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Judd Zulgad

Slow start

Wild’s slow start, lack of swagger, is all too familiar.

Kirill Kaprizov, shown here in the team's home opener Oct. 13, had zero points on the Wild's recent road trip. (MHM photo / Rick Olson.)

You have to wonder if Bill Guerin is working the phones again.

It was a day before Thanksgiving last year when the Minnesota Wild general manager decided he had seen enough of his swagger-less and lethargic team and acquired winger Ryan Reaves from the New York Rangers for a 2025 fifth-round pick.

Reaves, now with the Toronto Maple Leafs, is known for fighting, but Guerin said the decision to make the move was more about Reaves’ “big personality” than it was about his ability to use his fists.

“He’s got a lot of energy,” Guerin told Michael Russo of The Athletic. “He’s got swagger. We’ve been missing that. The energy he brings is really good. … He’s going to help us get our identity back.”

Reaves provided the Wild with a spark, even before he arrived. On the day the trade was announced, the Wild cruised to a 6-1 victory over Winnipeg to improve to 9-8-2 on the season. Reaves gave the Wild plenty of swagger as the team finished third in the Central Division with 103 points.

The Wild replaced Reaves with a more skilled, big-body presence in winger Patrick Maroon this offseason and a plan to keep their swagger for 82 games. But since shutting out Florida, 2-

Ryan Reaves against Winnipeg in 2022. He helped give the Wild some swagger last season. (MHM file photo)

0, on opening night at Xcel Energy Center, the Wild have gone 2-4-2 and are coming off an East Coast trip in which they lost to Philadelphia, Washington (in a shootout) and New Jersey.

Oh, and the swagger that Reaves brought with him? That’s disappeared. Wild center Ryan Hartman told reporters after Sunday’s loss to the Devils that, “When we’re playing well, we play with that swagger.”

An argument can be made that it’s too early for anyone to panic, but Guerin knows what got his team out of its funk last season and you have to wonder if he is again willing to wait until Thanksgiving before making a move?

Injuries have sidelined defenseman and captain Jared Spurgeon since the start of the season and wingers Matt Boldy and Frederick Gaudreau also are out, although Boldy is expected to return soon.

But the Wild’s early-season issues go beyond injuries.

The power play and penalty kill both struggled in the Wild’s opening-round playoff loss to Dallas last season and not much has changed, even though Minnesota brought in former Vancouver Canucks assistant Jason King to run its power play.

The Wild are 5-for-36 on the power play and their 13.9 percentage is ranked 22nd in the league. The Wild’s penalty kill is worse. Much worse. That unit ranks second-to-last in the NHL, giving up nine goals on 28 chances for a 67.9% kill rate. Last season the Wild surrendered nine goals on 24 chances in six games against the Stars in the playoffs.

The Devils, whose power play is the best in the NHL at 42.4 percent, toyed with the Wild on Sunday in going 2-for-3. The Wild had six power plays and only scored once.

One of the biggest surprises is that newly appointed alternate captain Kirill Kaprizov has yet to show the consistency expected from a superstar. He had no points and was a minus-4 on the road trip and has only two goals in nine games.

The Wild’s first line of Kaprizov, Mats Zuccarello and Hartman each have nine points — tied for second on the team behind Joel Eriksson Ek’s 10 — but they also are a combined minus-10 and their performance in a brutal loss against the Flyers left coach Dean Evason infuriated.

Marco Rossi against the Florida Panthers in this season’s home opener. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

The idea has been floated of replacing Hartman with third-line center Marco Rossi, who is finally delivering on what was expected of him when he was selected with the ninth pick of the 2020 draft.

Rossi spent the offseason getting bigger and stronger and now looks like he belongs in the NHL. He has three goals and four points in nine games and would give the first line a more skilled player than the hard-working Hartman, whose six goals lead the Wild.

Putting Rossi with Kaprizov and Zuccarello could present Evason with an opportunity to inform Zuccarello that his need to overpass the puck to Kaprizov can end. Rossi also could replace Zuccarello on the power play, especially since the veteran has yet to score with the man advantage this season.

Of course, Evason could look to Guerin to shake up things if they don’t improve soon. Spurgeon’s return will help on the blue line, but to think he will give the Wild their swagger back is a stretch.

The Wild’s salary-cap situation makes any type of major move nearly impossible, but obtaining Reaves a year ago did the trick without causing any issues. If the Wild’s play doesn’t pick up soon, it won’t be surprising if Guerin decides a repeat performance is in order.

Judd Zulgad is co-host of the Mackey and Judd podcast and also Judd’s Hockey Show for SKOR North. Judd covered the Vikings from 2005 to 2010 for the Star Tribune before joining SKOR North.

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