The Minnesota Wild were in first place in the NHL standings in early December before the bottom fell out of their season and they finished with their fewest points since 2001-2002.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Wild roster with plenty of holes, but also reason for optimism, thanks to a strong crop of prospects.
2011-2012 was the fourth straight season that the Wild finished outside the playoffs, so there is understandably a need to get the franchise turned around and moving in the right direction and the framework is in place for improvement to begin, but there is still much work to do in order to make the Wild consistent contenders.
We'll start with the challenges. While the Wild have some very good players, they lack the top talent that is needed to win consistently, particularly when they start losing key players to injuries.
Mikko Koivu, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Guillaume Latendresse are top-six forwards that each missed at least 25 games last season and that's not easy to make up for any team, let alone a team already lacking scoring depth.
With Bouchard and Latendresse dealing with long-term injuries over multiple seasons, it's risky to count on them at all going forward, but improving the franchise's depth will make it easier to overcome injuries when they do happen.
"When you lose players like Pierre-Marc or Guillaume this year," GM Chuck Fletcher told Fox Sports North, "Obviously there's not players like that in Houston or they'd be in Minnesota. If you have players that talented, they'd normally be playing for you not playing for your farm team waiting for a call."
In addition to their lack of proven scorers, the Wild are still looking for an identity on the blueline. After trading Brent Burns last summer, Minnesota didn't have the kind of number one defenceman that most playoff teams hang their hat on -- capable of playing 25 minutes a night, tough matchups, maybe time on the power play.
As such, the Wild have tried to work with a patchwork defence and while they've found some value in the likes of Jared Spurgeon and Clayton Stoner, it's tough to compete at the highest level without proven commodities on the blueline.
Now to the good stuff. For one, the Wild have plenty of salary cap room going forward and, with a profitable team, they appear prepared to invest, whether in free agency or the trade market, if necessary.
Would Zach Parise, a Minneapolis native, be a pipe dream? How about Ryan Suter? Either would obviously be huge additions and immediately help improve areas of need for Minnesota but it won't be easy for a team with two playoff berths in the last eight seasons to convince the league's most desirable free agents to sign up long-term.
Even if those premier options don't end up with the Wild, being in a position to spend will open doors of opportunity when it comes to summer transactions.
When it comes to the long-term health of the Wild franchise, there is reason for optimism when it comes to their prospects, five or six of which might fall in the Top 50 league-wide.
With Mikael Granlund leading the way, the Wild have skilled forwards coming down the pipeline so that, within the next couple years, there shouldn't be any more concerns about scoring depth; it's just taken some time for the franchise to build up this talent base.
The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus and the biggest stars will be over 80. Evgeni Malkin finished at the top of the regular season ratings with a 93.12.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
Chuck Fletcher/Mike Yeo
A top-flight two-way centre, Mikko Koivu could use more support from better linemates and upgraded defence, but even in the face of a nightly uphill battle, he's remained productive, scoring at least four points for every five games over the last four seasons. Perhaps an infusion of a game-breaker like Mikael Granlund would make Koivu's line more dangerous offensively.
Even if he's had to play through injuries, there's something to be said for Dany Heatley's durability, since he's missed a total of two games in the last four years, but there is likewise something to be said about his declining production and it's not so positive. 53 points in 82 games last season represented the lowest points-per-game production of Heatley's career and his lack of speed does make him seem like he's older than 31-years-old.
Certainly there is room for a big winger who can score 25 goals per season, but when Heatley was established as an annual 40-goal threat not so long ago, producing at his current level (especially given his contract) is underwhelming.
Concussions have plagued Pierre-Marc Bouchard in recent seasons, limiting him to 97 of 246 potential games in the last three years, but he was a contributor when he was in the lineup last season. Then he suffered concussion symptoms and didn't play after January 4. Bouchard has reiterated that he intends to play again, but it's not easy to count on the talented 28-year-old given the difficulties he's encountered.
With Koivu missing 27 games, there was an increased responsibility handed to Kyle Brodziak and he responded with a career-high 22 goals and 44 points while logging 19:04 of ice time per game. That may be more than ideal for Brodziak, but he's developed into a capable checking centre, who can handle tough assignments and also contribute offensively.
Devin Setoguchi's first season in Minnesota was mediocre, with a career-worst minus-17 and his 19 goals represented his lowest total since 2007-2008 when he scored 11 in 44 games as a rookie. With 92 goals over the last four seasons, he's still deserving of a top-six role, in the hopes of better production next year.
Annually one of the league's leading hitters, Cal Clutterbuck is a physical presence on a checking line and has tallied 34 goals over the last two seasons, so he adds more than just the ability to bang bodies. So long as he doesn't get pressed into anything more than occasional duty with scoring lines, Clutterbuck can be a valuable part of the lineup.
