The Minnesota Wild last took the ice in August, but after a wait that lasted just over five months, they'll finally open their 2021 season on Thursday night in Los Angeles.
Minnesota has seen plenty of changes in those five months, but they'll return with some new pieces, a new division, and a 2021 season that has plenty of questions to be answered.
We tried to narrow that list down to five questions that could decide if the Wild are in a lengthy rebuild or a team that's heading toward a return to the playoffs.
Will Kirill Kaprizov be worth the wait?
While it's been five months since the Wild have played a game, it's been nearly six years since he was drafted in the fifth round of the 2015 NHL Draft. While the Wild have been searching for a superstar in Minnesota, Kaprizov destroyed the Kontinental Hockey League and became one of the top prospects in the game.
On Thursday, the wait will be over and Kaprizov will finally put on a Wild sweater. While it may take a while to acclimate to his surroundings, Kaprizov has all the tools to be an impact player for the Wild this season.
An early piece of evidence was his performance in the team's scrimmage on Friday night. Kaprizov showed the ability to score and set up his teammates as well as some of the skills that helped him put up 62 points in 57 games for CSKA Moskva last season.
If Kaprizov lives up to the hype, he has a chance to be the Wild's first dynamic scoring wing since Marian Gaborik left town. Should that happen, the Wild will receive a huge boost this season.
Can Kevin Fiala take another step forward?
The press has been directed toward Kaprizov, but the Wild have another exciting talent in Fiala. The 23-year-old was on fire with 26 points in his final 19 games, a 112-point pace over a full season. Even with the unsustainable barrage, Fiala still put up a respectable 54 points in 64 games.
In his second full season in Minnesota, Fiala will be one of the biggest components that help the Wild succeed. At the top of the list of improvements is a sense of composure during games, but that could be fixed with experience and worth the talent that he brings on the ice.
Fiala is projected to be on the wing for a line that also contains new arrivals Marcus Johannson and Nick Bonino, but if he can take another step forward, it's another good sign for the Wild's young nucleus.
Will Cam Talbot be an upgrade at goalie?
The strength of the Wild figures to come at the defensive end. With newly minted captain Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba, Jonas Brodin, and Ryan Suter, the Wild have a strong top four that has posted some of the top defensive metrics in the NHL. The big issue has been their goaltending.
Devan Dubnyk has been a mainstay between the pipes, but posted a 3.35 goals-against average and owns the worst goals saved over expected over the past three seasons. With Dubnyk struggling and Alex Stalock more suited for a backup role, the Wild traded Dubnyk to San Jose and signed Cam Talbot in free agency.
Talbot posted a 2.61 goals-against average for Calgary last season and posted a .918 save percentage, which should provide an upgrade over Dubnyk. With the Wild specializing in limiting high-danger chances, Talbot should have an easier job than he had with the Flames. If he can stop the pucks he's supposed to, the Wild should be able to limit opposing offenses again in 2021.
What do the Wild have at center?
It seems like the Wild have been struggling at center for a majority of its existence, but this season those concerns have been amplified. The Wild experienced major turnover in the middle, seeing Mikko Koivu announce his retirement and trading away Eric Staal to Buffalo for Johannson.
Mix in the offseason acquisitions of Bonino and Nick Bjugstad and the Wild have plenty of new faces at the center position.
A disappointing development is an upper-body injury to first-round pick Marco Rossi, which will keep him out indefinitely. In the meantime, the Wild will rely on Joel Eriksson Ek and Victor Rask to fill out the back end, which isn't exactly ideal.
If the Wild can get competent play from their centers, they should have a better chance of competing. If not, Wild fans will eagerly anticipate the return of Rossi.
How will the Wild fare in the West Division?
With the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHL adopted a one-year realignment that will see the Wild compete in a revamped West Division. While a bulk of fans will probably wish they were placed in the Central in order to catch a road game, the draw may be more beneficial and provide an easier path to the playoffs.
Last season, the Wild finished sixth in the seven-team Central Division, but still found a way to rank 10th in total points (77) to find their way in the NHL's bubble in Edmonton. Had this been a normal season with the new realignment, Minnesota would have placed fourth in the division, which would have put them in the playoffs in the NHL's current format.
Even though the Wild match up well, they'll still have plenty of competition. St. Louis and Colorado figure to be front-runners and the Vegas Golden Knights were Western Conference finalists last season. Behind them, Arizona, Los Angeles, San Jose, and Anaheim are all worse teams on paper but could nab the fourth playoff spot if the Wild aren't careful.
The Wild are not a Stanley Cup contender coming into the season, but with their division, they should be good enough to make the playoffs. If several things go their way, it should at least be a step in the right direction after being on the fringe a season ago.