Although the Wild made a splash for Mats Zuccarello and still has one of the older rosters in the NHL, there's hope that their young forwards can take the next step.
Ian Tulloch of the The Athletic (paywall) provided 10 breakout candidates for the 2019-20 season and two Wild players cracked the list: Kevin Fiala and Ryan Donato.
Fiala came in at No. 5, while Donato was No. 6 on the list of potential breakout players.
Why Kevin Fiala is considered a breakout candidate
Tulloch on the young Wild winger:
"It feels like we’ve been waiting for Fiala’s breakout season for a few years now. Which is probably some realistic cause for concern at this point, but I’m of the opinion that he’s just too talented to not become a 50-plus point player. When you watch him play, you see a fast skater with great edges, high-end skill and excellent vision."
That's a fair assessment of Fiala's career so far. He's a former first-round pick (11th overall) who Wild general manager Paul Fenton is familiar with from his time in Nashville.
In the 2017-18 season, Fiala came into his own with 48 points (23 goals) in 80 games as just a 21-year-old. However, he suffered a gruesome injury in the postseason in which Fiala broke his leg and it set him back.
He came back mid-season last year and played admirably with 32 points (10 goals and 22 assists) in 64 games with Nashville before being traded to Minnesota. After arriving with the Wild, Fiala scored just three goals in 19 games despite averaging 17 minutes per game.
So between a broken leg, two teams and two new systems all in a calendar year, it was a rollercoaster season for Fiala.
He's also still waiting for a contract extension as he's a restricted free agent. He could sign a bridge deal (like Donato did, more on that below) or he could be locked up to a multi-year deal.
It seems the first option would be best for Fiala and the Wild considering last season's production. It's probably a given that Fiala's in the Wild's top six next year, playing alongside either Jason Zucker or Zach Parise while being centered by Eric Staal or Mikko Koivu (assuming Koivu is healthy from an ACL tear last season).
"Kevin Fiala will have to show he is willing to protect the puck more efficiently. But if he does we could see a significant bump in his scoring," said Wild TV play-by-play guy Anthony LaPanta in an interview with BMTN.
"He tried far too many low percentage plays in the neutral and offensive zone last year, but I wonder how much that was increased by his desire to prove his value to a new team. I expect that when he relaxes and plays - and plays in a regular top six role - we will see him settle in and be a reliable offensive threat."
Why Ryan Donato might be poised for big things
This is what Tulloch says of Donato's breakout potential:
"Speaking of breakout candidates on Minnesota, I’m really excited to see what Donato can do with a full season of top-six minutes. He was one of my favorite players to watch back in Boston despite not getting much of an opportunity to prove himself higher in the lineup. After getting traded to the Wild, we got to see him put up 16 points in 22 games to end the season, giving fans high hopes for 2019-20."
Donato provided an instant spark after being acquired from Boston in the Charlie Coyle trade. The shoot-first forward put up 16 points (4 goals and 12 assists) in 18 games with the Wild.
After being bumped to the minors in Boston, Donato found his footing with the Wild at the NHL level and was rewarded with a bump in ice time as he averaged over 15 minutes per game in the State of Hockey.
Donato will shoot the puck from anywhere as he put up 64 shots in 22 games with the Wild. His shooting percentage was just 6.3 percent but his willingness to shoot the puck is much needed on a Wild team that lacks the same tenacity.
Plus, a 6.3 shooting percentage is honestly pretty unlucky. If he's averaging nearly 3 shots per game, his shooting percentage will definitely go up.
Donato inked a two-year $3.8 million contract this month. It's a bridge deal that a lot of young players who are restricted free agents sign. Zucker signed nearly the same deal before the 2016-17 season (two-years $4 million) and scored 55 goals during that contract, which earned him a five-year $27.5 million deal last summer.
LaPanta believes a similar jump in production could be coming for Donato.
"I do think Ryan Donato is poised for a big jump offensively this season. One of the big reasons is opportunity alone. He figures to have the largest role he has had at the NHL level," said LaPanta.
"After arriving in Minnesota last season he played every night, averaged almost 16 minutes of ice time and almost 2 minutes of PP time. The result was 16 points in 22 games - which figures out to a pace of almost 60 points."
LaPanta thinks Donato will get a chance on a line with the likes of Luke Kunin and Jordan Greenway early in the season.
It seems like a no-brainer to put him in a top-six role but with the addition of Zuccarello and a log jam of wings, there's been speculation that he could start the season in the AHL – as Michael Russo of The Athletic (paywall) pointed out this summer.
Personally, I find that highly unlikely considering his contract is one-way, meaning you'd be paying a player $1.9 million to be in the AHL, but because Donato doesn't require waivers he might be destined for Iowa if he doesn't show up in training camp.
If I were Bruce Boudreau (and boy I'm glad I'm not) I'd put Donato on a top line with Staal and Parise. With Donato shooting at will and Parise being well known for cleaning up garbage in front of the net, it would make for a perfect combo.
And if Staal can find his groove again, now you're talking about an extremely productive top line.