The Minnesota Wild are playing their 20th NHL season and have won only four playoff series in that time. Two of those victories came during a shocking run to the conference finals in the franchise’s third season in 2003. Otherwise, the Wild have been a postseason dud.
When Zach Parise and Ryan Suter were signed to matching 13-year, $98 million contacts on July 4, 2012, owner Craig Leipold dreamed of Stanley Cup parades. What he got were back-to-back first-round wins in 2014 and ’15 and little else.
The Wild haven’t made a legitimate playoff appearance since 2018 — the play-in round in the bubble last summer doesn’t count — and are an underdog in their opening-round matchup with the Golden Knights that will begin Sunday afternoon in Las Vegas.
So why for the first time in a long time does it feel as if Wild fans shouldn’t feel hopeless?
The most important reason for this is the Wild will enter the playoffs with something they never have had in their previous 19 seasons. A superstar talent. Rookie winger Kirill Kaprizov already is the best player in franchise history and one of the most talented NHL players to wear a North Stars or Wild jersey. He might be the most talented.
While Parise and Suter were very good players when they joined Minnesota, they were never superstars and playoff foes did not have to worry about their presence every time they stepped on the ice. Kaprizov will demand that type of attention and that doesn’t make it a given that Vegas can stop him.
Kaprizov, 24, finished his first NHL season — one that will earn him the Calder Trophy — with a team-leading 27 goals, including 13 on the power play, and 51 points. Wild coach Dean Evason spent the 56-game, pandemic-shortened doing his best to remind everyone this is a team game and Kaprizov was only part of why Minnesota exceeded expectations in finishing third in the West Division with 75 points.
That’s Evason’s job, putting the team over one player, but his message was nonsense. Without Kaprizov, the Wild would have battled for fourth place in the division and there would be little hope of an upset against the Golden Knights.
Another issue for the Wild in their most recent playoff appearances was the lack of faith of the guy in goal. It wasn’t that Devan Dubnyk lost series’ but he certainly didn’t win them. There was always the fear of that fluke goal that Dubnyk would allow to slide past his skate or pad at the worst time possible. Often when the Wild needed a huge save.
General manager Bill Guerin took a long look at the Wild’s goaltending last season and decided changes were needed. Veteran Cam Talbot was signed to replace Dubnyk as the Wild’s top goalie after last season and has provided stability and timely saves.
Talbot went 19-8-5 with a 2.63 goals-against average and .915 save percentage in 33 starts and figures to be the starter in the playoffs. If rookie Kaapo Kahkonen has to play, something likely has gone wrong.
There is another reason to believe this is no longer Chuck Fletcher’s Wild. Guerin, who won two Stanley Cups as a player and two more as an executive with the Penguins, has not only changed the culture of the team, he also has allowed Evason to make moves that previous Wild GMs, such as Fletcher or Paul Fenton, wouldn’t have considered.
The most obvious has been making the 36-year-old Parise a healthy scratch late in the season. Parise is expected to be scratched in the playoffs, the feeling being that the highly paid veteran won’t be able to keep up with the speed in series’ against Vegas or Colorado.
One can debate if keeping Victor Rask or Marcus Johansson in and scratching Parise is the right move, or if rookie center Nico Sturm should be moved up from the fourth line, but you can’t debate that Guerin and Evason have made it clear that this is their team and that the players are employees, not decision-makers. The acquisition of veteran leaders such as Nick Bonino and Ian Cole — who also won two Cups in Pittsburgh — means that Guerin’s message is present even when he isn’t.
This doesn’t mean I’m picking the Wild to win the series. I think Vegas takes it in six, despite the Wild’s 5-1-2 record against the Knights in the regular season. But with Kaprizov’s star power, Talbot not certain to give up a fluky goal and the right people actually in charge, it won’t be shocking if the Wild emerges victorious.