Wyshynski: How Minnesota went from mild to Wild

Mike Modano started his Hall of Fame NHL career with the Minnesota North Stars. They were a blast to watch back in the 1980s, with players like Neal Broten and Dino Ciccarelli scoring copious amounts of goals, until Norm Greed … er, Green … stole them from the “State of Hockey” and moved them to the Lone Star State.

Modano also played against the Minnesota Wild, the expansion team that succeeded the North Stars and were the antithesis of fire wagon hockey.

“They lulled you to sleep, bogged you down. A monotonous type game,” he told ESPN. “The perception of the Wild as being that team had stuck with them for years.”

Until now.

The current incarnation of the Minnesota Wild has shattered that perception; it’s frankly hard to believe coach Jacques Lemaire’s territorial hockey NyQuil could share the same franchise timeline as The Kirill Kaprizov Show.

Entering Wednesday night, the Wild were averaging 3.80 goals per game, the third-highest-scoring team in the NHL. It’s only the fifth time Minnesota has had a goals-per-game average over 3.00 since entering the league in 2000-01 — and all five occasions have happened since 2015-16.

“Now they have skill. Top-end guys. I don’t think they had a team like this since they entered the league,” said Modano, who has worked in an advisory capacity with the Wild in recent years. “The whole culture there has changed, and the perception of the team has changed, in the span of a year.”

Modano points to the Wild’s Monday night game against the Detroit Red Wings at home, which Minnesota won 7-4.

“The place is packed, and it’s minus 15 [degrees] there. They don’t give a s— how cold it is outside or what night of the week it is. The fans are hungry for this,” he said.

If I had the divine ability to reshape professional sports, one of my first acts would be to have certain teams play in a way that better represents their localities. For example, the New York Knicks should play streetball style, instead of doing whatever it is that the Knicks have been doing for the past decade.

For years, I wanted the Minnesota Wild to better reflect Minnesota pond hockey. The kind of free, fun yet soulful hockey you’d find on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis. Not without structure or discipline, but with a better connection to the joy of the game than the franchise had exhibited.

This is the first time I feel the Wild have conjured that State of Hockey spirit.

“Hockey’s the best game in the world,” Wild general manager Bill Guerin explained to me this week. “You want to skate up-tempo, you want to play that kind of game, because it’s much more fun. When the coach says move your feet or play up-tempo, it keeps you engaged. Because if you don’t do that, you aren’t going to play.”

The coach in this instance is Dean Evason. If I had a Jack Adams Award vote, I’d cast it for Evason — all due respect to the Pittsburgh Penguins‘ Mike Sullivan and the Calgary Flames‘ Darryl Sutter. Evason has found a style of hockey for this team that presses the pedal down offensively while still playing effective team defense and being tremendously bellicose in both ends.

Modano played with Evason on the Dallas Stars from 1993-94 to 1994-95. Did he ever think Evason would coach the third-best offense in the NHL?

“Oh, no way,” Modano said with a laugh. “He was a structure guy. A hard-nosed player. But recognizing your personnel and coaching them accordingly is a good coaching job. He’s having the time of his life right now.”

One of the boldest moves Guerin made as general manager (and there would be more) was elevating Evason from interim coach — he replaced Bruce Boudreau behind the bench in February 2020, Guerin’s first season as general manager — to head coach that offseason. His proof of concept was 12 regular-season games and a brief four-game stay in the Edmonton, Alberta, playoff bubble. The hockey world anticipated Guerin would hire “his guy” as the head coach. After observing Evason interacting with the players and finding they shared a philosophy about the game, “his guy” was already his coach.

“He and I have worked hard together on how we wanted to play,” Guerin said. “I had a vision. Dean had a vision. It’s just happened to be the same vision. And the players believe in it too, and that’s the most important thing. It’s not just about that they want to play that way. They believe in Dean and his systems and that we can win like that.”

How would Guerin sum up the philosophy?

“Aggressive. In one word, it would be aggressive. You gotta be responsible defensively too, but we want to be aggressive in all aspects of the game. Not sit back,” he said. “It’s a little harder to play that style when you don’t have those kinds of players. But we do.”

Guerin ticks off the names of the Minnesota players that are excelling under Evason:

  • Forward Mats Zuccarello, handed a much-maligned five-year, $30 million contract by former GM Paul Fenton in 2019 and now putting up better offensive numbers (3.8 points per 60) than he did in his glory years with the New York Rangers. “Zuccy’s back to playing the way he can play,” Guerin said.

  • Forwards Kevin Fiala, Frederick Gaudreau and rookie phenom Matt Boldy (14 points in 13 games), who have quickly become one of the best lines in hockey (61.1% expected goals at 5-on-5). As Guerin said of Boldy, “He’s been lights-out for us. Such a smart player. Has great hockey sense.”

  • Ryan Hartman, the bludgeoning forward who is second on the team with 19 goals.

  • Forwards Marcus Foligno and Joel Eriksson Ek, who balance Selke Trophy-worthy defense with consistently good offense.

  • And, of course, Kirill The Thrill.

