Minnesota Wild

The 2017-18 NHL season: Predictions

The new NHL season is ahead of us, and it’s time for another venture into the worthless world of preseason prognostications, a guilty pleasure for every self-proclaimed pundit. Not satisfied with all the blanks straying from my iffy gunfire 12 months ago (you can recall them here), I’m back to extricate some sense of redemption and to unload a new shipment of hot fire.

The blueprint for this post was established last year and there’s no reason to change it, so let’s go straight ahead and start mumbling.

Regular season standings

Atlantic Division

  1. Tampa Bay Lightning
  2. Toronto Maple Leafs
  3. Montreal Canadiens
  4. Ottawa Senators

Outside (in order): Buffalo Sabres, Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers, Detroit Red Wings

With Steven Stamkos finally steering clear of his rotten luck, the Tampa Bay Lightning overcome a slow start to clinch a first Division title in 14 years, staving off the challenge of the effervescent Toronto Maple Leafs, a team that will rank in the top ten on both sides of the puck. The Montreal Canadiens, with Alex Galchenyuk and not Jonathan Drouin as the No.1 Center, ride Carey Price to third place, setting up the playoff encounter we all want to see, while the superpowers of Erik Karlsson waft the Senators through a late charge and into a dramatic appropriation of the last wild card on the final day of the season.

The Toronto Maple Leafs should enjoy a smooth ride in the Atlantic Division (Sportsnet.ca)

The team Ottawa leaps right at the finish line are the Sabres, whose thin defence cracks under pressure deep into the regular season slog. Meanwhile, the Bruins hit a mid-season swoon when their dynamic top line (Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak) suffers a casualty, and then Tuukka Rask falters as they try to re-enter the race.

Florida’s puzzling offseason moves backfire to cost Dale Tallon’s job on the eve of their elimination from the playoff race (taxi charges included), while the Red Wings engage on a throwback dispute with the Colorado Avalanche for the right to evade the bottom of the table. They triumph twice, on and off the ice as Detroit wins the lottery to secure the first pick in the 2018 Draft.

Metropolitan Division

  1. Washington Capitals
  2. Columbus Blue Jackets
  3. Carolina Hurricanes
  4. Pittsburgh Penguins

Outside: Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, New York Islanders

It’s not the cakewalk of recent times, but the Capitals are still able to capture the Divisional crown when their youngsters step up to the task, fending off the Blue Jackets. The Artemi Panarin trade pays off for Columbus when the attack keeps them afloat through Sergei Bobrovsky’s ups and downs, and, in addition, they get a cushy first round encounter with the Hurricanes. Backed by the stellar goaltending of Scott Darling, Ron Francis finally ants up his assets on defence to acquire Matt Duchene mid-season, and Carolina ends its 9-year playoff drought with a week to spare.

The Carolina Hurricanes are on the cusp of greater things, starting with a return to the playoffs in 2017-18 (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

Stumbling out of the gate and pulled further back by a two-month stretch missing half of their two-headed monster, Pittsburgh nearly misses the playoffs, but gets lucky when Philadelphia chokes down the stretch. Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier and a spectacular bounce-back year from Cory Schneider inspire the Devils to a surprising 90-pt season, yet they still fall short of the cut, while both New York outfits enter tailspins when goaltending isn’t up to the task and central problems bubble up: the lack of centre depth in Manhattan, the continuing John Tavares’ melodrama in Brooklyn.

Central Division

  1. Minnesota Wild
  2. Dallas Stars
  3. Nashville Predators
  4. Winnipeg Jets

Outside: Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche

I shall not underestimate Bruce Boudreau’s regular season magic again, therefore Minnesota takes the Division on the strength of their superior depth at forward. As expected, Dallas clicks offensively though their defensive woes won’t subside for good under Ken Hitchcock just yet, especially with that immature defensive corps and Ben Bishop threading merely average numbers. In Nashville, Juuse Saros peacefully overthrows Pekka Rinne midseason, but health – after Ryan Ellis’ return – is the main reason the Predators stride comfortable into third place.

The Minnesota Wild of Nino Niederreiter (#22) are primed for a divisional title this season (Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

After years of agony, the Jets fire Paul Maurice in December and Winnipeg goes batshit crazy when they pummel Chicago on the last day of the regular season to secure the last Wild Card. Sure, they do it by relying way too much on the power play and top-heavy offense, but it’s enough since the Blackhawks’ own depth issues finally catch up to them. The steep regression experienced by Jake Allen, coupled with an unrelentingly injury bug, derail St. Louis season to end their six-year playoff streak, however the Blues still finish miles ahead of Colorado, the NHL’s only sub-65 pts team.

