Minnesota Wild fans knew the organization’s weakness going into the season; the incredible lack of talent at the center position in the top six. What can management and the coaching staff do to fix it?
The Minnesota Wild are seven games into their season and sitting at 4-3. After a good road trip in California where they went 3-1-0, they’ve dropped two of three at home against the Sharks and the Kings and must rediscover their game with the talented Colorado Avalanche come to town.
It’s not difficult to find where the fans see their shortcomings, they knew it going into the season. Wild fans don’t think Kirill Kaprizov, Kevin Fiala, and Zach Parise have had a talented enough Center on their lines, and they aren’t wrong. Let’s run down the list.
In the season opener, the top two lines looked like:
Zach Parise – Nick Bjugstad – Kirill Kaprizov
For game two (and midway through the first game) they flipped Bjugstad and Victor Rask, while keeping the Fiala line together. They would roll this composition of lines for the Anaheim games as well, sometimes trying Johansson at Center of the Fiala line without much success.
After good efforts and showings on the fourth line, Bjugstad returned to the first line with Parise and Kaprizov, where he has stayed since. Most recently, Dean Evason flipped Kaprizov and Fiala just to try to jumpstart Fiala and Parise after the chemistry they built last year.
Yet Fiala, Kaprizov, and Parise haven’t been able to truly reach their potential with these centers. It looks like all three have had different periods of frustration early in the season and it’s understandable.
Kaprizov has his one goal and five assists and is tied for the lead in scoring on the team, but I feel he could (and honestly should) have more points with his skillset and ability to make plays happen. Parise has two goals and one assist, and Fiala only has two goals and no assists.
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So with our three highly skilled players, they’ve had Nick Bjiugstad, Nick Bonino, Marcus Johansson, and Victor Rask. Simply isn’t enough.
What Minnesota Wild fans want to try is promoting Joel Eriksson Ek to center Parise and Kaprizov or Kevin Fiala, but management and coaching staff don’t want to break up arguably their best line of Jordan Greenway – Joel Eriksson Ek – Marcus Foligno.
Wild fans consistently make the solid argument to break up the line, saying that it’s great you have a fantastic third line, one that through seven games hasn’t had a goal scored against them, but it’s a little absurd that they’re so against breaking up the third line.
Joel Eriksson Ek is tied for the lead in points with six (with Greenway and Kaprizov) and leads the Wild in goal scoring with four and with each one, the call to move him up the lineup grows louder and louder.
One extended shift from Kirill Kaprizov stands out to many Minnesota Wild fans as proof of what could happen if you put a solid center with a skilled player.
After this, several Wild fans have been calling for JEE to center any of Parise, Kaprizov, and/or Fiala, and after the start to the season he had, I would be more than fine building a line like:
From all reports, it sounds as the Minnesota Wild were in on trying to trade for Pierre Luc Dubois, but, understandably, the Wild didn’t win the sweepstakes for him when Patrick Laine and Jack Roslovic were the package to get PLD from Columbus.
So where do the Minnesota Wild go from here? Internally, something has to change. If you promote JEE to the first or second line, you likely keep Bonino as the center of the other line because his Faceoff Win percentage is at 57.1%. JEE’s FO% is sub 50 at 43.4, Bjugstad’s FO% is 40.7, MoJo at 30, and Rask at 26.5.
What other options do they have? Let’s say the coaching staff refuses to break up the GREEF line, what else could they try?
Nico Sturm has been a pleasant surprise this season so far. He works hard up and down the ice consistently and I feel like has earned an opportunity to move up the lineup. He’s quick and tries to make plays happen. At a minimum, if they do promote JEE, they could fill Sturm in on the third.
A long-shot option, could they try Ryan Hartman? He’s mostly been a Right Winger for his career but in a decent sample size, he’s been good on the faceoff dot and he’s been able to produce in limited roles. In 19-20, he was 54.6% on 152 attempts and in 17-18, he was 45.8% on 203 attempts.
He also scored the first special teams’ goal of the season, short-handed, on a breakaway.
If the Wild have learned anything from the first seven games, displacing wingers to play center hasn’t effectively worked, so the only other true center option they have is Luke Johnson or Kyle Rau off the taxi squad.
At this point, I would be pretty surprised if either were promoted from the taxi squad to the first or second line to play with the skilled players, but it could allow for an opportunity for either to succeed in a third or fourth-line role.
We also have to remember Mats Zuccarello will return to the lineup at some point, likely displacing Marcus Johansson. Where does MoJo go from there? If they don’t want to break up the third line, he would have to go to the fourth line, but can anyone make the case that he should replace Sturm or Hartman? I can’t. MoJo really can only replace Rask, and relocate Sturm/Hartman to center.
Other than that, there isn’t much the Minnesota Wild can do internally. They could go and try to acquire a center on the market, but we all know how difficult that task can be. I mentioned this with other GPW contributors, but with the lack of talent at center, the Wild likely would have used Marco Rossi right away, if he were healthy and able.
Until the Minnesota Wild tries something new at center for the top two lines, the team will likely continue to spin its tires, and the skill players like Fiala, Kaprizov, and Parise will continue to underproduce their potential.