The Wild scored 257 goals in 2017-18 and fell to 211 this season. No coincidently, their top two goal-scorers of 2017-18 had big drop-offs this year. Eric Staal went from 42 goals to 22, while Jason Zucker fell from 33 to 21. Can both return to their previous form? Star Tribune Wild beat writer Sarah McLellan and Puck Drop editor Randy Johnson discuss.
Randy: With the Wild ranking 27th in goals this season, the team will need help to return to the playoffs, let alone offering a more entertaining product, especially at home. General Manager Paul Fenton doesn’t have a magic wand to fix this overnight, so improvement in-house is needed. That starts with Staal and Zucker. For Staal, the biggest enemy is Father Time. He’ll be 35 before the season’s first month ends, and when you look at his history, a repeat of his 42-goal season of 2017-18 isn’t likely. Staal averaged 38.3 goals in his prime years of 2005-06 to 2008-09, but since 2011-12 he didn’t reach 30 goals until that 42-goal mark. A season in the mid-to-upper 20s is more realistic.
As for Zucker, age isn’t as big of a concern. But will the 27-year-old still be with the team next fall? He nearly was traded to Calgary at the deadline.
Sarah: That’s one of the most intriguing questions surrounding the Wild this offseason. It’s certainly possible Zucker ends up as the poster boy for the next chapter of the shakeup. But a case could be made to keep him. Zucker is in position for a bounce-back season, and he’s made it clear he expects to be a 30-goal scorer. He’s reached the 20-goal plateau in four of the five seasons he’s been a regular with the team, and the last time his output sagged he responded by establishing a career-high. What’s also been a strength of Zucker’s is his production at even strength. Of those 21 goals, only seven came on the power play. Since 2014-15, Zucker has 91 even-strength goals – which is tops for the Wild. And after the team managed just 141 goals at 5-on-5 this past season, which was 28th in the NHL, it needs all the help it can get in that area.
Randy: I would hope that if Zucker is moved, the return would be much better than we’ve seen with the Niederreiter and Granlund deals this winter. And I’m in favor of keeping a four-time 20-goal scorer who’s reached 33 and should enter the season hungry to atone. Will Zucker get back to that 30-goal level? I’m willing to take the chance that he does, without knowing the type of assets that GM Paul Fenton would receive in return.
Sarah: Still, this is a team primed to receive some external help. Maybe another trade brings in a proven scorer, or it’s possible that player arrives via free agency. The Wild will have plenty of money to spend after creating flexibility with its in-season moves. But it seems like both -- in-house improvement and additional assistance -- is what the team needs to boost the offense. And if that doesn’t happen, the Wild could be facing another non-playoff finish.