Pacific Division

  1. Anaheim Ducks
  2. Edmonton Oilers
  3. Calgary Flames
  4. LA Kings

Outside: Arizona Coyotes, San Jose Sharks, Vegas Golden Knights, Vancouver Canucks

Oilers’ goaltender Cam Talbot goes down in early March, and that opens the door for Anaheim, who collects a sixth consecutive Pacific Division banner due to Rickard Rakell, Jakob Silfverberg and Corey Perry’s 30+ goals campaigns. Still, another 100-pt season from Connor McDavid powers Edmonton past the adversity, and they hold off fierce rivals Calgary for home ice advantage in an explosive first round battle.

Unshackled under the guidance of John Stevens, the Los Angeles Kings rebound to go on a stunning ten-game scoring spree that fortifies their return to the postseason, while Arizona’s rebirth – impelled by a bunch of pubescent kids – emerges as one of the main storylines of the year. It isn’t until the rookies hit the wall that their playoff aspirations evaporate, but 88 pts are enough to finish above the Sharks, a team caught in the middle of a generational change and undone by a freak Brent Burns’ injury.

Arizona’s mix of youngsters such as Clayton Keller (#14) and veterans like Oliver Ekman-Larsson (#23) may catch teams by surprise this season (Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports)

Amassing a respectable 75 points, Vegas’s debut goes according to plan and the Golden Knights even manage to pipe Vancouver, who try – and fail – to offload any veterans before the Sedins ride into the sunset.

Playoffs

Eastern Conference Champions: Tampa Bay Lightning

Western Conference Champions: Minnesota Wild

The Penguins’ three-peat ambitions dissolve at the hands of the Washington Capitals in round one and our beloved Planet Earth disintegrates the following day, for sure.

However, in case that does not happen, Washington proceeds to squander the opportunity, getting Halak’ed by Scott Darling in the Divisional Final and signalling the end of the road for Barry Trotz and Alex Ovechkin. In the Atlantic, Bolts and Leafs clash in a sensational second round played at breakneck speed, with Tampa advancing in Game 7 before sweeping the Carolina Hurricanes to reach a third Stanley Cup Final in their history.

In the West, Oilers and Ducks go the distance for a second consecutive season, and the exhausted winner bows out to the Minnesota Wild, whose ability to bypass the proverbial series with the Chicago Blackhawks proves as important to their success as overcoming Bruce Boudreau’s playoff tribulations in an emotional Game 7 triumph over Winnipeg.

Stanley Cup Champions: Tampa Bay Lightning

Propelled by the likes of Tyler Johnson (#9) and Nikita Kucherov (#86), the Tampa Bay Lightning will lift the Stanley Cup next June (Mike Carlson/Getty Images North America)

Conn Smythe Winner: Nikita Kucherov

Victor Hedman delivers a Lidstrom-esque effort, logging 31 minutes per game throughout the postseason, but Kucherov’s three playoff overtime winners, including Game 5 of the Finals, sway enough votes to crown a second Russian in the history of the award, after Evgeni Malkin in 2009.

Major Individual Honours

Art Ross Trophy (Most points): Connor McDavid (Edmonton Oilers)

Turning Ryan Strome into a 30-goal scorer along the way, Connor McDavid shatters the century mark for the second consecutive season after managing a 10-point gap on everyone else for the last two months. The prodigious 20-year-old finishes with 105+ points in 80 games, keeping at bay Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn (96) and Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau (92), whose performances get vaulted to new levels due to some kind of telepathic connection with Jaromír Jágr.

Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele and Buffalo’ Jack Eichel also amass more than 85 points for the first time on their careers, while perennial contenders Patrick Kane and Sidney Crosby fall short of 80.

Maurice Richard Trophy (Most goals): Patrik Laine (Winnipeg Jets)

Teed up “ad nauseum” by the likes of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Nikolaj Ehlers, Patrik Laine erupts to post a 49-goal  – the 50th hits Chicago’s empty net but gets called back for offside –  sophomore campaign and become just the second Finnish forward to lead the NHL in goals (Teemu Selanne).

