(Ed. Note: It’s an Olympic year in the NHL. So, naturally, we decided to use the trappings of the Winter Games to preview all 30 teams for the 2013-14 NHL season. Who takes the gold? Who falls on their triple-axel? Read on and find out!)
The Minnesota Wild's 2013 campaign has to be considered an unequivocal success. Granted, they won just one playoff game, eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in five games, but at least they were in a position to be eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup champion. The past four seasons, they were ousted by their own mediocrity well before the playoffs even began.
The playoff home dates were an immediate return on the club's massive and probably lockout-exacerbating deals to Ryan Suter and Zach Parise the offseason prior. Their arrival completely reshaped the franchise by giving the Wild an instant core around which to develop their talented prospect pool, but just as importantly, it made the Wild a much-improved club in the short-term. (Thank god for that, because when you drop $200 million on two guys, there had better be a tangible improvement right the heck now.)
But now comes the next step, which is, well, taking the next step. Keeping this fanbase's optimism unbridled is a must, and the way to do it is to continue ever upward. That's easier said than done, however, especially now the NHL has turned out the lights on the crack shack that was the Northwest Division. Amidst tougher competition and with steeper expectations, can the Wild improve on last season?
Wherein Jason Zucker gives the Wild their first playoff win since the Bush administration.
Not content to rest on their laurels after winning the 2012 offseason with their unexpected extravagance, the Wild had their second busy offseason in a row. Granted, after adding Parise and Suter, not to mention Jason Pominville at last year's trade deadline, and after extensions to Niklas Backstrom and Jared Spurgeon, they weren't in a position to be quite as spendy this time around.
This offseason wasn't so much about adding as it was cleaning up, clearing out bad contracts and finding cheap upgrades and replacements. Devin Setoguchi was tossed for 2nd rounder. Matt Cullen, who could be the Wild's best forward on a good night, was deemed too rich for the club and left via free agency. Pierre Marc-Bouchard was allowed to go. In addition, the Wild bought out Tom Gilbert, replacing him with the cheaper, also recently-bought out Keith Ballard, a Minnesota native, and Jonathan Blum, whom Nashville let walk.
Gone too is fan favourite Cal Clutterbuck (whose hits per game will likely suffer, removed from the generous counting at the Xcel Energy Center). But in return for his trade to Long Island, the Wild picked up prospect Nino Niederreiter. The Islanders gave up on him, but with a change of scenery, the Swiss power forward could still develop into a force.
Finally, to replace Clutterbuck's edge, the Wild signed beloved winger Matt Cooke, much to the chagrin of every other fan base in the NHL, all of whom wanted Cooke on their team because of their strong affection for him.
Forward: The Wild have some huge holes in their forward corps that they'll be filling in training camp, but their top line is pretty much set in stone, with Mikko Koivu centering Zach Parise and Jason Pominville. You could do worse, I'd say. Koivu's the captain, but Parise should be the offensive leader there. The Wild would love for him to refind his point per game pace from a few years ago, especially since it's unclear how steady the offence the lower lines can really be.
With Cullen gone, the first big question is who will center line two. Expect one of Charlie Coyle or Mikael Granlund to be the guy, with Dany Heatley likely on one wing -- because any lower deployment would underscore what a colossal waste of money he is these days -- and another young guy on the other. The super-clutch Jason Zucker, perhaps? Nino Niederreiter? It's going to be a young line either way.
Line three will likely have more veteran presence and less offensive potential. Mike Yeo appears to be headed for a trio of Matt Cooke and Torrey Mitchell on either side of Kyle Brodziak. Mitchell's the Wild card here. Yeo has indicated that the spot there is his to lose, and he'll have to impress, as there are plenty of kids he could lose it to.
Defense: Many wondered just how Ryan Suter would fare once separated from Shea Weber, and he did pretty damn swell, thank you very much. He was helped in large part by the rookie Jonas Brodin, who should have won the flipping Calder, gosh flipping darn it. That pairing will lead the way for the Wild once again.
The small but effective Jared Spurgeon is a second-pairing guy, but his partner remains to be seen. It could be Marco Scandella. It could be Keith Ballard, if he can shake off the cobwebs he accrued in the Vancouver press box.
Clayton Stoner, Jonathan Blum and Nate Prosser will bat cleanup, and Matt Dumba will get a big shot as well.
Goalies: The Wild's goaltending tandem remains unchanged. Niklas Backstrom is back after signing a three-year extension, and Josh Harding will continue to back him up.
Mike Yeo (the NHL coach that most resembles a supervillain now that Guy Boucher is unemployed) begins his third year behind the bench for the Wild. With a little more skill in the lineup, he's looking to really push the club away from their dump and chase reputation and get niftier. From the Star Tribune:
I hate that people think that we’re a dump-and-chase team. It’s completely false. I count it as a turnover. If we dump the puck in and the goalie touches the puck, that’s a turnover for me. If it’s a pass into space where we can get the puck, then that’s a good play. It’s a bad play if we put the puck into a place where the other team gets it and we’re backchecking. But there’s going to be a focus for us to try to create more offensively off the rush. So our entries, we have to find ways to attack the zone with more speed, make more plays with support on our entries so we’re carrying the puck inside the blue line with the puck still on our stick. It’ll give us a chance to score more goals, but we’re going to have to be patient early in the year. It’s going to lead to mistakes and mistakes lead to scoring chances and goals.
Doug Risebrough Chuck Fletcher has done a great job of aggressively terraforming the Wild's future to make it habitable for fans in the last few years, and there's no question that he'll continue to make big moves if they present themselves.
Do you like awkward things? This video of a dude singing "The Hockey Song" with Wild-ified lyrics is an awkward thing.
Parise and Suter. You're always worried that these big-ticket signings aren't going to work out, but Minnesota's big two had a strong debut. How will their first full season go?
Jonas Brodin. He's awesome. He makes everyone around him better, and I look forward to watching him do it for 82 games. Did I already mention he should have won the flipping Calder? Because he should have.
Matt Cooke.It's always a treat when Matt Cooke's in the game because people basically consider him the most conniving, violent person alive. If this guy is anywhere near an injury, it's assumed he had something to do with it. Matt Cooke hysteria is one of my favourite things and I'm excited to have it back in the West.
Depth. The Wild's kids have yet to show themselves as full-time NHLers, and if they don't, the club is beyond top-heavy both at forward and defence. In other words, if the youth doesn't take the next step, neither do the Wild.
The Wild should be better than last year, but that alone doesn't mean they'll be a playoff team once again. In the Northwest Division, making the playoffs really only required being better than the Oilers, Flames and Avalanche. That's "easy mode" stuff. A new division means new teams, the Blackhawks and Blues among them, and others that aren't as strong but are vastly improved as well. If the Wild's improvement isn't pronounced -- a fate that rests with their prospects -- they could land outside the playoff bubble once again.