From an abrupt stop to the debut of bubble hockey, the NHL is coming off an unforgettable season. And the next one may end up being even more memorable. When the puck drops Wednesday, the league will kick off a streamlined schedule with four updated divisions to get back in action during the middle of a pandemic. These tweaks will add a unique twist to the Wild's 20th anniversary season, but those aren't the only reasons to be intrigued by the team's return.
The revolving door that was the Wild's roster in the offseason has slammed shut. Now it's time to see if these changes make a difference.
Dean Evason, who took over almost a year ago from Bruce Boudreau, is in charge from the start and running a bench that has new faces in key places — like up the middle and in net.
The effectiveness of these additions will help gauge the Wild's potential, but so will some key returners. Veterans Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and freshly minted captain Jared Spurgeon need to remain on-ice leaders, but the team would also benefit from bounce-back seasons from Matt Dumba and Jordan Greenway to really improve.
After the Wild's save percentage was among the worst in the NHL last season, the team switched up its look between the pipes — bringing in Cam Talbot to replace Devan Dubnyk as starter.
Talbot has experience as a No. 1, backstopping Edmonton earlier in his career and nabbing the Calgary spotlight last season during an impressive postseason run, but it's been a few years since the 33-year-old handled a heavy workload. Not since 2017-18 has Talbot started more than 35 games.
Still, his economical style should help him adjust, and his patient attack against shooters looks like a solid complement to the Wild's usually stingy defense. Talbot will also have a younger running mate in Kaapo Kahkonen to start the season since normal backup Alex Stalock is sidelined with injury.
"We have a pretty balanced team this year," Talbot said. "If I go out there and just do my job, I think we'll be just fine."
Rise of the rookie
Kirill Kaprizov is no longer a pipe dream.
He's on the brink of his NHL debut, a highly anticipated moment for the franchise and its fan base.
Showstoppers are tough to come by in today's NHL, putting an emphasis on homegrown talent, and the Wild has a source of pride in Kaprizov.
Since the team drafted him in the fifth round in 2015, Kaprizov has shined internationally and in the Kontinental Hockey League — wowing with his goal-scorer's finish as much as his competitive edge. Both attributes will help the Russian adapt to the NHL and the quicker he can get up to speed, the better off the Wild's offense will be.
"He's a gifted athlete that is highly skilled and excited, clearly," Evason said. "When you can see that and have that within your hockey team, there's no question that as an organization we're excited."
Driving the offense
Kevin Fiala turned a corner in his career last season, becoming the Wild's most dangerous player and a lightning rod for offense as the team's top point-getter.
What Fiala does for an encore will likely shape the direction of the Wild's season.
No doubt his speed and shot are assets at even strength when the Wild is trying to capitalize on the fly, but Fiala could really boost the team by headlining the power play. The unit's struggles in the playoffs contributed to the Wild's early exit against Vancouver, and a revitalized performance could go a long way in a condensed, 56-game schedule.
The stakes are the same, but the path to the postseason isn't.
To make the cut, the Wild has to finish in the top four of its realigned West Division. That means jostling with Western Conference front-runners Colorado, St. Louis and Vegas during an endless loop of playoff intensity.
Not only are teams playing solely against their division, a frequency that should elevate animosity on the ice, but someone will always gain ground at the expense of another. Every game has a four-point swing, a reality that could pad a climb or accelerate a drop.