Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2014-15, where our hockey department gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Makes sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our collective LWOS 2014-15 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today is the Minnesota Wild.
The Minnesota Wild headed into last season with hype surrounding the team, but still a lot of pressure after just sneaking into the 2013 playoffs following the signings of both Ryan Suter and Zach Parise to 13-year, $98 million contracts in the summer of 2012. They let some veterans walk to other teams in 2013, leaving some roster space for young players like Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter and Jonas Brodin to catapult their NHL careers.
Starting off the first month of October with a less-than-expected 6-4-3 record, the team went wild for wins in November with a 9-4-2 record but lost the final four games of the month. With five wins in 14 games in December, the club rebounded over the next month and a half of hockey with a 13-4-2 stretch, their best stretch of the season. Signs of fatigue from four Olympians showed in March, as they went a measly 6-5-4 before finishing April with a 4-1-1 record. The team finished with a 43-27-12 record, good enough for 98 points.
In a strong Central Division, the Wild finished behind Colorado (112 points), St. Louis (110), and Chicago (107) for fourth place. However, they finished first in the wildcard race (Wild got the wildcard, how ironic), beating the second wildcard team, Dallas, by seven points.
At the end of the season, their leading scorer was 31-year-old Jason Pominville, who played all 82 games, scoring 30 goals and 30 assists. Despite playing 67 and 65 games respectively, Parise (29 goals, 56 points) and Mikko Koivu (11 goals, 43 points) rounded out the top three.
Suter, son of the now late Bob Suter, also played the whole season and led the defense in points with 8 goals, 35 assists and a +/- of 15. Jared Spurgeon played 15 less games but finished with a 5-21-26 points record. Granlund led the rookies in points with 8 goals and a whopping 33 assists in 63 games, while Niederreiter was right behind with 14 goals for 36 points in 81 games.
Five goalies were used during the season- Josh Harding (29 games), Darcy Kuemper (26), Niklas Backstrom (21), Ilya Bryzgalov (12) and John Curry (2) all protected the net for the Twin City. Harding, who has multiple sclerosis, finished with an astonishing .933 save-percentage and a 1.65 goals-against-average with three shutouts, making him the best statistical goalie, to go along with his 18-7-3 record. The rookie Kuemper had a good .915 SV% and a 2.43 GAA with a 12-8-3 record.
The first place wildcard Wild played against the second place Western team Avalanche in the third first round meeting between the two clubs with a combined age of 32 years in existence. The first came in 2003 with the underdog Wild winning in seven but the six-seed Colorado got revenge in a six-game 2008 playoff series.
The series started off with 5-4 (OT) and 4-2 wins at home for the Avalanche. Granlund scored the only goal in an overtime thriller in game three before taking it 2-1 in a solid defensive effort in game four. Colorado won another home game in overtime before Minnesota demolished the visitors in game six, 5-2. Game seven was a shootout, with Colorado always taking one-goal leads but the Wild always coming back to tie it. Five minutes into the overtime period, Niederreiter took a page out of Andrew Brunette’s book to score the OT winner in a heart-breaking fashion for the Avalanche, like Brunette did in 2003.
The Wild put up fight against the Chicago Blackhawks in the next round but were ousted in six games. They were never too far off from eliminating the defending Cup champs though.
Puck Drop Preview: 2014-15 Minnesota Wild
General manager Chuck Fletcher kept fairly quiet on the trade floor during the draft with only some picks swapped, but their previous deals in the past two years meant the Wild had lost their second round pick to Buffalo and third to Tampa while gaining a third round pick from the Lightning and two sixth round picks from Ottawa and Columbus. They used their picks to select:
|18||1||Alex Tuch||R||U.S. National Under-18 Team [USHL]|
|80||3||Louis Belpedio||D||U.S. National Under-18 Team [USHL]|
|109||4||Kaapo Kahkonen||G||Blues (Finland Jrs.)|
|139||5||Tanner Faith||D||Kootenay Ice [WHL]|
|160||6||Pontus Sjalin||D||Ostersunds (Sweden Jrs.)|
|167||6||Chase Lang||R||Calgary Hitmen [WHL]|
|169||6||Reid Duke||C||Lethbridge Hurricanes [WHL]|
|199||7||Pavel Jenys||F||Brno Kometa [Czech]|
The Wild made a splash during the free agent frenzy when they inked University of Minnesota product Thomas Vanek for three years and $19.5 million. His entry to the club was inevitable, as his head was in Minnesota but his equipment still in Montreal during the Canadiens playoff run last year. It’s a logical choice though for the 30-year-old, as his wife is from there and he would be closer to his two sons and family.
