it will be an albatross contract. There was hope that Zuccarello might bounce back in these playoffs after a disappointing first season with the Wild, but that hasn’t come close to happening.
There also has to be concern that winger Ryan Donato’s performance on the fourth line through two games was so poor that he was scratched for Game 3 in favor of minor league center Nico Sturm, who was put on a wing with Mikko Koivu and Ryan Hartman. It’s become clear that Guerin and Evason lack faith that Donato is ever going to become a complete enough winger to play on a regular basis.
This information might be disappointing, but it’s valuable.
It’s why as well Alex Stalock played in Thursday’s loss, his third-period save on Bo Horvat is one of the best of the tournament, it would have made sense to give Kaapo Kahkonen a start in goal. Kahknonen had a very good season for Iowa of the AHL and might be the Wild’s goalie of the future. This would have been a perfect time to find out.
Instead, the Wild will enter Friday’s late-night game against the Canucks, looking to stay alive with Stalock in goal (one would think) and hoping they can finally score a 5-on-5 goal. Minnesota has yet to accomplish that feat in three games. The Wild also need to revive a power play that went 2-for-4 in their Game 1 victory and is 0-for-13 since. It doesn’t help that the underperforming Galchenyuk and Zuccarello have been getting power-play time.
That is going to have to change. It probably won’t on Friday, considering Evason’s options are limited at this point, but this certainly can’t be the case on opening night of the 2020-21 season, whenever that arrives. The fact the Wild lost defenseman Ryan Suter to an undisclosed injury in the third period on Thursday makes it more likely that Guerin will be able to begin preparing for the future this weekend.
If that happens, Guerin will do so having had a valuable four game look into what the current members of his roster either could or could not do. He should consider it his gift from the bubble.