Welcome back to Puck Drop: NHL Preview 2013-14, where our hockey department gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of his hockey season. Check back often as new teams are added to our Puck Drop page. Today we take a look at the 2013-14 Minnesota Wild.
The Minnesota Wild committed nearly $200-million to two players, yet struggled to find any traction in the regular season. It came down to the wire and it wasn’t until the very last weekend of the season before they clinched the 8th and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, edging out the Columbus Blue Jackets via a tiebreaker.
Defenseman Ryan Suter and forward Zach Parise were two of the hottest free agents last summer and the Wild snagged both of them, signing the two star players to identical 13-year, $98 million contracts. Suter, who was the top free agent amongst defencemen, had spent all of his seven past seasons with the Nashville Predators. Parise, the most sought-out forward in free agency, scored 31 goals and 69 points the season before with the New Jersey Devils.
In the first round of the 2012-13 playoffs, the Wild were struck by the injury bug before their series could even get started. Starting goaltender Niklas Backstrom injured himself during the warm-up of game one, forcing rarely used Josh Harding to take on the Chicago Blackhawks. In the series the Wild kept every game close, but ultimately the talent of the eventual Stanley Cup Champions shone through, and the end result was a first round exit in five games.
Chuck Fletcher made some bold moves in order to re-construct his team. Forwards Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Matt Cullen were not re-signed and therefore became unrestricted free agents, while Devon Setoguchi was traded to the Winnipeg Jets for a 2nd-round pick in 2014, and Cal Clutterbuck was traded to the New York Islanders along with a 3rd-round pick in 2013 for young gun forward Nino Niederreiter. Defenseman Tom Gilbert was bought out with one of Minnesota’s compliance buy-outs, due to cap constraints.
To replace those that left the team, Fletcher made a few key signings. Controversial winger Matt Cooke was added for grit and physicality, signing a three-year, $7.5 million contract. Niederreiter will add some youth and skill up front while Cooke adds some much needed aggression to the Wild’s bottom six, while also contributing to their penalty kill. On defense, Fletcher added Keith Ballard to their blue-line, signing him to a two-year, $3 million contract. Ballard didn’t have such a good stint with the Vancouver Canucks but at $1.5 million per year, the reward seems greater than the risk, especially if Ballard can return to his Phoenix Coyotes/Florida Panthers form.
Although he was traded for at the deadline last year, Jason Pominville will dress for the Wild and play his first full season with the organization. The Wild sent prospects Matt Hackett and Johan Larsson, along with their 2013 first-round pick and 2014 second-round pick to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Pominville and a 2014 fourth-round pick. Fletcher has shown interest in keeping Pominville around after his contract runs up after this season and with Dany Heatley‘s pricey $7.5 million contract also ending after this year, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Pominville could remain a member of the Wild for a long time.
Outside of the dressing room, it seems defenseman Clayton Stoner has found a way to get his name in the press and it may not be a good thing.
Dating back to the month of May, Stoner and a few friends took to British Columbia to have some fun, hunting grizzly bears. Reports suggest Stone shot and killed a five-year old bear who locals referred to as “Cheeky”. While the hunting of grizzlies is not against the law, it’s the events that took place afterwards that has landed Stoner in some hot water.
A picture has surfaced online, posted to the Vancouver Sun’s website, where Stoner is seen smiling and holding the head of the bear he gunned down. Morals and ethics aside, trophy hunting goes against the code of conduct in the area where Stoner hunted in, which is why the aboriginal people off the coast of B.C. are in such an outrage. As the report continues, the bear’s body was “skinned and left to rot” while both the head and paws of the bear had been severed off.
In a released statement, Stoner suggests that he was just out hunting and expresses his love for the game of hunt. He also points out the importance of population control amongst grizzlies and that he had applied for and received his license that permits him to hunt grizzlies. The trophy photo is another story but seems rather minor and in that case, will likely go unpunished.
What to look for
With players like Bouchard and Cullen now out, expect there to be a resurgence of youth in the Wild’s top six. Niederreiter should be ready to go and will add tons of skill and speed to the mix. Two other forwards that could be ready is Finnish-winger/centre Mikael Granlund and fan-favorite Jason Zucker. With three of the seven top scorers of last year’s club now gone, there are some major holes to fill and some youth injected just might be what the doctor ordered.
The defense of Minnesota seems to take a bit of a dip once you look past Suter. As a matter of fact, his salary amounts to almost half of the money being spent on the entire blue-line. Along with Ballard and Jared Spurgeon’s shiny new contract, there isn’t much depth at defense. It will take a full team effort to shut down the opposition, plus the probability of Suter playing near 30 minutes every game. The Wild must also hope that last year’s star rookie Jonas Brodin continues to improve and does not succumb to any sophomore slump.
The crease is where the biggest question mark comes into play. Backstrom, 35, is not getting any younger and his body is becoming more fragile each year. There is no doubt that he is talented and can carry the team if need be, but how much can he offer if he is side-lined with yet another ailment. Harding gave Wild fans a showing that he could be a temporary fix. He has the tools to compete but his recently diagnosed MS condition leaves his future in question.
Who to look out for
If there was ever a time for a player to make the best out of an opportunity, for Mikael Granlund that time is now.
Granlund has succeeded at every level he’s played at, outside of the NHL. In 129 SM-Liiga games, where he faced grown men at the age of 17 through 19, Granlund produced 127 points — 41 goals and 86 assists — while posting a plus-37 rating. To compare stats only, teammate Mikko Koivu produced 68 points in 161 games in the same league — 22 goals and 46 assists — with a plus-20 rating. Needless to say, that is very impressive. Many wondered if this would translate well in North America but any doubt was wiped away quickly when Granlund came over to the AHL and put up 28 points in 29 games — 10 goals and 18 assists — with a negative-1 rating.
Granlund received some time in the NHL and after scoring a tip-in goal off a Jared Spurgeon point shot, Granlund’s productivity fell off. He added one more goal and six assist for eight points in 27 games, which is not bad by any stretch in Wild rookies’ standards but still, not the level you’d expect Granlund to fall into.
Surpassed by other prospects such as Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker, many began to wonder if Granlund could bounce back from the start to this NHL career or if he’d even get another shot this upcoming season.
For one, he is 21 years old. Players this young who have made the jump from Europe to North America need a little more time and patience. There is no doubt that is natural, raw skill is there. Now to add the fact that Cullen is no longer with the team, the centre position that opens up has two options currently available to fill with — Granlund or Coyle. That’s really all there is right now.
If Granlund wants to make that second line succeed and edge out Coyle, he’ll need to do whatever it takes to have a better showing than last year. He’ll definitely be the player all Wild fans will be watching and hoping something turns out, which is why he is my “Player to watch.”
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