Winnipeg’s sniper Patrik Laine is destined to win the Maurice Richard Trophy (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

Nonetheless, with the overall increase in powerplay opportunities, a rising tide means Laine will have plenty of competition nipping at his heels until the very end. Vladimir Tarasenko and Tyler Seguin tie for second place with 46 markers, while Jack Eichel, Jamie Benn and Connor McDavid also break the 40-goal barrier, something Auston Matthews (34) is unable to do after being knocked out of last three weeks of regular season action.

Calder Memorial Trophy (Rookie of the season): Nico Hischier (New Jersey Devils)

The dynamic Swiss center is, definitely, no Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews, yet he’ll be the fourth No.1 pick in five years to take home the Calder on his rookie season (for shame, Connor).

Partnering with Taylor Hall on the Devils’ top line, Hischier will pot 20+ goals to graze the 60-pt threshold, and that will prove sufficient to ward off the challenges of fellow forwards Clayton Keller (Arizona Coyotes) and Brock Boeser (Vancouver Canucks), respectively, the leading point-getter and goal-scorer amongst freshman. A pair of standout defenseman, Mikhail Sergachev (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Charlie McAvoy (Boston Bruins), round out the top five.

James Norris Memorial Trophy (Best defenseman): Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay Lightning)

Already embarking on his ninth NHL season, you can say this is a recognition that has been a long time coming for the hulking Swedish defenseman. With Tampa Bay romping through the regular season, Hedman’s dominance in every facet of the game will ensure he won’t even need to pile up as many points (72) as in 2016-17 to grab the Norris.

Tampa Bay Lightning’s All-Star defenseman Victor Hedman looks poised to take a first Norris Trophy (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)

Fellow Swede Erik Karlsson makes a proverbial late push, but the generational Ottawa blueliner will be shut down for a third consecutive year whilst Nashville’s Roman Josi gets rewarded for a career-best 65-point season with a maiden nomination.

Vezina Trophy (Best goalie):  Braden Holtby (Washington Capitals)

Washington’s defence suffered plenty of casualties, leading many pundits to write off the possibility of another imperious regular season, yet Braden Holtby is eager to atone for last spring’s performance, and he’ll start the healing process by snatching a second Vezina trophy with an NHL-best save percentage.

His closest competition will come from Pittsburgh, with Matt Murray making up for the Penguins’ uneven play and ghastly contributions of backup Antti Niemi to score a nomination for his first 40-win campaign. Completing the field to write history as the first Danish player selected for a major NHL award, Toronto’s workhorse goalie Frederik Andersen will be recognized for topping the NHL in starts, winning in excess of 38 games and compiling above average numbers both in GAA and Sv%.

Jack Adams Award (Best Coach): NOT John Tortorella

Hart Memorial Trophy (Most valuable player): Jamie Benn (Dallas Stars)

Jamie Benn, your 2017-18 Hart Trophy winner (Jerome Miron / USA TODAY Sports)

An inordinate amount of shorthanded points, gaudy offensive totals, and a leading role on an electrifying bounce-back season for the Stars coalesce to power Dallas’ skipper over incumbent Connor McDavid in a major upset decided by a razor-thin margin.

Patrik Laine comes next, a distant third finalist emerging from the pack due to his vital contributions for the Jets’ late playoff push. Goaltender Braden Holtby hauls the Washington Capitals past some unexpected offensive struggles, and almost cracks the top-three, while Jack Eichel’s candidacy is ultimately ruined by Buffalo’s belated collapse.

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NHL playoff series digested: Minnesota Wild – St. Louis Blues (1-4)

Two years ago, the Minnesota Wild and the St. Louis Blues squared off in the first round of the NHL playoffs, with the Wild, who finished the regular season nine points behind, upsetting in six games a Blues team with eyes set on the Stanley Cup. Entering the 2017 playoffs, the roles were reversed, with the Wild, fresh of pushing forward all their chips at the trade deadline, expecting a long spring campaign and the underdog Missourians determined to crash their party.

Funny enough, former Wild coach Mike Yeo also exchanged benches in the meantime, and he played his part to once again shake hands for the winning side as St. Louis exacted their small revenge to book a place in the second round. How did they manage it?