35-year-old Matt Cullen had to play more than might have been expected last year -- his 18:56 per game representing his high time on ice per game of his career -- and 35 points was his lowest total point production since 2002-2003, but these numbers indicate that he simply wasn't being used appropriately. In a third-line role, Cullen can still check effectively and he remains skilled enough to be a factor on the power play.
Darroll Powe is a hard-hitting grinder who has 56 points in 286 career games, but he received an inexplicable amoung of ice time last season, playing a career-high 13:59 per game while dressing in all 82, even though his minus-20 was worst among Minnesota forwards.
Like Bouchard, Guillaume Latendresse is a skilled forward who has missed significant time with a concussion. Without a clear bill of health, it would be understandable for the Wild to let Latendresse go rather than give him a qualifying offer in the hopes that he'll return some day, but he does have 33 goals in 82 games with Minnesota since coming over from Montreal in November, 2009 and his size and ability to put the puck in the net holds plenty of appeal.
As a function of the Wild's shortcomings up front last season, Nick Johnson was given significant playing time, enough to represent Minnesota at the All-Star weekend as part of the rookie contingent, but he went through a second-half stretch during which he scored one goal in 29 games and was minus-11 in 32 games after the All-Star break, so if he's going to stick in the lineup next season, he'll either have to play at a higher level or be capable of fitting in a depth role.
There was a seemingly neverending stream of bodies moving in and out of the Wild's third and fourth lines last season, many of whom don't necessarily have a future with the team, but enforcer Matt Kassian might be a free agent that Minnesota is inclined to keep around. Many Wild prospects (Granlund excluded) may need some time to develop in the AHL, but there is a sizeable list of forwards that will challenge for spots as soon as next season. In the meantime, Minnesota could use a veteran forward or two to provide stability on the checking lines. Dan Paille, Samuel Pahlsson, Jay McClement or Jim Slater might be decent fits.
Free Agent Defence
||'11-'12 Cap Hit
Despite being much too small for the position, Jared Spurgeon reached the NHL after playing a grand total of 23 AHL games (in 2010-2011) and it doesn't appear that he's going to be leaving anytime soon. Spurgeon's role is greater with Minnesota because of the Wild's blueline problems, but he makes a smart first pass and uses his intelligence to overcome his lack of size.
29-year-old Tom Gilbert was acquired from Edmonton last season, in exchange for Nick Schultz, and he can be a strong performer so long as the focus isn't on what he can't do. Despite having a big frame (6-foot-3, 210 pounds), Gilbert isn't physical and his point production has declined each season since posting a career-high 45 points in 2008-2009. Even with these flaws, he moves the puck well and played more than 27 minutes per game for the Wild after the trade; that's too much but, considering the alternatives, he's likely to see big minutes next season too.
Steven Kampfer is a mobile defenceman who can move the puck, but he spent much of last season on the sidelines, struggling to get into the Bruins' lineup. He saw more action in Minnesota and while he scored a couple goals, he was also minus-7 in 13 games, so he figures to be in a battle for a roster spot next season, with the Wild's cast of blueline characters that all seem suited to spots five through eight on the depth chart.
While his game is still a work in progress after two seasons as a pro, Nate Prosser has established his willingness to sacrifice and block shots, leading the Wild with 124 in only 51 games. An inexpensive one-way contract may work in his favour when it comes to making the squad next year.
Clayton Stoner may have a chance to develop as a shutdown defender. The 27-year-old has size, will hit, block shots and played 20 minutes per game in his last dozen appearances. Signed to a new two-year contract, he may be able to rise up as a physical defensive presence on a defence corps that needs that kind of player.
22-year-old Marco Scandella has the most upside among those that have already toiled for the Wild, even if he took his lumps with a team-worst minus-22 last season while taking on tough matchups when he was in the lineup, playing 24 minutes per game in March and April. Scandella is a strong skater and has good size. While his puck skills are improving, he can still improve his decision-making if he's going to be effective playing those heavy minutes.
A big-bodied stay-at-home defenceman, Justin Falk will be in a battle for a spot in the lineup. His no-frills defensive style has its place, but he'll need to do what he does (use his size, hit, block shots) really well to earn a regular spot.
Since the current crop of Wild defencemen isn't anything to write home about, it's conceivable that they could dip into the free agent market, looking to add a top-pair calibre blueliners. Ryan Suter would be a dream, but if Minnesota is willing to pay, then Dennis Wideman or Matt Carle could also improve the defence quickly.
With a long-range view, last year's first-round pick Jonas Brodin may also be ready to come over after two years in the Swedish Elite League, or maybe not. Brodin is expected to become a steady shutdown defenceman in time, so maybe there's no need to rush the 18-year-old into the NHL grind.
