Record: 40-31-11, 98 points, 4th in Central Division. Lost in Western Conference semifinals to Chicago in six games.
When we last saw the Minnesota Wild they were skating off the ice stunned after losing in overtime to Chicago 2-1 as the Blackhawks took the series in six games. While the sudden impact of the season being over may have hurt initially, fans could take solace in knowing that the Wild had their best playoff showing since their run to the Western Conference Finals in 2003.
With the new season upon us Minnesota tries to take that next step while playing in arguably the most competitive division in the NHL.
Thomas Vanek (NY Islanders) Justin Falk (NY Rangers) Stu Bickel (NY Rangers) Jordan Schroeder (Vancouver) Brett Sutter (Carolina) Joel Rechlicz (Washington).
The biggest name on this list is Thomas Vanek. Rumored for much of last season to join Minnesota as a free agent in the off-season, it became official on July 1st when Vanek signed a three-year deal to play for the Wild.
Vanek’s days as a 40-goal scorer may be long gone but he has found himself around the 30-goal mark over the last couple seasons. Minnesota finished last season tied for 24th in the NHL with 199 goals scored. For a team that has had trouble finding the back of the net throughout most of their existence, the addition of Vanek should be a welcome sight.
The other players listed above will play for the AHL team in Iowa and will be called up as needed throughout the season.
Jake Dowell, Dany Heatley, (Anaheim) Clayton Stoner, (Anaheim) Steve Kampfer, (NY Rangers) Cody McCormick, (Buffalo) Matt Moulson (Buffalo).
The biggest loss among the group is Clayton Stoner. Stoner was paired with Nate Prosser on the third unit defense and added a physical presence. Stoner wasn’t afraid to drop the gloves when necessary. Right now the Wild have no one on the team to fill that void.
Dany Heatley’s best days may be behind them but he played a valuable role for Minnesota in the playoffs after being demoted to the fourth line. Heatley always went out and did his job and never sulked about his playing time after it had been cut.
Cody McCormick and Matt Moulson were added at the trade deadline last season with neither one making a significant impact during their brief stay in Minnesota.
While Vanek is the biggest addition here it’s a pair of young players that will determine how strong this position is.
Mikael Granlund became an impact player for the Wild last year in the playoffs tying for the team lead in goals with four. Entering his third season in the NHL, the 22-year-old Finn should continue to get better.
Charlie Coyle finished with 7 points last year in the playoffs (3G, 4A) which was third highest on the team. Coyle also accomplished this while playing with two separated shoulders. Coyle has the size to become one of the top power forwards in the NHL and will see some time on the ice at center.
Add these players along with leading goal scorer Jason Pominville, team captain Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise and you have a top six that can rival many of the top teams in the NHL.
Should any of those players mentioned above get hurt or struggle, the Wild have two forwards who could fill that void.
Nino Niederreiter scored 14 goals in his first season in Minnesota. Niederreiter added three more goals in the playoffs, including the game winner to eliminate Colorado and give the Wild their first series win since 2003. At 22 years of age, Niederreiter is continuing to develop and should only get better.
The other forward is Jason Zucker, who only played in 21 games last season due to injury. Zucker had a great training camp and is healthy. He has a flair for the net and his presence on the checking line gives Minnesota the best depth they have ever had at forward.
The good news is that the blueline is anchored by Ryan Suter. Suter led the NHL in time on ice averaging nearly 30 minutes a game (29:24) and is a Norris Trophy candidate year in and year out.
The bad news is after Suter there is a drop off in talent.
Jonas Brodin has all the tools to become one of the top defenseman in the NHL. Brodin struggled at times during the playoff last year but is only 21 years old. With a full season of NHL hockey under his belt, Brodin should continue to improve.
The number three and four defenseman on the Wild are Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella. If you look at the rosters of any of the other legit Stanley Cup contenders both players would be at best the number five defenseman on those teams. For Minnesota they make up the second pairing on defense. Both Spurgeon and Scandella need to raise their level of play for Minnesota to take that next step.
The third pair on defense will be Christian Folin and Mathew Dumba. Folin was signed as a college free agent by Minnesota late last season. The defenseman from Sweden has the skills to develop into an offensive threat on the blueline, something the Wild could use.
Dumba played 13 games for the Wild last year before returning to the WHL to play for Portland. Dumba has a lot of raw talent and a shot from the blueline where the puck looks like it explodes off his stick.
The development of these two players should add some much needed depth on defense.
Josh Harding was the feel-good story in the NHL during the first two months of the season. While battling multiple sclerosis, Harding was 18-7-3 with a save percentage of .933 and a goals against average of 1.66 in the 29 games he played for the Wild. However Harding did not play a game in 2014 as a result of his condition.
It was thought that Harding, if healthy would be the favorite to claim the starting goaltender job in training camp. However a broken foot has taken him out of the picture. That leaves Niklas Backstrom battling Darcy Kuemper for the top spot.
Backstrom had been the starting goaltender for Minnesota but has battled a sports hernia since the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs. At 36 years of age, Backstrom’s best days may be behind him but he is healthy and is looking to reclaim the starting goaltender spot.
Kuemper played in 26 games last season with a record of 12-8-4, a save percentage of .913 and a GAA of 2.03. Without Kuemper in net, there is a strong possibility that Minnesota would not have qualified for the playoffs. The best hope for the Wild is that Backstrom regains his form from a few years ago or Kuemper can continue to develop and seize the job in net, becoming the number one goaltender.
Since taking over as head coach in 2011, Mike Yeo has had his ups and downs behind the Wild bench. In 2011, Minnesota was the best team in the NHL over the first two months of the season before a number of injuries derailed their hot start as they missed the playoffs.
In 2012, the Wild had to fight until the final game of the regular season to clinch a playoff berth. Minnesota then went on to lose to Chicago in five games.
In December 2013, Minnesota lost six games in a row and it looked like Yeo would be fired. However, a four-game winning streak to start 2014 saved his job. Minnesota would qualify for its second consecutive playoff appearance. Yeo would get his first playoff series win with Minnesota defeating the Central Division champion Colorado Avalanche in seven games.
Each season under Yeo, the Wild have improved. While he isn’t considered one of the elite coaches in the game, if Minnesota keeps progressing under his leadership, Yeo’s name will soon be in the conversation.
To do anything in the playoffs the Wild have to survive the Central Division. Colorado proved last year that a fast start can lead to a great season.
Minnesota has a lot of young talent that is developing nicely and the Wild is on their way to becoming an elite team. While playing in the Central Division will not be easy it’s that kind of challenge that should keep the Wild on top of their game. Chicago and St. Louis are still the two best teams but Minnesota isn’t far behind. The Wild should be good enough to finish in 3rd place and clinch a playoff spot.
Prediction: 3rd in the Central Division
Follow Craig on Twitter at @CDSWCCO