The 27 goals and 41 assists from Vanek last year in Buffalo, New York and Montreal, in a combined 78 games, will be much needed for a Minnesota offense that scored only 199 goals last season, ranking them 24th in the league, tied with Edmonton, the 27th placed team overall.
The Wild also signed former New York Rangers minor-league tough-guy defenseman Stu Bickel to a two-way contract and a former Canucks first round pick, Minnesota native Jordan Schroeder, adds another young piece to the team, with another two-way deal, worth $600k per season in the NHL.
For a second straight offseason, management decided to let more veterans walk, meaning a younger team will don the green and white next season. Matt Moulson, who went back to Buffalo (with Cody McCormick) is essentially replaced by Vanek. Dany Heatley, Clayton Stoner and Bryzgalov are all players who have provided leadership in the dressing room, in Byrzgalov’s case he has lightened the mood as well, but none of them are there now (pending the outcome of the goaltending situation, which we’ll address in a minute).
Fletcher and his supporting cast are obviously fine with the amount of older guys they’ve lost the past two offseasons, relying more on the young guns and trusting the expertise brought forth by Parise, Suter, Koivu, Pominville and Vanek.
Head coach Mike Yeo will have to shuffle the lines quite a bit from last season, with young players improving and Heatley, Moulson, and Stoner playing elsewhere.
With a healthy Koivu, the top line should consist of a combined age of 92 years and almost 1500 career points when Parise slides over to left wing and Pominville plays on the right side of the captain. The line, with the oldest players on the team, will eventually succumb to injuries over the course of the long season but players on the second line should be skilled enough to play top minutes. The second line should consist of young stars with a veteran in Vanek on the left side, while natural center Coyle will be forced to play right wing with fellow youngster Granlund at center.
The talent level across the bottom two lines isn’t that much of a drop between the top two, as emotional leader Matt Cooke joins center Erik Haula and Niederreiter. The fourth line will consist of Kyle Brodziak between Jason Zucker and Justin Fontaine.
On defense, the fourth-placed defenseman in Norris voting, Suter, will join 21-year-old Brodin on the top pairing. Both are left-handed shooters but Suter should be playing on the left side and Brodin, in a more offensive role, on the right. Marco Scandella will be right behind Suter, with Spurgeon joining him on the right side. The top four defensemen are reliable for coach Yeo, while the third pairing should be a rotation between Keith Ballard, Christian Folin, Jonathan Blum and possibly Matt Dumba.
If Kuemper could get a new deal before the start of the season, he should be the starting goalie, but the 24-year-old is exploring options in the KHL at the moment as contract talks have stalled. If he jumps ship, the Wild will be in trouble with two inconsistent goalies left. A week ago it was reported that both Backstrom and Harding were healthy and ready to go for the start of the season, but Harding has since been sidelined with an ankle injury and looks to miss at least the start of training camp, causing rumors that Bryzgalov may rejoin the team on a try-out.