I wrote about “The Kaprizov Effect” last season, when the brilliant rookie infused this franchise with a different energy like no player since Alex Ovechkin did for the Washington Capitals in 2005. The Wild’s slow pivot to becoming an offensive team predated Kaprizov’s arrival in North America — their 3.21 goals-per-game average last season equaled their output in 2016-17 for second highest in franchise history — but adding Kaprizov was like hooking up the franchise to an IV filled with rocket fuel.

“Kirill’s had a huge impact on the organization. He’s the first bona fide superstar that we’ve had,” said Guerin — with apologies to Marian Gaborik, we assume.

It’s hard not to talk about what’s been added to the Wild without acknowledging what’s been removed. Guerin made the decision last summer to buy out the remaining four contract years of forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter, two free-agent coups from 2012 whose era produced two playoff series victories.

Their arrival gave a rudderless franchise some direction. Their removal pulled up an anchor that was a drag on the team’s forward momentum. I always appreciated Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan’s summary: “What Guerin did was remove the two primary obstacles to locker room harmony. The players on your team don’t have to all love each other, but they can’t be worried about someone running to the owner to complain about playing time.”

There’s a joy that exists now for the Wild that didn’t exist last season. I asked Guerin if buying out Suter and Parise, salary-cap repercussions be damned, directly led to that vibe change.

“[The vibe] changed over the last couple of years,” he said. “It’s not just those two guys. It’s been a huge change. I don’t know how many players and coaches and staff that we changed over the years, but it’s been a lot. And it was just necessary. Sometimes, you just have to change.”

It’s been a change for the better, not just on the ice but in the stands. We take Minnesota for granted as a market. The Wild had a 251-game sellout streak end in 2019. Hockey-obsessive fans as they are, enthusiasm for an inferior NHL product waned.

“I don’t think of it as a slam dunk market,” Guerin said. “There’s too much competition here in the hockey world. You can go to college games or high school games. If we’re not good, people won’t come. We need to be good. I don’t believe in taking our fan base for granted.”

The Wild fans are watching a sensation right now, one whose .716 points percentage could end up being the most successful for a regular-season team in franchise history.

Key words: “regular” and “season.” Whether this success extends to the Stanley Cup playoffs is anyone’s guess, as it usually is when it comes to offensively dominant teams.

“I think it does. I think we’re good defensively too. We have a real strong D core. We have forwards that back check,” Guerin said. “And our goaltending’s been excellent.”

OK, but has it though?

For the second straight season, the Wild’s expected goals against (2.25 per 60 minutes) doesn’t sync up to what they’re actually surrendering (2.42). While Kaapo Kahkonen (8.4 goals saved above average) has looked solid, Cam Talbot (2.4) has been ordinary. Are the Wild getting the saves they need when they need them?

“Oh no, we are. I disagree with the numbers then,” Guerin said. “We’re getting saves at key moments in the game. Both our goalies have been awesome.”

There is a lot that’s been awesome about the Wild this season. The coach. The offense. The record, which gives them a 99.8% chance of making the playoffs in a competitive division, per Money Puck.

Above all else, the vibe has been awesome. Gone are the days of the Minnesota Mild. These are, indeed, Wild times.

“We have talented players. We can’t waste that,” Guerin said.

Jersey Foul of the week

From David Alter at Toronto’s game vs. Calgary:

Based on these Frankenjerseys, we’re going to say there’s 100% chance these people own Doug Gilmour teddy bears.

Three things on the Olympics

1. As a proud American hockey fan, I’m actually a bit more broken up about the men’s team getting upset by Slovakia in the Olympic quarterfinals than I am about the women’s team losing to Canada in the gold-medal game.

The U.S. winning silver felt inevitable: Canada set an Olympic record with 57 goals, while the Americans were already in a transitional phase before Brianna Decker was injured in their first game, which diminished any chance they had at beating Canada.

When USA Hockey selected 15 NCAA players to its roster, I had a previous member of the U.S. men’s national team tell me it was a marketing ploy. Well, friends, I bought what they were selling. I watched a team that played with pace, played with offensive creativity and showed impressive resiliency, and I thought the U.S. had a legitimate chance to win its first gold medal since 1980.

In the end, the Americans’ greatest virtue was also their undoing: That wide-eyed inexperience contributed to their failure to extend a one-goal lead in the third period despite ample power-play time, to keep the lead with a minute left before the semifinal and to score a single goal in the shootout.

But I’d rather watch a bunch of goofy college kids lose in the quarters than a collection of 30-year-old former AHL players. Of course, I’d rather watch Auston Matthews and Jack Hughes more than any of them. Alas…

2. Marie-Philip Poulin is only hockey player — woman or man — to score in four Olympic gold-medal games. Not only that, she scored the only two goals in 2010, she scored the tying and winning goals in 2014, and had another two goals in Beijing. Seven of the 17 goals she’s scored in the Olympics have been in gold-medal games.

I took this photo of her in 2010, when Team Canada had returned to the Vancouver ice to smoke cigars and chug beers with their gold medals. She was 18 years old, and this celebration sparked a dumb controversy at the time. Little did I know she’d end up an Olympic hockey G.O.A.T.