Series Results:

Game 1: St. Louis Blues 2 @ 1 Minnesota Wild (OT)

Game 2: St. Louis Blues 2 @ 1 Minnesota Wild

Game 3: Minnesota Wild 1 @ 3 St. Louis Blues

Game 4: Minnesota Wild 2 @ 0 St. Louis Blues

Game 5: St. Louis Blues 4 @ 3 Minnesota Wild (OT)

 

Jake Allen bested Devan Dubnyk

In his first NHL season as St. Louis’ undisputed starter, Jake Allen went through hell in the winter before finding his footing in March, arriving at the postseason on the crest of a 0.942 Sv% amassed over his last fifteen games. Truth be told, the Blues benefited from a soft schedule late and few believed Allen would maintain such a hot streak, yet he flat-out stole Game 1 in Minnesota with a 51-save performance and then kept frustrating the Wild for the rest of the series.

Over five games, the 26-year-old posted a superlative 0.956 Sv% and 1.47 GAA, marks that ranked second amongst his peers in the first round, and captured a series win his team had no business picking up. Not only because Minnesota significantly outplayed St. Louis in four of five matches, but also because his counterpart Devan Dubnyk put together an unappreciated effort that went to waste.

Jake Allen gobbles the puck on another Minnesota Wild chance in Game 2 (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

The Wild’s All-Star goaltender, who hit a rough patch late in the regular season, concluded the series with excellent numbers (.925 Sv% and 1.86 GAA) but he just couldn’t touch the same high notes as Allen. For example, at even strength, both men allowed one goal on low-danger shots and two on medium-danger opportunities, yet Allen blocked 23 of 24 (0.958 Sv%) high-danger chances whereas Dubnyk let in 4 of 20, sinking his EV Sv% to 0.911, fifty-seven points below Allen’s stellar 0.968.

Thus, it wouldn’t matter that Dubnyk stood close to perfection when the Blues were on the powerplay, deflecting 26 of 27 shots, as the one that snuck through went down as the game-winner in Game 2. So harsh can be the life of a goaltender come playoff time…

No Shattenkirk, no problem

With 19 points obtained in 26 playoff games over the last two postseasons, Kevin Shattenkirk was a major cog of St. Louis’ defence up to the deal that sent him to the Washington Capitals. While Doug Armstrong’s hand was forced by the need to recoup some assets, his absence represented a major drawback to the Blues’ chances this spring, and they needed someone to pick up the slack, especially five-on-five.

Cue the Blues second defensive pair, composed of sophomores Joel Edmundson and Colton Parayko. Mobile, large, strong and, in this series, effective on both sides of the puck, the duo did a commendable job stepping up to the challenge. The less heralded Edmundson scored the OT winner in Game 1 and later broke the ice in Game 2, posting a series-high +6 and 16 blks in 22:10 min TOI/GP. As for the 22-year-old Parayko, he opened the scoring in Game 3 and set up Alex Steen for the Blues’ second goal in Game 5, skating to a +4 with 14 SOG and 13 blks in vital 24:44 min TOI/GP.

It wasn’t always pretty, but Parayko and company found a way to keep the puck away from their net. (Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)

Much like the majority of St. Louis’ players, it’s fair to point out they got plastered five-on-five in terms of possession (39.7 adj. CF%), but the pair still came out on the positive side in Scoring changes for (6-5) and, naturally, goals (4-0), while the same can’t be said for the Blues No.1 pairing, as Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester amassed a 37.0 adj.CF% and bled scoring chances (5-9).

Parayko and Edmundson accounted for a 111 PDO, which means they’re bound to regress hard – probably already against the Predators – but, for now, they’ve rewarded Mike Yeo’s confidence.

Bruce Boudreau tinkered his forwards lines incessantly but couldn’t find the winning combination

The Minnesota Wild manufactured 3.21 goals per game during the regular season, second best in the NHL, but those numbers don’t necessarily portend they possess a surplus of firepower up front. Bruce Boudreau’s team lacked a 30-goal scorer or a 70-pts player, and boasted just two forwards (Mikael Granlund (69) and Eric Staal (65)) niched inside the list of top 50 point getters. In other words, they lack the game-breakers that usually come in handy at playoff time and against an inspired Jake Allen that deficiency proved fatal.