Z. Parise- M. Koivu- J. Pominville
T. Vanek- M. Granlund- C. Coyle
M. Cooke- E. Haula- N. Niederreiter
J. Zucker- K. Brodziak- J. Fontaine
J. Schroeder- C. Almond
R. Suter- J. Brodin
M. Scandella- J. Spurgeon
K. Ballard- J. Blum
M. Dumba- C. Folin
D. Kuemper (Pending contract)
Players to Watch:
Thomas Vanek: Vanek will play his first season for the Wild but his third season playing in the State of Hockey, after playing two seasons for the University of Minneosta between 2002 to 2004. This is now the fourth team for the former 40-goal scorer in the past 10 months after he was traded twice last year. His effort level diminished during the playoffs in Montreal when they went all the way to the Conference Finals. He showed the fans he had the talent level, especially when he scored a hat-trick against Colorado on March 18th and put up top points on the top line in the regular season but he seemed to not even care in the playoffs, playing fourth line minutes.
Some were saying he was already planning his move to St. Paul but others were questioning his commitment level regardless of the situation. Finally getting his wish to join his family in Minnesota, it should be interesting to see what efforts he puts in with his new club. Prediction: he has an amazing start to the season but flunks after Christmas. Like a kid with a new toy, excited at first, then gets bored easily.
Matt Cooke: Cooke, who has had five career suspensions for a total of 27 games, in addition to handing out numerous injuries to his opponents – including ending Marc Savard’s career in 2010 – changed his style of play after receiving a 10-game suspension (plus seven playoff games) for a hit to the head of Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh in 2011. He played two clean seasons in Pittsburgh and he came to Minnesota with the intention of being a team leader and forgetting about his past, while still contributing physically.
After scoring 10 goals, 18 assists and only 54 penalty minutes in all 82 games for his new team, Cooke went back to his old ways with a knee-on-knee hit to Colorado’s Tyson Barrie in game three of the first round of the post-season. This wasn’t the first time he’d delivered a knee-on-knee, as he has delivered the illegal check to Alex Ovechkin, Erik Cole, Valeri Nichuskin and Zach Bogosian in the past, all going without major consequences. A seven-game suspension has already been served, but can Cooke stay away from his seventh suspension and can he contribute to the club?
Matt Dumba: Another Matt to pay attention to, at the start of the season at least, is the 20-year-old Dumba. The defenseman was selected seventh overall in the 2012 Entry Draft and has had a hockey career full of disappointment. In 2011, a 17-year-old Dumba was invited to the Canadian World Junior camp with high expectations of being a versatile and hard-hitting player on the blue line, but he was involved in the final rounds of cuts. A year later and a year older but the same result for the then Red Deer Rebel.
He finally made the World Junior squad this past December at the expense of being excused from the Wild after playing only 13 games. In the meantime, his WHL rights were traded from Red Deer to the Portland Winterhawks, with whom he played for after the World Junior Championships. Himself and many people around him know exactly what he can do and being cut from so many teams isn’t it. Does Dumba have what it takes to finally play a full season with the Wild and make an impact in their line-up?
Players on the Rise:
Mikael Granlund: This wouldn’t be a discussion about up and coming stars in Minnesota without mentioning Granlund. The 22-year-old was drafted by the team at ninth overall in the 2010 Draft but turned the world’s attention to himself when he scored a lacrosse-styled goal against the big boys at the 2011 IIHF World Championships, his first of four straight representations for Finland with the senior team, three at the IIHF World Championships then one more at the Sochi Olympics. During the lockout shortened 2012-2013 season, he played his first 27 games for the Wild, scoring only 2 goals and 6 assists, after he put up 28 points in 29 AHL games to start off the year.
Last year was his first full-length NHL season, but he played only 63 games due to injuries. He put only eight pucks in the back of the net but set up 33 goals in those games. The playoff rookie excelled in the post-season, with 4 goals and 3 assists in 13 games while dominating the game at times against Colorado. The energetic Finn has a bright career ahead of him and the Wild are lucky to have him leading the way in the future.
Jonas Brodin: The defenseman is Minnesota’s brightest prospect on the blue line and he has a pretty good mentor playing with him. Assistant captain Suter is his defense partner and Brodin has learned quite a bit from him. Drafted a year and a pick later than Granlund, Brodin also made his debut for the Wild in 2013. Unlike Granlund, he played the majority of the season (45 games) and finished with 2 goals, 9 assists, and a +3, good numbers for a rookie defenseman.