3. As you know, I don’t have any time for “move ice hockey to the Summer Olympics” talk, even as the IIHF was asked about it this week. It would accomplish one thing: taking a sport that’s the second most popular thing in the Winter Games (behind figure skating) and making it, at most, the sixth or seventh most popular thing in the Summer Games.

My friend Dan Wetzel acknowledges this in his column on the matter, but I must give him credit for creating an argument that gave me pause: Move the NHL-laden men’s hockey tournament to the summer and keep the women’s tournament as a centerpiece event in the Winter Games. OK, I’m listening …

Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Jack Eichel

Do you ever take a moment to consider that Jack Eichel actually pulled this off? The escape from Buffalo, the surgery, hooking up with a Stanley Cup contender where he’s treated like a conquering hero without having played a shift?

Loser: Cap whining

With Mark Stone going on long-term injured reserve for the Golden Knights, they were able to activate Eichel, leading to speculation they’ll just “Kucherov” Stone until the postseason.

Again, the NHL remains OK with this particular cap shenanigan because it requires a level of disadvantage. The Lightning played nearly an entire regular season without Nikita Kucherov and finished second in their division. The Golden Knights might not have Stone for the rest of the season in a playoff race. They went to the salary-cap altar, made the sacrifice, and the Cap Gods bestowed upon them an LTIR exception. So say we all.

Winner: Timing

It’s an annual tradition: Veteran players on expiring contracts with trade protection denying they’ve ever spoken a word to their general manager about the ever-approaching trade deadline.

Claude Giroux recently said, “I haven’t had a chance to talk to Chuck,” as in Fletcher. Marc-Andre Fleury said, “I haven’t personally [talked with Chicago].” It’s only one of the biggest decisions of your career, right?

Loser: Timing

Of course, on a night when the hockey world’s attention is on Las Vegas for the debut of Jack Eichel, the Florida Panthers (a) force a delay on the opening faceoff in the game at Carolina and (b) score with 49 seconds remaining in regulation to send Jack Eichel’s debut for the Golden Knights into a split-screen box. Who scored the goal? Eichel’s former linemate Sam Reinhart, no less! (Great win for Florida, by the way.)

Winner: Tyler Toffoli‘s reunion

It’s been quite a journey for Tyler Toffoli in the past few years. He gets traded by the L.A. Kings to Vancouver in 2020, where he’s an absolute star in the regular season and the playoffs. They don’t sign him for some strange reason, so he goes to Montreal as a free agent, scores 28 goals and plays for the Stanley Cup. Then the Canadiens implode and he gets traded again to the Calgary Flames, a legit Stanley Cup contender with a coach in Darryl Sutter with whom Toffoli won the Stanley Cup in L.A.

Not a bad turn of events!

Loser: J.T. Miller‘s mystery

Would the New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks just make this trade already? The inevitability of this transaction has reached “just get on with it” territory.

Winner: Juraj Slafkovsky

There’s a good argument to be made that the NHL, and hockey in general, would benefit from the men’s Olympic tournament being age-restricted, much like soccer is in the Summer Games. Then it becomes a platform for launching new stars.

Take Juraj Slafkovsky, the 17-year-old Slovakian forward who scored five goals in five games in their Cinderella run. Many discovered him in the past couple of weeks. Many also discovered he’s a likely draft lottery pick this summer and know they’ll be excited if their team has a chance to draft him.

Loser: David Quinn

Even after he explained it to reporter Erica L. Ayala, I have no idea how the U.S. coach can justify not giving Matty Beniers a chance in the shootout against Slovakia. He was glaringly the best U.S. player in the 3-on-3 overtime. He’s an incredibly gifted offensive player who might have done more than take pedestrian shots into Patrik Rybar’s pad. This was the spiritual successor to Canadian coach Marc Crawford leaving Wayne Gretzky on the bench in Nagano.

Puck headlines

  • Here’s an angle on Canada’s win: “Seven of their competing players are openly LGBTQ, making them tied for the queerest Olympic team of all time.”

  • Good piece on Kelsey Koelzer, who is “among a handful of Black NCAA hockey coaches that include former NHL defenseman Paul Jerrard (an assistant on the Nebraska-Omaha men’s team), Leon Hayward (an assistant at St. Thomas University in Minnesota), Duante Abercrombie (an assistant at Stevenson University) and former Ohio State team captain Olivia Soares (a first-year assistant at Colby College in Maine).”

  • Jaromir Jagr at 50. “It took one practice. It was like, ‘Oh my God, look at this kid. Look at his legs.'”

  • The hockey world’s reaction to Sidney Crosby‘s 500th goal.

  • What will the Vancouver Canucks do at the trade deadline?

  • The New York Islanders are expected to trade players away, and Cal Clutterbuck could be one of them.

  • A terrific breakdown of the Arizona Coyotes-to-ASU situation. “What people need to realize is that every seat is a lower-bowl seat. You only have 13 rows. So when you think of the price points of lower-bowl seats across the NHL, across live sports, we’re not going to be that far off from what people are used to paying for that closeness to the rink, to the ice and to the players.”

From your friends at ESPN

My column on Team USA losing to Canada in the gold-medal game, which felt oddly inevitable.

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