Now that the dust has settled a bit more on the Minnesota Wild’s 2021-22 season, the focus is entirely on how this team can improve next season.
There was one glaring weakness all season with the Wild’s play: their struggles on special teams. Looking today at the penalty kill, the Wild were 25th in the league at 76.1 percent during the 2021-22 regular season. That was the lowest of any team that qualified for the playoffs, and it got even worse in the playoffs (smaller sample size) at just 69.2 percent.
If the Wild want to take another step forward next season, the penalty kill is something that will need to improve. So, let’s look at a couple of free agents the Wild could pursue this offseason that could help their penalty kill next season.
Ilya Mikheyev has developed his game to suit any team’s penalty kill and showcased that with the Toronto Maple Leafs last season. He is much more aggressive than most forwards in hunting down the puck and does a great job at limiting the time opposing players have to make decisions with the puck.
His speed has also made him an offensive threat while on the penalty kill, as he had four shorthanded goals this season. He’s finally developed his ability to finish on scoring chances, and he makes opposing power-play units aware that he is a threat to counter offensively because of that speed.
The Maple Leafs know it will be tough to re-sign him, as he scored at a 30-goal pace last season. Even if that isn’t a pace he can maintain moving forward, his speed and defensive awareness would make him a welcomed addition to the Wild’s penalty kill.
The penalty kill doesn’t always come to mind when you think of Derek Stepan. He’s often been an offence-first type of player but has seen himself on the penalty kill at times with the New York Rangers earlier in his career and does have 13 career shorthanded goals.
At this point in his career, at age 32, he isn’t the offensive player he once was and played a lot more of a defensive game in a bottom-six role with the Hurricanes last season. One area he was dominant in was in the faceoff circle, winning 55.9 percent of his draws.
That could be his role on the Wild’s penalty kill. He could be sent out to take the defensive zone draw, and if he wins it, which he is excellent at, and they fire the puck down the ice, he can head off for a more experienced penalty killer while helping kill 15-20 seconds off the clock.
Mikheyev would have to be utilized carefully, as coach Dean Evason would have to be at least a little comfortable with him in the event that he doesn’t win the faceoff. However, he’s someone who won’t cost the Wild much money at all and can play a small yet effective role on the team’s penalty kill.
Ilya Lyubushkin provides little to no offence for whichever team he plays for, but what he brings is about everything you would want from a stay-at-home defensive defenceman. After being acquired by the Maple Leafs during the 2021-22 season, he was able to showcase just that, giving the team something they had been lacking: physical presence.
He has 278 blocks and 591 hits in just 211 games. He puts his body on the line each and every night, with the sole focus being to keep the puck out of his team’s net. He’s also 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, and uses his strength to clear the front of the net, making it more challenging for the opposing team to get tips in front of the net.
If the Wild are interested in a depth defenceman whose role can be a penalty-kill and defensive specialist, Lyubushkin could be an attractive option. Much like Stepan, he shouldn’t cost a whole lot, which is crucial for general manager Bill Guerin and his staff and could help significantly improve their penalty kill.
Often, it doesn’t cost a team as much to improve their penalty kill as it does for their power play, as point producers often demand much higher salaries. The penalty kill is more about finding the right mix of players and having them play within a solid defensive system.
The Wild didn’t have that last season, but if they did, they could have seen them not just finish higher in the regular season but also could have helped them possibly get past the St. Louis Blues in the first round of the playoffs.
Therefore, the Wild must prioritize improving the penalty kill this offseason. They could always look at a trade, but if they want to do it via free agency, Mikheyev, Stepan, and Lyubushkin could be impactful options to explore if the money works.
Sports writer covering the Minnesota Wild. Graduated with a degree in sport media, also working with the Oshawa Generals of the OHL.