Wild look for gains in Year 2 of the Suter-Parise era
Keith Ballard, Jonathon Blum, Matt Cooke, Nino Niederreiter.
Matt Cullen, Devin Setoguchi, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Cal Clutterbuck, Tom Gilbert, Justin Falk.
Last year: The Wild entered 2012-13 with high hopes after an uncharacteristic spending spree netted them last summer’s two hottest free agents in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
And once the season started, the on-ice product performed promisingly enough, especially at home. The Wild went 4-2-1 in January riding the newly-revamped roster and a blend of tough defence and standout goaltending, buoyed by the emotional and inspirational play of Josh Harding, who's still mired in his battle with Multiple Sclerosis.
The Wild rolled along at a little better than .500 through to the middle of March and were nearly unbeatable at the Xcel Energy Center, posting a 13-3-1 home record through the season’s first three months.
At the deadline, the team went all-in on Buffalo Sabres captain Jason Pominville, hoping his clutch playoff track record would provide the team a boost once May rolled around.
April, however, was disastrous for the Wild with the team winning just five of 14 games. The slump saw the Columbus Blue Jackets breathing down the Wild’s neck for the eighth spot in the Western Conference playoffs and the Wild certainly didn’t help themselves in the final week of the season by getting blown out at home by the Oilers and Flames.
To make matters worse, Pominville was concussed with just two games left in the regular season, dealing a team fighting for their playoff lives a serious talent and leadership blow.
They won the one that mattered most, though, beating the Colordo Avalanche in a win-and-you’re-in final game of the season.
Minny showed some serious pluck in the post-season after losing Niklas Backstrom before the puck even dropped on Game 1.
The Wild took the eventual Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks to overtime in two of the first three games of their opening-round series and even winning one. But the Hawks were too strong for the Wild, who had to resort to third-stringer Darcy Kuemper twice.
This Year: The Wild have a really nice blend of youth and experience throughout their lineup with one common current running through both sides: serious talent.
Captain Mikko Koivu, Pominville, Suter and Parise will shoulder the leadership burden enough to allow the likes of Mikael Granlund, Jonas Brodin and Nino Niederreiter the luxury of working on building up their skills as pros.
If the latter takes place this coming season and provides the Wild with a youthful boost in their secondary scoring, there’s no reason why the Wild can’t be competitive in their new division.
Backstrom’s 2012-13 numbers slid a little from the averages he’d been putting up throughout his career, with the Finn posting a sub-.910 save percentage for just the second time in his career. If he’s going to shoulder a similar load this coming season (Backstrom appeared in 42 of the Wild’s 48 games last season), the team will need him to be better to start seeing the results they’d hoped for when they sprung for Parise and Suter.
Suter, meanwhile, took the leap forward the Wild expected of him last season. His first year away from Shea Weber proved he was no passenger on the blue line, as he led the NHL in ice-time and being named a Norris Trophy finalist.
The Wild will need him to do that again and hope that his blue line partner – Brodin – suffers no sophomore slump in a lengthened year.
The Long and the Short – How will a full 82-game slate affect the Wild performance after a shortened season?
This is what has to be worrisome for Minny.
The bottom fell out as last season came to a close and had it been a full season, it would just have been the halfway point.
Like it or not, the Wild likely made the playoffs because the Blue Jackets ran out of time to pass them, so if they stumble again in 2013-14, they have to find a way to stop it from being a freefall.
The Wild are young so their legs will be fresh, but the team must find consistency this season fast and, more importantly, maintain it for seven months.
On the Books – What off-season moves did the Wild make to get themselves back in cap shape?
Minny did some minor surgery to do to get into cap shape after the Suter and Parise additions and used both a trade and a compliance buyout to get the job done.
The team was forced to buy out Tom Gilbert’s remaining year, which saved them $4 million off the cap.
The team also shipped out Devin Setoguchi and his $3 million cap hit to Winnipeg, getting a second-round pick in return.
Long Division – A look at the intriguing possibilities ahead for the Wild after realignment.
It’ll be an interesting experience for the Wild, who find themselves out of the Northwest Division for the first time in franchise history.
The Northwest was effectively dissolved, sending the three Canadian clubs to the Pacific and the Wild and Avs to the Central.
Luckily for the Wild, the Central looks to be a fairly open competition with the Blackhawks as the only perennial powerhouse amongst the seven. The St. Louis Blues will almost assuredly be a playoff team, but if the Wild play up to potential, they can keep pace and hopefully ahead of the likes of Winnipeg, Nashville, Colorado and Dallas.
Fantasy - Scott Cullen's Player to Watch
Dany Heatley, RW - A power forward who has lost at least a step and is far from the days when he was good for 40 goals a season, Heatley is coming off shoulder surgery and played a career-low 18:32 per game, scoring a career-low 0.58 points per game (21 points in 36 gams) in 2013.
However, Heatley still has an opportunity to play on the Wild's top line with Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise. Even if that's not where Heatley ends up playing a regular shift, he's going to get power play time -- since 2005-2006, his 108 power play goals ranks third behind Alex Ovechkin and Teemu Selanne -- and playing in a scoring role for more than 18 minutes per game is still ample opportunity for a veteran forward going into a contract year to prove that he can still be productive.
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Pressing Question: Does Minny’s championship window have a “best-before” date?
Unquestionably, the additions of Parise and Suter last summer were designed to set the pillars in place for a perennial contender.
That said, one would have to believe that Chuck Fletcher had a better outcome in mind than eighth place and a first round exit for the first year with the two American studs.
So, what – realistically – is the Wild’s window to become a competitor and, possibly, a Champion? The clock is ticking, albeit not that fast.
Suter and Parise are in the Twin Cities until 2024-25 … a.k.a. the 'rest of their careers.'
Obviously, the team enjoys the leadership of Koivu, since he’s signed on through the end of 2017-18 and Backstrom’s got three years under contract, though age will be working against him.
The rest of “the future” for the Wild is likely still on rookie contracts. Brodin, Granlund, Dumba and - to a lesser extent - Niederreiter and Coyle are all still development.
But was bringing on two All-Stars last year a signal from the Wild to its fans that a long, successful future is ahead, or was it intended to be an immediate boost that would instantly make the Wild a force in the West?
If it’s the former, then the Wild have nothing but time. But if it’s the latter, one has to wonder how much patience the Wild’s management and fans will have if they under-perform this coming season.
- Minnesota Wild Preview by Shane McNeil, TSN.ca