Puck Drop Preview: 2015-16 Minnesota Wild

Puck Drop PreviewWelcome to Puck Drop Preview 2015-16, 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 2015-16 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today we continue with the Minnesota Wild.

Puck Drop Preview: 2015-16 Minnesota Wild

Last Season

With Thomas Vanek brought in during free agency, the Wild thought they had the piece they needed to move from bubble team territory into a playoff threat. The season didn’t quite pan out that way for them, at least not right away.

Minnesota hovered around a wildcard spot for the early part of the season, but started to slip in the standings as the games went on. Things started to unravel, to the point where head coach Mike Yeo completely lost it on his players during a practice. It didn’t do much right away, as Minnesota lost its next four games.

With only 41 points throughout 42 games, and sitting at 12th in the Western Conference, Minnesota sent a 2015 third round pick to Arizona for Devan Dubnyk. Dubnyk earned a shutout in his Wild debut in a 7-0 win over the Buffalo Sabres. The season started to turn around, to the point of safely clinching a playoff spot. Dubnyk went 27-9-2 with a .936 SV%, 1.78 GAA, and 5 shutouts in 39 games for Minnesota.

In the post-season, the Wild knocked off the Division-winning St. Louis Blues in the first round, and then got swept by the eventual champs in the next round. It was the third straight year they were eliminated by the Chicago Blackhawks.

Offseason

General Manager Chuck Fletcher’s biggest concern was to get Dubnyk under contract, which he did with a six-year, $26 million contract. Mikael Granlund, Erik Haula, Nate Prosser, and Christian Folin were all re-signed to two-year deals. Coveted free agent defenceman Mike Reilly chose the Wild, and was signed for two years as well. Ryan Carter was re-signed to a one-year deal. Ruslan Fedotenko and Zac Dalpe each got one-year deals.

Kyle Brodziak, Chris Stewart, Sean Bergenheim, Keith Ballard, Jordan Leopold, Stephane Veilleux, Stu Bickel, and Josh Harding left as free agents. Matt Cooke was placed on waivers and then bought out.

At the draft, Minnesota used their 20th overall selection on Joel Eriksson Ek, then used their 50th overall pick on Jordan Greenway.

2015-16 Opening Day Lineup

Forwards

Zach Parise – Mikael Granlund – Jason Pominville

Thomas Vanek – Mikko Koivu – Nino Niederreiter

Jason Zucker – Charlie Coyle – Justin Fontaine

Ryan Carter – Erik Haula – Jordan Schroeder

Ruslan Fedotenko

Defensemen

Ryan Suter – Jonis Brodin

Christian Folin – Jared Spurgeon

Marco Scandella – Matthew Dumba

Mike Reilly – Nate Prosser

Goaltenders

Devan Dubnyk

Darcy Kuemper

Niklas Backstrom

Players to Watch

Devan Dubnyk and Darcy Kuemper

After playing at such a high level with the Wild last season, all eyes will be on Dubnyk to see how he performs this season. Was last year a fluke, or is he finally able to reach his potential playing in Minnesota? He may not get another Vezina nomination like he did last year, but he shouldn’t have too much trouble being a top-10 goaltender this season. With Kuemper in the picture, Dubnyk likely won’t be relied on as heavily for the majority of the year. Kuemper has been the starter at times during the last two seasons, but it will be harder for him to regain that role again now with Dubnyk ahead of him. He’ll need to play extremely well to be able to take games away from Dubnyk, while also making sure he stays ahead of Niklas Backstrom on the depth chart.

On the Rise

Jason Zucker

In 51 games last season, Zucker tallied 21 goals and 5 assists. For a player that only had 4 goals in each of the two prior seasons, scoring 21 is a big leap. His average ice time has gone up every year, and likely will again if he’s going to be a regular in the lineup. He was used on the second line at times last season, and will be fighting to keep that spot. He will likely spend time on both the second and third line, and if he can get the majority of his games on the second, he could breakout even more than he did last year.

On the Decline

Niklas Backstrom

Backstrom has been in decline for a number of years. His number of games played has been dropping every year since 2008. His GAA and SV% have been getting worse year after year since 2011. To make things harder, he’s behind both Dubnyk and Kuemper on the depth chart. On top of all that, he’s 37 years old. It’s hard to imagine him getting much time in the crease unless the others ahead of him run into injury troubles. After only 5 wins in each of his last two seasons, he’s fallen a long way from when he led the league in wins in 2013.

2015-16 Predictions

Minnesota is in arguably the toughest division in hockey, so nothing will come easy to them this year. With five teams reaching the playoffs last season, and with the Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars improving, it will be a dogfight for anyone to get in.

The Wild have the makeup of a playoff team. Good goaltending, a solid group of defence, and a forward group mixed with experience and youth. Barring injuries, they should get in. Will it be enough to go far in the playoffs, finally being able to defeat the Chicago Blackhawks? That’s the ultimate question heading into the season.

I think we’re going to see some strides taken by some of the youth. Zucker, Coyle, Niederreiter, Folin, and Dumba all have the potential to be key pieces to the team. If we see those strides taken, this will be a team capable of winning the Central Division, as well as defeating their rivals en route to a long playoff run.

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