Free Agent Goaltender
||'11-'12 Cap Hit
Though 34-year-old Niklas Backstrom played just 46 games -- his fewest since his first NHL season (2007-2008) -- he played at his typically high level, with his 2.43 goals against average and .919 save percentage finishing right around his career numbers (2.42 GAA, .918 SV%). Backstrom is going into the final year of his contract so he should be motivated to perform, but also could possibly be a trading chip if the Wild don't appear to be in the playoff hunt next season.
It appears that Josh Harding could have some opportunities to take over as a starting goaltender, so it's understandable that he'd take advantage of that opportunity in free agency, which could leave the backup job for top prospect Matt Hackett, who posted a 2.38 goals against average and .921 save percentage in a dozen games with the Wild last season. If Minnesota would rather see Hackett getting regular playing time in the AHL, they can go for a short-term option in free agency. Finding a veteran goaltender to sign a one-year deal as a backup is easy shopping.
||HIFK Helsinki (SML)
||20-31-51, +20, 45 GP
||Saint John (QMJHL)
||15-23-38, +23, 23 GP
||0-8-8, +6, 49 GP
||20-17-6, 2.38 GAA, .917 SV%, 44 GP
||Brynas Gavle (SEL)
||12-24-36, -10, 49 GP
||Saint John (QMJHL)
||30-50-80, +47, 60 GP
||22-24-46, +5, 38 GP
||34-28-62, +10, 53 GP
||48-62-110, 71 GP
||20-29-49, +17, 43 GP
Possibly the best player outside the NHL, Mikael Granlund is the jewel of the Wild's impressive prospect pool and he'll be expected to not only play next season, but handle a featured role on a team that lacks dynamic offensive talent. Even if playing in Finland isn't going to compare to the NHL, Granlund scored a point-per-game over the last three seasons, playing against men, so he should be able to make a smooth transition.
Charlie Coyle may not be far behind Granlund. After leaving Boston University in midseason, he hooked up with the powerhouse junior team in Saint John and has been laying waste to the Q. Coyle was part of the trade that sent Brent Burns and a second-round pick to San Jose and brought Devin Setoguchi and a first-round pick to Minnesota and as a forward with size and skill, the 20-year-old may not need long in the AHL to establish that he's ready to move up.
As mentioned above, Jonas Brodin is the top defence prospect in the organization and might be able to make the jump as soon as next year. If not, there's no rush, since he'll turn 19 this summer.
Matt Hackett, 22, has performed at a high level in the AHL for two seasons, posting a .917 save percentage in 89 games. He didn't look out of place at all when given a chance with the Wild last season, so a year as Backstrom's backup could be the next step to groom him for a starting role in the future.
Playing with other top prospects Jakob Silfverberg (Ottawa) and Calle Jarnkrok (Detroit) in Brynas, Johan Larsson's production took off significantly in his second year in the Swedish Elite League. Larsson, who captained Sweden to the gold medal at the World Juniors, could come to North America next season to get acclimatized to the longer schedule, but he's an enticing prospect.
The Wild got a possible bargain when they drafted Zach Phillips 28th overall in 2011. He slipped that far, despite high-end offensive production, because his skating needs work and while it still needs work, he has improved and could play on the wing if that's what is ultimately needed to get his hands and offensive instincts into the lineup.
Jason Zucker turned pro this spring after tallying 91 points in 78 games in two seasons at Denver University and he chipped in a couple of assists in six late-season games with the Wild. Some time in the AHL, where he can refine his game and continue producing offensively, could be the next step for the 20-year-old.
Even though Brett Bulmer was a second-round pick in 2010, it was a surprise that the stuck with the Wild out of training camp last season, scoring three points in nine games before he was returned to the WHL, where he improved his offensive production. A winger with size and toughness, Bulmer could really be something if he can contribute a little offensively too.
Mario Lucia may still be a few years away, as he'll be a freshman at Notre Dame next season, but after moving from Minnesota high school hockey to B.C. junior hockey and tearing it up, it will be interesting to see if he can handle the jump to the NCAA just as smoothly.
Finnish-born winger Erik Haula was very productive as a sophomore at the University of Minnesota and, with other organizations, he might rank higher, but considering the Wild's depth of forward prospects, Haula will still have his hands full trying to earn an NHL job when he's done with college.
Minnesota also has prospects like goaltenders Darcy Kuemper and Johan Gustafsson as well as undersized puck-moving defenceman Chay Genoway that offer potential value outside their top 10.
7th - Teuvo Teravainen, Morgan Rielly, Jacob Trouba.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Wild have approximately $44.7M committed to the 2012-2013 salary cap for 14 players. Check out my potential 2012-2013 Wild roster on Cap Geek here.
Needs: One top line forward, one top nine forward, two top pair defencemen, backup goaltender.
What I said the Wild needed last year: One top six forward, three checking forwards, backup goaltender.
They added: Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, Darroll Powe, Marco Scandella.
TRADE MARKET Matt Cullen, Nate Prosser, Justin Falk, prospects.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.