Last season, in 34 more games he had six more goals and two more assists than his rookie campaign but was on the ice for as many goals for as goals against. With Suter showing him the way in the NHL, the third-year 21-year-old has no where to go but up and may just be one of the league’s top defensemen in the coming years.
Erik Haula: Another Finn on the rise in Minnesota. The club has drafted some good Finnish players in the past, and Captain Koivu and goalie Backstrom are also from Finland. With some good mentorship from his countrymen, Haula adapted well into the NHL for his rookie season last year. He split the season between the Iowa Wild in the AHL and the Wild in the NHL and played 31 and 46 games respectively in each league. He had a points record of 14-13-27 in Iowa and 6-9-15 in Minnesota. But, like Granlund, he once again flourished in the playoffs, finishing with the same number of goals and assists as Granlund in as many games. (4-3-7).
After playing for the University of Minnesota until the end of the 2012-2013 season, the 182nd draft pick in 2009 has transitioned well into pro hockey. Expected to play with Niderreiter this season, the duo will use their speed and skill to make play-by-play announcers howl over Haula.
Note: Darcy Kuemper would be included on this list if he had a new contract. The RFA has yet to sign a contract with the team.
Players on the Decline:
Niklas Backstrom: The 36-year-old Backstrom has been declining in his ability to play goalie in the NHL for a couple of seasons now. Since the 2011-2012 season, Backstrom’s numbers in games played, shutouts, save-percentage and goals-against-average have been declining (increasing in GAA). From a career best season in 2008-2009, when Backstrom recorded 4 shutouts, a GAA of 2.33 and SV% of 0.923 with a 37-24-8 record in 71 games, the Finn went 5-11-2 in 21 games with no shutouts, SV% of 0.899 and 3.02 GAA this past season.
Backstrom has also been falling wildly down the Wild depth chart, as he was the third-string goalie nearing the end of the season last year and into the playoffs, with Kuemper and Harding fighting for the starting job. If Kuemper is signed and Harding’s MS doesn’t effect him, expect Backstrom to not even dress many games this year.
Keith Ballard: If you look up “Keith Ballard” in a thesaurus, he might be synonymous with “hospital ward patient”. Ballard has had injuries on his hip, left knee, right knee’s MCL, back, groin and head since 2010. Injuries and bad play forced him to partcipate in only 45 regular season games last year, scoring only 2 goals and adding 9 assists. Ballard hasn’t played 82 games in a season since 2009-2010, the fourth and final time in the previous five years (from 2005-2010) that he had played the complete season. But since then, he has played 65, 47 and 36 games each year leading up to the 2013-2014 season.
This past off-season, Ballard was the only Wild to require surgery for a sports hernia. His on-ice participation at the start of training camp is still in question, but regardless, with the young talents the Wild have waiting in their pipeline, playing a 31-year-old Ballard for much of the season would be a bad choice by Mike Yeo.
Being the fourth youngest team in the league (27.225 years), it is hard to pinpoint players who are declining past the prime of their careers. But these two mentioned are the ones who Minnesota have to be careful with.
In a tough Central Division that includes St. Louis, Chicago, and Colorado, three teams who will dominate the top-three spots for the next few years, Minnesota will be forced to battle it out with Dallas for fourth and fifth, as well as potentially the two wild card spots. However, similar to last year, both Dallas and Minnesota should have an easy time securing those final two slots in the playoffs as the Pacific Division is considerably weaker.
Expect three solid lines rolling night in and night out for the green and red, barring any injuries. Players like Haula, Kuemper, Granlund, and Brodin are gaining confidence and will look to excel for the team in order to finish in a convincing playoff position. It should be a very interesting season for the team and fans alike as they continue to experience growing pains. The younger players will need to learn how to build character quick in order to propel this team into the upper-echelon of the Western Conference.
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