The Wild mustered just 8 goals in the equivalent to five and a half games of hockey, and only Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle accrued two points at even-strength. The Wild’s top nine forwards in Game 1 were staggered in an All-Finnish line with Erik Haula, Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund, a Zach Parise – Eric Staal – Nino Niederreiter combination, and the duo Jason Zucker and Charlie Coyle flanking Martin Hanzal, but it didn’t stay that way for long as Bruce Boudreau cranked up the blender in a hurry.

Martin Hanzal rams through Jake Allen in Game 3, but to no effect. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

For Game 2, Zucker returned to the left of Koivu and Granlund to try to rekindle the magic of the regular season, while Niederreiter was dropped to the fourth line to make room for Charlie Coyle. Then, in Game 3, Haula was moved to centre between Jason Pominville and Chris Stewart, with Niederreiter joining Hanzal, but nothing seemed to juice up the offense.

Down 3-0 in the series, Boudreau separated the Granlund/Koivu and Parise/Staal duos and connected Pominville, Hanzal and Zucker, who scored in the Wild’s win. You don’t change what’s working, right? Nope. In Game 5, the wheel kept spinning, with Parise alongside the reunited Koivu and Granlund up to the moment Eric Staal left the game injured. After that, more reshuffling, obviously. And, soon after, the Blues closing the series in overtime.

All things considered, despite controlling the puck (58.9 adj. CF%) like no other team in the first round, averaging 9.6 more SOG per game (36.4 to the Blues 26.8), and slugging to a 55.1 adj. SCF%, the Wild scored just five even strength goals – one with Dubnyk pulled – and registered a single forward line who logged more than 20 minutes together. Jake Allen’s brilliance may have been the major reason for the Wild’s demise, but Bruce Boudreau’s actions didn’t help.

Best players in the series

Jake Allen (St. Louis Blues)

For the reasons exposed above, Jake Allen was the X-factor for St. Louis in the series, yet forward Jaden Schwartz deserves an honourable mention. The 24-year-old picked up a series-high 5 pts (2+3), and his contributions encompassed the game-winners in Game 2 and 3, three shots on goal per game, 22 min TOI/GP – tops among Blues forwards – and respectable underlying metrics. In fact, Schwartz and linemate Vladimir Tarasenko were the only Blues’ forwards simultaneously above 44.0 adj. CF% and 54 adj. SCF%.

Jaden Schwartz is about to blow the puck past Devan Dubnyk to give the Blues victory in Game 2 (Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)

Mikael Granlund (Minnesota Wild)

Without standout Minnesota Wild performances in the series, left winger Zach Parise – 3 pts (1+2), including the late goal to tie Game 1 – wouldn’t be a terrible choice here. However, he also accounted for a -4 rating and 4 minor penalties, therefore I’ll appoint Mikael Granlund. Minnesota’s best forward during the regular season struggled to make an impact on the scoresheet, collecting just 2 assists in 5 games, but he still looked dangerous at most times, impacting the play with a massive 85.1 adj. SCF% (1st on the team) and excellent 63.1 adj. CF% (4th).

Will the Minnesota Wild return to the playoffs next year? 

Boudreau’s teams have always turned into regular season juggernauts, so you can safely bet on that. However, Minnesota’s long-term prospects don’t look good with Ryan Suter (32) and Zach Parise’s (soon to be 33) contracts running until 2071 (approximately) and age clearly catching up to them.

Dubnyk and most of the defensive core have contracts with a few years left, providing cost certainty in the near future, which is exactly why 22-year-old Matt Dumba (RFA in 2018) may have to be sacrificed in the expansion draft instead of Marco Scandella (UFA 2020) or Jonas Brodin (UFA 2021). In a perfect world, they would rather ditch 34-year-old forward Jason Pominville – whose 5.6M deal until 2019 looms large – yet his NTC/NMC prevents that.

The Wild have 15 players signed for next season and 11.4 M in cap space, but most will be absorbed by the contract extensions of RFA’s Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter. In a conservative estimative, the Wild should assume their raises will trim that number to less than 3M, which won’t be enough to bring back 30-year-old Martin Hanzal, in line for a healthy increment from his current 3.1 M cap hit. And they can’t bring back the valuable picks they forfeited for his five playoff games either…

*For an explanation of the “advanced statistics” terminology cited on this article, read Corsica’s glossary. Unless stated otherwise, all data refers to 5-on-5 play and was retrieved from Corsica.hockey (currently down), Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com.

Maybe the Minnesota Wild will have more reasons to celebrate next season (Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)