The celebration over Minnesota’s first-in-five-years playoff appearance was muffled, considering the buzz the Wild created before the season and the struggle they endured just to qualify.
This time, another one and done is not an acceptable option.
“The main one for me is that big, shiny goal that we all want, that the 29 other teams are talking about right now,” coach Mike Yeo said after the first practice this week. “There’s a way of getting there. What’s really important for us to understand is if you want that to happen, you have to have a great season. If you want to have a great season, you have to have a great start. And if we want to have a great start, then it’s pretty simple.
“We better have a great training camp.”
What ought to help is that training camp will be held in its entirety this year, unlike the six-day whirlwind last January after the lockout ended and a 48-game schedule was patched together. Left wing Zach Parise and defenceman Ryan Suter, who signed identical 13-year, $98 million contracts, didn’t disappoint the Wild or their fans in the shortened season.
But many other players did.
So the roster looks different, designed to add more depth, toughness and scoring to the forward lines and ideally help shape the Wild into the kind of team that can push deep into the post-season rather than wilt away early.
“I guess winning it all makes the season a success,” Parise said. “We have to keep progressing and keep moving forward and building on what we did last year. We can’t keep using the excuse, ‘We’re young. We’re young. We’re young.’ We have to start developing and making progress and winning now.”
Five of the top 13 scorers from last season are gone: forwards Matt Cullen, Devin Setoguchi, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Cal Clutterbuck and defencemen Tom Gilbert. The new players are defenceman Keith Ballard, and forwards Matt Cooke and Nino Niederreiter. Goaltender Niklas Backstrom was re-signed, as was defenceman Jared Spuregon.
Twenty-one-year-olds Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker will get another opportunity to stick with the team all season as reliable top-nine forwards. Defenceman Matt Dumba will have a chance to make the roster as a 19-year-old.
Dany Heatley and Kyle Brodziak, back to full strength, will be in bounce-back mode. Jason Pominville, acquired for a hefty price from Buffalo before the trade deadline, will be around for a full 82-game season, assuming good health. The Wild could extend his contract to keep him as part of the core led by Parise, Suter, young defenceman Jonas Brodin and captain Mikko Koivu.
“I think they’ve proven—with the signings they made a couple years ago and the additions they’ve made to the team—what they want to do going forward,” Pominville said. “So I think it’s nice to be a part of that group and help them out in the best way I can.”
Yeo wasted no time at the first practice trying to install some tweaks to his system, emphasizing longer puck possession, better passing and quicker rushes out of the defensive zone. Too often last season, the Wild reverted to a dump-and-chase game.
“When we come out of our shell and play some good hockey, we’re a tough team to beat,” Pominville said. “Hopefully we can bring that on a more consistent basis.”
Losing in five games in the first round to eventual Stanley Cup-champion Chicago showed the Wild how far they were from the depth, speed and puck control that the Blackhawks used to become tops for the second time in four seasons.
“It’s almost like they had the puck 70 per cent of the game and we had it 30,” Parise said. “It’s tough to win like that.”
Backstrom, who missed the playoffs with a sports hernia, will turn 36 in February. He smiled when asked if the style changes make him worried about facing more shots.
“It’s always easier for a team if you play with the puck more and if you can keep the puck more,” Backstrom said. “It’s going to be easier for everyone and a lot more fun than just chasing.”
Yeo’s future is staked to this. With the money owner Craig Leipold has committed in recent years, and this hockey-smart market lacking a playoff series victory since 2003, the pressure to improve here is clear. So don’t expect a risk-laden, wide-open game from this team every night, even with the attempt to develop a stronger attack.
“We want to be a team that makes the playoffs,” Yeo said. “The one thing that’s important to understand is you can’t just create off the rush every single time.
“That’s a surefire way to not make the playoffs if you start turning pucks over, night in and night out.”