The Wild reached the midpoint of this NHL season last week in a familiar spot: on the fringes of a playoff berth, with its fate likely hinging on a handful of key games and plays down the stretch.
Making the postseason for a seventh consecutive season will require a team effort, but not all players will carry an equal load. So who is the most important player on the Wild?
First take: Michael Rand
If we look at point shares — “an estimate of the number of points contributed by a player,” per Hockey Reference — the answer is goalie Devan Dubnyk at a team-high 6.1.
That said, the Wild is among the NHL’s worst teams at keeping opposing high-danger scoring chances out of the back of the net, and Dubnyk has played a big role in that negative stat.
Maybe it’s someone like Matt Dumba, who is proving his worth even more while injured? Or Ryan Suter, who gobbles up a ton of minutes and is relied on even more with Dumba out? Or Zach Parise, tops in point shares (4.9) among skaters and easily the team’s top goal-scorer? I promise I’ll come to a conclusion. But I want to hear from you first.
Wild beat writer Sarah McLellan:
All four of those players are compelling candidates. Dumba’s value only seems to grow with each ineffective power play or transition up ice that fizzles in the neutral zone. Being able to heap 30 minutes of ice time on Suter helps ease that loss, and his knack for handling that workload without being a liability is arguably his most impressive asset.
Still, Parise is in the midst of a tremendous season and the Wild’s outlook is undoubtedly grimmer without his production. But since there isn’t a bona fide superstar up front, success starts with the defense. And Dubnyk has the most sway there.
Rand: Notice we haven’t even talked about Mikael Granlund, Eric Staal, Jason Zucker or Jared Spurgeon. Long story short: There are a lot of candidates, and probably no single skater who should be at the top of this list.
For that reason, I’m going with Dubnyk as the Wild’s most important player. If Minnesota is going to do anything in the playoffs, Dubnyk will have to do what he hasn’t done since his first season here: steal a series.
He’s 4-16 in his past 20 postseason games with the Wild, with 55 goals allowed and a .902 save percentage. If he could put together a 15-20-game hot streak at the right time, the Wild could change its playoff narrative.
McLellan: He’s done it before, going a mind-boggling 27-9-2 with a .936 save percentage and 1.78 goals-against average after he arrived via trade from the Arizona Coyotes.
Four years have elapsed since then, but Dubnyk has looked locked-in for stretches this season. He was on-point during the team’s recent road trip, getting rewarded with his first shutout of 2018-19, and he really buoyed the Wild in October when the players in front of him were surrendering 40 or more shots a game on occasion.
A heavy workload and the pressure that comes with it don’t seem to faze Dubnyk. Instead, it looks like he feeds off the challenge — making him the perfect torchbearer for the Wild’s playoff hopes.
Rand: First the Wild needs to reach the playoffs; if not, the most important player on next year’s team might not be on the roster yet.
Final word: McLellan
The next three months should be extremely revealing. How the Wild performs probably won’t affect just the outcome of this season. It’s also likely to influence its future.
More Rand: startribune.com/RandBall
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