Wild set for 23rd season! Twins in!

Marc Elliott

Wild extend Matts Zuccarello for 2 more seasons.

FRENCH RIVER – In just a few days the Minnesota Wild will begin their 23rd season. Many longtime fans of the club are painfully aware of the track record and lack of any significant accomplishments on the 200' by 85' over the years. The best year in the postseason history of the team actually occurred a little over 20 years ago. That's when the upstart club led by Marian Gaborik and goaltender Dwayne Roloson made its first playoff appearance in team history and went on a magic carpet ride that ended up in the Western Conference Final.  

After winning an intense opening seven-game series against the Colorado Avalanche that finished with a Game 7 series-winning OT goal by Andrew Brunette, the team went on to yet another seven-game series against the Vancouver Canucks. The Wild prevailed in game seven by a 4-2 score, but not without some nervous moments within the game. The Wild were down by a 2-0 score in the middle of the second period before roaring back with 4 straight goals to win the game and the series. This was remarkable in that the team was also down in the series 3-1 before rallying to win games five and six to set up the game seven showdown and Wild victory.  

The Conference Final did not go as well with the Anaheim Ducks when an all-world performance by netminder Jean-Sebastian Giguere sent the Wild to the golf course in a 4-0 series win. Three of the Duck victories came via shutout. The harshest of the Wild losses in the series had to be when the Ducks took game one in a 1-0, 2 overtime victory in St. Paul. The Wild never seemed to recover from that game and the Ducks would go on to the Stanley Cup Final which they would lose to the New Jersey Devils in a seven-game thriller. The Devils took games one and two at home via shutouts. Games three and four in Anaheim both went to overtime. (Duck wins) Cloquet hockey legend Jamie Langenbrunner was instrumental in the Devil's victory in the series.  

Without belaboring the Wild on-ice history too much, in the previous 22 seasons, the team has won 1 divisional title, and that was in the 2007-08 season. They have missed the playoffs in 9 seasons. They have made 13 playoff appearances with 10 opening-round eliminations. They have not advanced to the second round since the 2014-15 season. As they did last season, and will this year and next, the team is functioning with roughly $14.7 mil in cap penalties.  

This didn't stop them from re-signing veterans Matts Zuccarello and Marcus Foligno to contract extensions within the past 24-30 hours. Zuccs was extended for 2 more years at $8.25mil, and "Moose" was inked for 4 more years at $16mil. GM Bill Guerin has stated that he is also working on an extension for forward Ryan Hartman. No specifics are available on that as of yet. The team will face the Chicago Blackhawks in St. Paul tomorrow evening. They will presumably make some roster cuts on Sunday post-practice before heading north on their annual team bonding trip.  

The extensions were a bit of a surprise, but then again they weren't. The surprise comes from each of these players having indifferent seasons in the 22-23 campaign along with some public dialogue that the team wanted to get "younger" and more skilled. On the other hand it is no secret that Guerin values veteran players and toughness.

With many factors considered here is my opening night 23-man roster for the team, Forwards Kaprizov-Hartman-Zuccarello Boldy-Eriksson Ek-Johansson Foligno-Gaudreau-Duhaime Maroon-Kharia-Dewar Lettieri-Petan; Defense, Spurgeon-Middleton Brodin-Faber Merrill-Addison Goligoski Goaltenders, Gustafsson-Fleury  

In my view with the veterans and their experience the team lost in the offseason, mainly due to the cap situation, I can't help but feel that the team will take a bit of a step back this year. I have been consistent in saying this since the offseason began. Then again this team does have some talent. They have it up front and on the backend, along with the goalies. They moved assistant coach Brett Maclean to the Head Coaches position of the Iowa Wild and in his place brought in coach Jason King. He was recently with the Vancouver Canucks and has been noted for his expertise in coaching the power play unit. The PP has been a sore spot for the team recently and hopefully "Kinger" can get that group going again.  

The 82-game schedule splits in two for home and away games and it features 15 back-to-back setups. The total includes one at home, with nine away, there will be one "home and home" (with the Jets), three "home and aways" and then one with the Global Series in Sweden in November. These are always a challenge and rest and recovery are of vital importance in managing these scenarios.   At this juncture of the preseason the team is in good health and spirits and after the Sunday practice and cuts the team will turn it's focus on how the big club will play the various game situations this season with one of the goals being to improve all special teams play.      

The obvious strength in the Central Division lies with the Colorado Avalanche and the Dallas Stars. After that it is a bit of a dice roll. The two bottom clubs, the Coyotes and Blackhawks are rebuilding but are doing so with some of the best young talent in the league. Nashville and St. Louis are uncertainties to me. And then Winnipeg has to be considered. What if one of the two rebuilding teams challenges for a spot?   This might be the year the division gets turned over and we see some new teams in the Western Conference playoffs. Vegas Stanley Cup futures have the Wild at 14th overall, while the Hockey Writers see the Wild taking the 3rd spot in the regular season. Who will be right and who will be wrong? We are about to find out!  

The Minnesota Twins have won the American League Central division and have their playoff ticket punched. On the flip side they are still awaiting an opponent. It will be either the Houston Astros or the Seattle Mariners. The Astros are a better hitting team with the Twins having the better pitching. Seattle is close to the Twins in hitting but actually has a better pitching staff. And not only is Houston the defending Series champion, they have been in four of the last six, winning two of them. Experience is their middle name.  

Whomever the opposition will be the Twins will be bringing an 18-game playoff losing streak with them that dates back to 2004. If the opponent is the Astros, their experience and that streak trouble me. On the other hand the Twins will have home field advantage. Is that still worth anything anymore? I'm not totally sure about that. The Twins won the regular season series against the Astros but lost that versus the Mariners.   By the time this edition of the Worldwide Duluth Reader hits the stands, two games of the Twins series will have been played. Here's hoping the boys are on the winning side of them! PEACE