Games this week:
Season opener on ESPN+ and Hulu! Actual options to see Wild games without buying NHL.tv! Huzzah!
If you are out of the BSN market, you should be able to see any non-nationally televised game on ESPN+ throughout the season and watch any blacked out games 24 hours later.
The Wild start the season with a back to back in southern California. Neither the Ducks or the Kings are expected to be any good this year, so this seems like a pretty favorable way to start the season.
Central Division Preview
The Wild are back in the Central division this year, and Arizona has been added to this division to make room for the Kraken in the Pacific Division. These are the teams Minnesota is competing with for playoff spots, so let's see what we can expect from all of them.
JFresh (@JFreshHockey) does pretty extensive projections for all 32 teams based on the analytics of Top Down Hockey and his own projection system. Here are how all the Central division teams rank when compared to each other:
- COLORADO AVALANCHE - The consensus best team in the division by a comfortable margin. They have the best defensive corps maybe in the entire NHL and they have Nathan Mackinnon as a perennial MVP-caliber forward. If we really look hard, we can ask some questions about their depth forwards and if Darcy Kuemper gets hurt, the goaltending might get shaky. But even those things aren't glaring weaknesses. Finishing ahead of the Avalanche is very unlikely.
- WINNIPEG JETS - Once you get past Colorado, there is a crowded middle of the division with a lot of good teams but no great ones. Example #1 of this is Winnipeg. They have one of the best goalies in the league, and they improved their defense over the offseason (at least on paper). How far does elite goaltending get a team that is average at best in every other facet of the game? Watch the Jets to find out. Most predictions have them 2nd-4th in the division.
- ST. LOUIS BLUES - Another good team that added some good forwards in the offseason. Can they keep the puck out of the net? An uninspiring defense and average at best goaltending are the glaring weakness here. A middle of the road team in a division full of them. I could see them finishing anywhere except first or last in the Central.
- DALLAS STARS - This is the team that I think will be surprisingly bad. Lots of predictions have them on the playoff bubble with the assumption that they will be healthier this year and get big contributions from a bunch of players that missed time last year. On the other hand they signed Luke Glendenning and Jani Hakanpaa as actual players they plan on playing and they're both not even replacement level players. Ryan Suter is their #1 d-man, and Suter is still good, but he is by no means elite. They have 3 NHL goalies, but none of them can stay healthy, so ... I just don't see it.
- CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS - An absolute trashfire of an organization that enabled an abuser and continues to try to avoid accountability for it. Kane and Toews are back for another go-around and now they have Marc-Andre Fleury. Like the Blues, they could be almost anywhere in the standings.
- NASHVILLE PREDATORS - A playoff team last year, but they spent the summer selling off players. Expectations are low, but like Winnipeg, they have the wildcard of potentially elite goaltending. The problem here is going to be scoring enough to make that matter. It's the worst forward group in the division except for ...
- ARIZONA COYOTES - Do not, under any circumstances watch any Arizona games this year if you can help it. They are bad. They are trying to be bad. It's going to be ugly.
Wild Season Preview
The future is .... coming in a little bit.
The Wild broke camp without any of their highly touted rookies. Rossi, Beckman, Addison will all start in the AHL in Iowa (note to self - find out when the Iowa Wild come play the Chicago Wolves) and Matt Boldy broke his ankle in the last week of camp and will miss 4-6 weeks.
But last year's team didn't have any of those guys and they had a really good season! Let's see who is new and who is one year older.
- Ryan Suter - buyout, now in Dallas
- Zach Parise - buyout, now on NY Islanders
- Nick Bonino - Free agency to San Jose
- Ian Cole - Free agency to Carolina
- Carson Soucy - expansion draft to Seattle
- Marcus Johansson - Free agency to Seattle (I think?)
- Brad Hunt - Free agency to Los Angeles(?)
- Freddy Gaudreau - A center/wing who is probably best suited for third line duty, but will almost certainly get some looks on the second line while we wait for Rossi to be deemed ready. Not an exciting signing, but a decent player.
- Rem Pitlick - Winger. Late signing young player who was put on waivers by Nashville. He's looked ... less than good in pre-season. He's currently lined up with Gaudreau and Fiala on the 2nd/3rd line. I have no thoughts about this person.
- Alex Goligoski - Defense. Ryan Suter replacement, but with a one year contract. The question here is age. If he maintains last year's level, he'll be fine. If he falls off a cliff, then it will be a rough landing.
- Dmitry Kulikov - Defense. Carson Soucy replacement, only less offensively minded. Ideally a third-pair player put on the ice to keep the puck out of the net for a while so the other D can get a breather. Perfectly competent in that role
- John Merrill - Defense. More all defense, no offense. Is he better than Jordie Benn? Is he better than Calen Addison? These are the questions that STrib commenters will hotly debate.
- Jordie Benn - Defense. Already not a fan favorite after getting lost a few times and giving up some bad goals. Is he better than John Merrill? Is he better than Calen Addison? Probably not.
- NEW ROLES
- Joel Eriksson Ek - big contract, big role. He'll start between Kaprizov and Zuccarello
- Victor Rask - at least initially it looks like he'll be the healthy scratch.
- Brandon Duhaime - From the AHL last year to fourth line winger with Nico Sturm and Nick Bjugstad. I like this fourth line, but liking a fourth line is maybe the most pointless statement in hockey analysis.
- Ryan Hartman - gets to center Foligno and Greenway and continue the shut-down success.
If you spent any time looking at the table at the start of the post, and then you noticed that no mention was made of the goaltending in the "what's new" part of the Wild preview, you might be thinking that we need to spend some time thinking about what effect the Talbot-Kahkonen duo is going to have on the Wild's season.
There's an ongoing discussion in the stats/analytics community whether hockey is a game where it's better to construct your team by improving your worst players or if you are better off finding improvement at the top end of your roster. The arrival of Cam Talbot last year and his mostly average and sometimes great play was probably the biggest difference maker that took a team that finished 10th in the conference the year before to a team that looked like a dark-horse contender. JFresh's model doesn't like Talbot much and hates Kahkonen, so predicts some rough going for the goalie position for Minnesota this year. But it seems reasonable to me to think that Talbot will probably continue to be average to slightly better than that. And really that's what the Wild need. They have scoring (wait ... checking my notes ... yes, it says here the Minnesota Wild have scoring ... huh) and a solid D corps (Spurgeon, Brodin, Dumba are all good to great). A good to great top end of the roster with exciting young players waiting in the wings plus average goaltending is a pretty solid recipe for an entertaining season.
Kahkonen ... he's more of a question. He's a free agent after this season, and there are some cheap in-house options to replace him. If he isn't better than replacement level, I think he's gone. I hope he takes a step this season, but I have to say I'm not a believer.
Ok, what else is there to say?
Oh yeah, who wants to watch Kaprizov play keep away from the Blackhawks for a while? I started to almost feel bad for number 17.