Season Preview: Minnesota Wild
With a strong group of forwards, a minute munching all star defenceman and options in net, Minnesota appears to have all the tools to make a serious challenge this season.
But in a tough division, can the Wild actually put it all together and make a run at Lord Stanley’s Cup?
With the addition of Thomas Vanek this summer, Minnesota has a top 9 that can trade blows with the best of them – in theory.
The Austrian winger joins Team USA star Zach Parise, workmanlike Captain Mikko Koivu, last seasons top scorer Jason Pominville and young star Mikael Granlund to help form an impressive top 6.
With Nino Niederreiter agreeing to a two year contract extension last week and youngster Charlie Coyle (12 goals and 30 points last season) contines his progression. Penalty kill expert Matt Cooke, Kyle Brodziak and new signing Jordan Schroeder add greater depth to an already impressive group – which gives Head Coach Mike Yeo more than a few headaches.
Whilst an abundance of talent is a blessing, it can also be a curse. Yeo needs to find a formula to get the most out of his line up. Only Parise and Pominville passed the 20 goal mark last season, and Niederreiter might end up on the third line – a role it’s hard not to feel like he’d be wasted in.
At The Back
Ryan Suter averaged more than 29 minutes per night last season – a number which seems no less ridiculous each time you say it.
The Wild are hugely reliant on the all star blue liner. He is their go to guy in every situation, and with such huge minutes required of the Wisconsin native the inevitable question remains – how would they survive without him?
The 29-year old has been incredibly durable throughout his NHL career, and has never missed more than a dozen games in a season. For a blue liner playing big minutes, it’s an impressive ‘streak’ – but the Wild have needed a little more at the back in seasons past.
Fortunately, they seem to be getting it.
Jonas Brodin has emerged as a strong NHL defenceman, with the 21-year old unlucky not to win the Calder Trophy during the truncated 2012/13 season. Likewise Jared Spurgeon has become a key member of the franchise, logging more than 22 minutes per night as he enters his fifth season.
Montreal native Marco Scandella and veteran Keith Ballard are solid contributors as well, and prospect Matt Dumba may finally get his chance this season after a 13 game cameo last season.
Between The Pipes
Minnesota could be stacked or stuffed in net.
Josh Hardin is healthy again, Nik Backstrom has also recovered from injury and Darcy Kuemper has shown great potential.
But Kuemper has been considering his options, Harding’s health will always be under scrutiny and Backstrom is on the back nine of his career.
If all else fails, Ilya Bryzgalov has also said he’d love to make a return to the team; but the position is something of a curiosity for the team heading in to the new season.
Behind The Bench
Mike Yeo might have been out of a job not too long ago. Instead he guided Minnesota to a wild card spot, and then a first round victory over Patrick Roy’s upstart Avs.
The youngest coach in the NHL, Yeo’s record as Wild boss has improved each season – meaning the club are due a Conference Final appearance at the very least…
Biggest Addition – Thomas Vanek
Veteran Vanek has two 40 goal seasons and two further 30 goal seasons to his name. After being traded to Long Island last season, he formed a deadly partnership with John Tavares and Kyle Okposo prior to the Olympics.
Posh Sochi he was ice cold for the Isles before being traded to Montreal. 6 goals and 15 points in 18 games for the Habs sounds impressive, but the Austrian went cold again in the post season.
Minnesota had long been seen as his destination of choice when he hit free agency this year – now back in the state where he played college hockey, Vanek could be a key piece of the puzzle – if his notorious hot and cold streaks don’t leave him feeling a little cool come the spring again…
Biggest Loss – Ilya Bryzgalov
Granted, the Russian was woeful in the post season – but went 7-1-3 in 12 games with the Wild after arriving from Edmonton, with three shut outs, a .911 save percentage and 2.12 GAA.
Despite his well documented ‘personality’, the veteran wants to play for Minnesota, is healthy and seemed to fit in well with the clubs defence.
Over the past 12 months the franchise lost its two ‘preferred’ netminders to health/injury issues and fell out with its best prospect. At least the 34-year old was a reasonable certain thing for the club
Key Man – Ryan Suter
How can it not be? Such an integral part of this franchise now, Suter plays in every situation and contributes at both ends. The only question surrounding the Team USA D man is why hasn’t he won a Norris Trophy yet?
This Seasons Chances…
Minnesota has all the tools to succeed. Depending on how Colorado performs this season (most expect some sort of regression), the Wild could claim a top 3 spot in the Central.
But that is where the issues begin – 3rd in the Central would probably match them up against Chicago or St Louis. Despite an impressive line up on paper, on the ice Minnesota still don’t, or at least didn’t, seem to be in the same category as ‘serious contenders’ like the Blackhawks.
But this does seem to be a franchise on the right path thanks to its handling of young players like Brodin and Dumba combined with key (albeit occasionally expensive) free agent signings.
If Mike Yeo can figure out the best line combinations and build some chemistry, Minnesota aren’t far off a serious Cup run.