The Minnesota Wild surprised everyone last year by making a run to the playoffs. Although they lost in seven games to the Vegas Golden Knights, a new era was established and now they'll be looking to take the next step this season.
With the Wild opening in Anaheim on Friday night, here are some things you can look forward to during the 2021-22 season.
1. An encore from Kirill Kaprizov
One of the biggest reasons for the Wild's transformation from middling team to playoff contender was the arrival of Kirill Kaprizov. After waiting four years for his debut, Kaprizov lived up to the hype and became the first player in franchise history to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie.
While the fear is that most rookies will endure a sophomore slump, there should be no concern with Kaprizov. At age 24, Kaprizov is a finished product and had multiple years of experience in the KHL before coming to Minnesota.
Kaprizov already established chemistry with Mats Zuccarello this season and with the addition of Joel Eriksson Ek to the top line, the Wild's superstar could be in for an even bigger encore.
2. A brand-new blue line
If there was one position where the Wild should be concerned, it's at defenseman. While the buyout of Ryan Suter was a move to change the culture, it also got rid of their top defenseman. With Carson Soucy selected in the expansion draft and Ian Cole departing in free agency, the Wild's strength suddenly became a major weakness.
The Wild tried to make up for it over the summer, signing Grand Rapids native Alex Goligoski, but they'll need more even after adding Jon Merrill, Dmitri Kulikov and Jordie Benn.
Matt Dumba, Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin are still an excellent trio to maintain some normalcy but if the Wild can't find a third pair, it could ask more of Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kähkönen.
3. A youth movement
Last season, there were several players that came of age on the Wild's road to the playoffs. While Kaprizov stole the headlines, Kevin Fiala, Eriksson Ek, and others had a breakout year that helped the Wild exceed expectations.
Although those players have graduated to pillars of the team, they'll still need some players to step up in order to improve. Players like Nico Sturm and Ryan Hartman are two breakout candidates for this season but the Wild also have depth in the minor leagues with 2020 first-round pick Marco Rossi beginning the year in Iowa.
Although Matt Boldy will miss the first 4-6 weeks with a fractured ankle, there's plenty of youth to go around. With the Wild pressed against the salary cap, they'll need a breakout season to reach their goals.
4. A return to the Central Division
While it wasn't the biggest reason for the Wild's success, the Pacific Division helped Minnesota stay in the chase for a division title last season. This year, the Wild will return to familiar territory as they go back to the Central Division.
Just like it was two seasons ago, the Central is loaded with playoff contenders and will be a major hurdle toward a return to the playoffs. The Colorado Avalanche are favorites to win the division (and the Stanley Cup) but Chicago, Dallas, St. Louis, Winnipeg and even Nashville have the talent to spoil the Wild's chances.
With a loaded division, every game will feel important and revive the rivalries that were missing from last season.
5. A new attitude
In a clip that went viral, Jared Spurgeon joked that the Wild's goal was to work hard and have fun. After being shot down by Bill Guerin in vulgar (but spectacular) fashion, it shows just how much this team has changed since he took over in 2019.
For years, Zach Parise and Suter were the backbone of the team. When both were bought out, it was a direct move to change the culture of the locker room. That paid off in some ways last season but this year will be a full shift toward the future of the franchise.
The Wild will have more obstacles than it did a year ago but it should be a team equipped to handle it. If the young players step up and they hold their weight in the Central, this has every opportunity to be a team capable of making a run in the playoffs.