By Craig D. Schroepfer (@CDSWCCO)
When we last saw the Minnesota Wild they were skating off the ice at Xcel Energy Center, having been swept in their best of seven series by the Chicago Blackhawks. It was the third spring in a row where Chicago had ended the Wild’s season.
For most NHL teams, being eliminated by the same team three years in a row would mean sweeping changes on and off the ice. In Minnesota however General Manager Chuck Fletcher decided to stand by the core of players on the roster and their head coach.
When looking at the forward position you need to break it down into three groups.
The first group are the veterans. Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek are in their early thirties and each player has at least 10 years of playing experience in the NHL.
Parise led the Wild in scoring with 62 points (33G, 29A) and has been the best player on the team since signing with Minnesota in 2012.
Koivu, while not a number one center when compared to some of the elite teams in the NHL, has been the top center for the Wild since debuting in 2005. There are a lot of good things Koivu does defensively on the ice that go unnoticed during a game. It’s when Koivu is out of the lineup that the Wild tend to struggle.
Pominville, who had reached the 30 goal mark the previous two seasons, only scored 18 goals for the Wild last year. For Pominville it was his lowest total in a full season since his rookie campaign with Buffalo back in 2005-06.
Vanek got off to a slow start for Minnesota last season, finishing the year with 21 goals and 32 assists. Both Pominville and Vanek need to have bounce back seasons for the Wild to improve.
The second group of forwards consist of the young guns of Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Nino Neiderreiter, Jason Zucker and Erik Haula.
Neiderreiter and Zucker were fantastic for the Wild last season. Neiderreiter finished second on the team in goals with 24 while Zucker tied for third with 21. Both players are 23 years old and should continue to get better.
Granlund and Coyle may be the most important players in this group as they are both the number two and three centers on this roster. Both players struggled at times during last season. Granlund with 39 points (8G, 31A) and Coyle with 35 points (11G, 24A)
Haula also had his struggles last season and found himself at times in coach Mike Yeo’s doghouse, only playing in 72 games. For Haula, he is best utilized on a checking line where he can fly around on the ice and cause havoc for the opposing team.
The third group of forwards consist of Jordan Schroeder, Ryan Carter, Tyler Gravonac and Chris Porter.
The main role of these players will be to provide depth in the bottom six at the forward position.
What use to be a weak spot on the team has gotten quietly stronger over the years thanks to the trio of Jonas Brodin, Matt Dumba and Marco Scandella.
Brodin is developing into an elite NHL defenseman. He has a good sense of where to be on the ice at all times and rarely makes any costly mistakes. After being paired with Ryan Suter during his first couple seasons, Brodin will be paired up this season with Matt Dumba.
Dumba played in only 58 games in his rookie campaign with the Wild but showed glimpses of why he was drafted 7th overall in the 2012 NHL draft.
Dumba skates very well with the puck while in transition and has a booming slap shot from the blue line.
Scandella has the best season of his NHL career last year, finishing with 23 points. (11G, 12 A) He’ll be paired up on the ice with either Christian Folin or Nate Prosser.
The emergence of these defenseman is important because it will help reduce Ryan Suter’s time on ice. Suter averaged 29:03 on the ice last season, the most of every NHL player. Suter will be paired this season with Jared Spurgeon. The goal is to play Suter an average around 25 minutes per game. Suter struggled at times last season and when he did the Wild struggled as well. A rested Suter should mean more success for Minnesota.
The goaltending situation was in full crisis mode during the first part of last season.
Darcy Kuemper was having trouble making a key save when his team needed it and Nicklas Backstrom looked like a shell of his former self.
Enter Devan Dubnyk to save the day.
Traded for a third round pick in mid-January, Dubnyk came in and solidified the goaltending position going 27-9-2 with a goals against average of 1.78 and a save percentage of .936, leading Minnesota to a playoff berth in the process.
As a result of his success, Dubnyk received a six year contract worth $26 million. Dubnyk will be the starting goaltender for the Wild with Kuemper and Backstrom backing him up during the season.
Here is how a Mike Yeo season has gone for the Wild during the last two seasons.
Team gets off to a strong start in October. Team slows down a little around Thanksgiving. Team goes into a slump around the holidays. Team beats Buffalo to break slump and spends most of January and part of February playing its way back into playoff contention. Team finds itself back in a playoff spot in March and clinches a playoff berth in April. Team wins first round playoff series against division winner only to be eliminated by Chicago in the next round.
Just getting to the second round isn’t good enough for Minnesota anymore. Getting swept by Chicago last season was a small step back for the Wild. Yeo needs to find a way for his team to take the next step. The goal this season should be to try and get home ice in at least the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Central Division is the toughest division in the NHL as it has sent five teams to the playoffs over the last two seasons.
St. Louis and Chicago are the most talented teams in the division and over 82 games should finish in the top two in the Central.
After that, you could pick the next five teams out of a hat in any order of how they might finish.
Nashville and Winnipeg were playoff teams last year and will remain tough to beat while Colorado and Dallas are capable of scoring five to six goals per game with their respected offenses.
How Minnesota will do this season depends on three things. How the young forwards continue to develop, Ryan Suter’s time on ice and whether Dubnyk can continue his play from last season.
The Wild are good enough to be a playoff team but there is no margin for error. Minnesota finishes behind Nashville in fourth place this season and gets the second wild card spot.