You had to figure the Wild’s season was over after they won only one of 10 games Feb. 1-19, including back-to-back 4-0 losses to St. Louis and Anaheim at home that moved their record to 27-27-6.
General Manager Paul Fenton had clearly seen enough when he decided to trade Charlie Coyle, Matt Hendricks and Mikael Granlund following those back-to-back losses, after moving Nino Niederreiter to the Hurricanes in mid-January.
So it’s incredible how the team has gone 6-0-2 in the past eight games after Thursday night’s 3-0 shutout over Tampa Bay to hold onto its playoff position.
Brian Lawton, the NHL Network analyst, former North Stars standout and Tampa Bay Lightning general manager, says there’s no doubt this team can still compete for a playoff spot.
“It’s been a very up-and-down season for the Wild,” Lawton said. “You know, I think that you have a new GM in there and he’s trying to figure out what kind of team he has and I think he has seen so much erratic play that I’m not surprised he made some trades. I felt like he would wait and then make a few trades and that’s exactly what he’s done.
“I think that anybody can go on a run, if you can just get into the playoffs. On the surface, certainly, Winnipeg, Nashville and St. Louis in the Central have been the superior teams to the rest of the division.”
Salary cap space
One thing Lawton said to watch: The Wild will have a lot of salary cap space heading into next season, no matter how this years plays out.
According to Spotrac.com, the Wild have $63.4 million in committed salary cap for the 2019-2020 season. The salary cap jumped to $79.5 million for this season after settling at $75 million in 2017-2018.
Lawton pointed out that several players with Minnesota ties and/or outstanding talent are going to be entering the free-agent market.
“[The Wild has] all kinds of options this summer,” Lawton said. “You have Minnesota players available, all kinds of other star players available, kids like [forwards] Brock Nelson and Anders Lee are from Minnesota. If they don’t re-sign with the Islanders, they will be unrestricted free agents and they’re real good players. Then you have other guys like [Columbus forwards] Matt Duchene or Artemi Panarin, [forward] Kevin Hayes, another guy who just got traded to Winnipeg, these are elite players. They are going to be unrestricted free agents and the Wild are finally going to have enough money to step up and pay some of these guys to bring them in.”
Pressure on Boudreau
Lawton said Wild coach Bruce Boudreau, who is in the third year of a four-year contract and reached the playoffs in his first two years, is definitely under a stressful situation with a new general manager.
“I think there’s a lot of pressure over there for him in terms of having to make the playoffs, because he has been here a few years and you have a new GM who is going to evaluate him,” Lawton said. “There is a lot of dynamics going on for the Wild right now.”
What did Lawton think of the deals Fenton made?
“I think they did a really nice job getting some younger players that can play with a little bit more speed,” he said. “I think Mikael Granlund was a really good player, but he’s not a speed demon. He doesn’t have a really big shot and I thought they were able to bring in a guy in Kevin Fiala who is younger , hasn’t hit his best yet, but he can be a really good player for the Wild.”
A big plus for the Wild’s playoff chances is that Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are healthy. Suter has played in all 68 games while Parise has appeared in 66.
“I think that Zach Parise has had an excellent bounce-back year, and I think Ryan Suter has played really well,” he said. “It feels like a quieter year from him, but his play has been excellent.”
One move Lawton said is still paying dividends for the Wild was the decision to trade a third-round pick for Devan Dubnyk back in 2015. He made 25 saves to shut out the Lightning on Thursday.
“I know Devyn Dubnyk well and I think he’s an elite goaltender in the National Hockey League,” Lawton said. “A little bit of erratic numbers from him at times, but the fact of the matter is the team has played erratic. At the end of the day, Devyn Dubnyk has been literally one of the best trades in the history of the Minnesota Wild.”
Still, one of the surprising issues for the Wild this season is that the team is only 14-13-6 at home after going 27-6-8 at home last year and averaging 24 wins at home each season dating back to 2013-14.
How does Lawton interpret the struggles at Xcel Energy Center?
“It really isn’t the last year, it’s the last 17 or 18 years. The Minnesota Wild have traditionally been dominant at home,” he said. “I’m not quite sure why that changed. I know that the injury to [defensemen] Matt Dumba really hurt the Wild. I always felt like they were a team that could match up defensively and just losing one guy on the back end, I felt, could really put them out of whack a little bit. I think that has hurt more than anybody could really realize at the time.”
U coaches paid well
The latest USA Today revenue reports for college athletic departments show the Big Ten Conference continues to make more money than ever.
The conference has five of the top 20 athletic departments in the country for revenue including Ohio State at No. 3, Michigan at No. 4, Penn State at No. 14, Wisconsin at No. 15 and Iowa at No. 18. The Gophers ranked No. 25 in total revenue at $116.4 million.
A report by the Cleveland Plain Dealer on the Big Ten’s sports expenditures showed the Gophers paid their coaches $20.8 million in 2016-17, the most recent data available, which ranked sixth in the Big Ten. They trailed Ohio State ($31.8 million), Michigan ($28.8 million), Penn State ($25.4 million), Iowa ($21.9 million) and Michigan State ($20.9 million).
For comparison’s sake with neighboring state universities, Wisconsin paid its coaches $18.4 million and Iowa paid $21.9 million. A big reason for the Hawkeyes’ edge over the Gophers was in football coaching salaries, with Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz earning $5.8 million in 2016-17 compared to the Gophers’ P.J. Fleck, who made $3.1 million his first season.
In December, Fleck got a one-year, $3.8 million extension for the 2023 season. He will make $3.6 million in 2019.