DES MOINES, Iowa – Are you ready for some…hockey? For Iowa Wild fans it will have been 144 long days since the team last took to the ice, after falling to the Chicago Wolves to lose their second-round playoff series, four games to two.
Despite the second-round exit, it was a successful run for the team under first-year Head Coach Tim Army. Their 37 wins were the most since moving to Des Moines (2013-14), as was their 87 points. The third-place finish was also their highest ranking, giving the team their first playoff appearance in the Hawkeye State. Combined, the 2018-19 edition of the Wild was the most successful in their history, but even better things are expected in 2019-20.
The Wild have several blue-chip prospects who will be returning, including forwards Gerald Mayhew and Kyle Rau. This should be a team that scores goals and their ability to produce on the power-play (second in the league) should keep this team soaring to greater heights.
NUTS AND BOLTS
Record: 37-26-8-5 (87 points)
Division/Conference Finish: Third in Central Division, Fourth in the Western Conference
Playoff Finish: Lost in the second round to the Chicago Wolves, 4-2.
Record vs. Division: 26-16-5-3
Record vs. Conference: 37-26-8-5
Goals For Per Game: 242 goals scored, 3.18 goals per game, 11th in the AHL
Goals Against Per Game: 230 goals allowed, 3.03, 18th in the AHL
Power Play: 69 goals in 290 power-play opportunities, 23.8 percent, second in the AHL
Penalty Kill: 55 goals allowed in 296 times shorthanded, 81.4 percent, 13th in the AHL
Here are three questions we will be following as the season progresses.
What Is Going on in Minnesota?
A lot of analysts were left shaking their heads that the Minnesota Wild did not make some dramatic changes to the team after not making the playoffs for the first time in seven years. Many expected the team would get younger to start the season, but by midseason, they may be doing so. That could lead to a lot of changes in the Iowa roster. How that affects a playoff run for Iowa is going to be the big story come January.
Is Kaapo Kähkönen an NHL Goalie?
Kaapo Kähkönen was selected in the fourth round of the 2014 entry draft and was brilliant in Finland before finally coming to the United States last year. In his first season in Iowa, Kähkönen went 17-14-8 with a 2.78 GAA in 39 games. He should receive the bulk of the work between the pipes this season. He has the skills and mental makeup to be a 25 game-a-season goalie in the NHL. Kähkönen has to be a little miffed that he did not start in the playoffs last year. Look for that to be the motivation that pushes him this season.
What Kind of Impact Will Cody McLeod Have?
When the Iowa Wild signed the veteran in August, there was some speculation that the team may have “wasted” a veteran spot. Cody McLeod will be 35 when the season begins and has just 11 points combined over the last three seasons. It is unlikely he is coming to Des Moines to lead the power-play.
However, if this team is going to be considered a Calder Cup contender (try saying that fast five times), McLeod is the very guy they need. He has 775 games of NHL experience under his belt and has been to the conference finals in the NHL as recently as three seasons ago. He becomes an additional coach on the ice, which is invaluable in those close 2-1 games. Don’t take my word it though. He will be proving his worth with each passing month.
“I want them to embrace what we accomplished last year… Don’t run from it, accept that it was great, but now we reset and get right back to work… So, with that experience, I want us to embrace what happened last year, it’s great, we should be very proud of it, and we want to take that experience and build from it.” — Head Coach Tim Army addresses the success of the 2018-19 season and what part it plays as motivation for this season.
Here are three players on the Wild who will likely be calling the Xcel Energy Center their home very soon.
Gerald Mayhew, RW
Mayhew led Iowa in goals with 27 in 2018-19 while adding 33 assists. His 60 total points were second on the team, and he saw considerable time on both special team’s units. More importantly, he caught the attention of Minnesota Wild Head Coach Bruce Boudreau, who loved Mayhew’s work ethic and energy.
Louis Belpedio, D
Louis Belpedio was one of the last two players cut by the big club, which says something in and of itself. The 6-foot, 190-pound defenseman has good speed and vision on the ice. Last year was his first professional season, delivering six goals and 17 assists in 80 games. Minnesota is a little thin on the blueline, so it would not be surprising to see Belpedio in St. Paul by Christmas.
Kyle Rau, LW
2019-20 could very well be a make or break year for Rau. He is in the final year of a two-year contract with Minnesota. Last year was his second in the system, but he has only played in nine games with the big club.
The left-wing had a big year in Iowa, scoring 26 goals and adding 27 assists, but where he excelled was on the power-play, scoring 17 goals and adding 11 assists. He has all the tools to make it in the NHL but will be challenged this season to improve his defensive skills. Rau finished with a -21 +/- rating last year, and that may be the one thing keeping him from staying in the NHL.
GONE, BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
The 2018-19 Iowa Wild was the most successful since moving to Des Moines, and many played a role in achieving that success. As the 2019-20 season is about to begin, here are two from last year’s team who will be missed.
Cal O’Reilly spent the last two years in Iowa and was a fan favorite. He led the Wild in assists (51) and points (67) last season and had served as the team’s captain. He joins the Lehigh Valley Phantoms this season after signing there as a free agent.
Andrew Hammond split time in net last season with Kaapo Kahkonen, posting a 19-12-2 record with a 2.81 goals-against-average and three shutouts. He was also “the guy” during the playoffs, starting all 11 postseason games. Despite the solid season, last year was the first time in five years where Hammond did not reach the NHL. He will start the season in Rochester after signing a one-year deal with the Buffalo Sabres.
SIN BIN SWAMI SEZ…
This is going to be a very interesting year in Des Moines. There will be high expectations because of the success last season, but the wild card is going to be the direction the Minnesota Wild take. This was a team that should have looked to get younger already and new GM Bill Guerin may head that direction as the calendar turns to a new year. By January, they may be all but out of the race, and the rebuild will be on.
That will likely mean that Iowa will see a lot of their players called up to audition to see if they are in the long-term plans of the big club. Also, it could be a wild trading season in Minnesota, which will mean that Iowa will see a lot of new faces coming from different places.
For a lot of teams, this kind of turnover would relegate the club to a fourth or fifth-place finish, but this is where coach Tim Army comes in. He proved last season that getting his team to buy in quickly is a major strength. Guys like playing for him and, during uncertain times, that can be the difference between winning and losing.
My feeling is that the Wild will not improve much on their point total, but they will get one round further in the playoffs. Look for a third-place finish at 88, 89 points and a trip to the Western Conference finals where they lose in six games.