Twenty-three years. For all 23 years of their existence, the Minnesota Wild have entered every single one of those seasons with the same question mark: What can this team do to get a No. 1 center?
For a long time, Mikko Koivu looked like he might be the answer. While he certainly deserved more praise than he usually received from the fan base, Koivu was always best slated as the second-best center on a Stanley Cup-hopeful team.
As a prospect, Mikael Granlund scored a lacrosse-style goal for his native Finland long before Trevor Zegras made the move mainstream amongst the kiddos. Upon his arrival to the NHL in 2012, the Wild hoped they had finally found their No. 1 center. Yet Granlund never found his way playing down the middle with the Wild.
Other centers, like Eric Staal, have produced seasons resembling that of a star top-line center. But the Wild still lacked a true, long-time cornerstone player to pivot their top line.
Maybe it’s time to try something different. While it’s difficult to fully comprehend this following sentence as not the title of an Onion article, hear me out. Perhaps it’s time for the Wild to copy what the Buffalo Sabers have done.
Stuck in a perpetual rebuild since the glory days of Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, and Ryan Miller, the Sabers found themselves in a difficult position last year. If you recall, their former 2nd overall draft pick and one of the best young stars in the NHL, Jack Eichel, refused to suit up for them due to conflicting opinions about how he should treat his neck injury.
Suddenly, without their No. 1 center, Buffalo needed to find a stopgap until they could work out a way to deal Eichel for perhaps his younger replacement. Only they didn’t find a stopgap; they quickly found what may be the most dynamic player in the NHL today outside of Connor McDavid. Even more astounding, the player had already been on their team for three seasons.
The Tage Thompson story has been a revelation in the NHL the past two years, particularly now with Thompson once and for all silencing those who thought last year’s breakout was just a mirage.
Entering last season, Buffalo’s 6’7” skater had spent three seasons playing wing. His best season came in the COVID-shortened campaign in which he amassed just 8 goals and 14 points. Even if you extrapolate those numbers into an entire 82-game season, he was on pace for roughly 17 goals and 30 points. Not exactly No. 1 center material unless your name is Victor Rask.
And yet, Thompson blasted onto the scene last year, recording 38 goals and 68 points (so close.) He signed a 7-year, $50 million extension over the summer and is performing even better this season. Following his 5-goal game on Tuesday night, he is on pace for over 60 goals and 120 points. The Sabers found their center of the future by sliding a talented yet struggling winger to center.
Can the Minnesota Wild do the same thing? Is there a wing on their roster who could thrive down the middle? I think so. And the Wild have been flirting with it all season. Maybe they should take the training wheels off and give it a shot.
While Matt Boldy has produced much better in his NHL career at wing than Thompson ever did, the similarities are certainly there. And it seems the Wild notice too. Dean Evason has deployed a line of Boldy centering Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello in high-leverage situations. Yet the usage has been minimal; thus, the results are difficult to gauge. The Wild should make the move a permanent one for at least a few weeks to see if they have a Tage Thompson situation on their hands.
Why? Well, because as good as Sam Steel has looked between Kaprizov and Zuccarello, the Wild know he is not the long-term answer there. If Boldy flourishes down the middle, the Wild will not enter an off-season with “first-line center” at the top of their wish list for the first time in their history.
So, what about Boldy’s game says he could pull off the position change? Let’s compare him to Thompson’s strengths for some clarity.
First, any time you mention Thompson, the first thing you think about is his size. At 6’7” and a lean 219 lbs., the guy is an outlier in hockey. His reach and power make him extremely difficult to defend. While Boldy may not be the tree that Thompson is, the 6’2”, 195lb. winger is no slouch either. And at just 21 years old, it’s not inconceivable to think he could still grow.
Thompson also brings great hands with his size. While the elite centers in today’s NHL can have some small flaws to their games, having soft, quick hands is a must if you want to be considered a top-tier No. 1 center. Boldy checks this box too. You must be able to stick handle in a phone booth playing center in the NHL, and there is no doubt this is a strength to Boldy’s game.
Finally, and perhaps the most important trait of an elite center, Thompson and Boldy both possess very high hockey IQs. Just look at Thompson’s highlights from his 5-goal game this week. His ability to facilitate the puck to his teammates and then find the open spaces in the middle of the ice for his goals is amazing. The same can be said for Boldy, who has been touted as one of the smartest hockey players in his draft class.
It’s odd to look at the Buffalo Sabers organization at any point in the past decade and come away saying we should give that a try! Yet, that’s where the NHL is today with the emergence of Thompson. While they’ll all try, not every team will find their own version. However, the Wild seem like they might. And that’s a path they need to at least test out.
Evason has been just barely dipping his toes into the “Matt Boldy at center experiment.” It’s time to climb to the highest diving board and take a leap of faith.