The Minnesota Wild have gradually gotten better over the past couple of years – can they take another in 2014-15? We think the Wild have what it takes to finish third in the Central Division. What do you think?
2013-14 record: 43-27-12
Acquisitions: Justin Falk, Jordan Schroeder, Joel Rechlicz, Stu Bickel, Thomas Vanek, Brett Sutter
Departures: Jake Dowell, Nate Prosser, Dany Heatley, Clayton Stoner, Steve Kampfer, Cody McCormick, Matt Moulson
Top five fantasy players: Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Mikko Koivu, Thomas Vanek, Mikael Granlund
Boom, Bust and Bottom Line: The best, worst and most likely scenario
Boom: It was a slow, steady progression for Minnesota last season, from 94 (pro-rated) points to 98 points, from a No. 8 seed to a No. 7 seed, from the first round of the playoffs to the second. None of it was a fluke. The Wild own one of the NHL’s elite farm systems, and it was only a matter of time before the young guns made significant impacts at the NHL level. Blueliner Jonas Brodin did it in 2012-13, and last season was Mikael Granlund’s turn to break out. He’s matured into a legit top-two center, and he’s nowhere near his ceiling. Charlie Coyle looks like a handy power forward and Nino Niederreiter, a high-end prospect acquired from the Islanders, scores in the clutch and hits like a truck. Bruising blueliner Mathew Dumba could make a leap this season, too.
This exciting young core complements a strong group of veteran stars, led by Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville and free agent signee Thomas Vanek up front and Ryan Suter on defense. This team looks more stacked by the year and can challenge the elite teams in the West as soon as this season.
Bust: Can Minnesota truly contend for the Stanley Cup with such a muddy goaltending picture? It’s a matter of health, not talent. Josh Harding sparkled last season, courageously battling multiple sclerosis, but his disease is too taxing for him to handle full-time starter duty. Niklas Backstrom is fresh off abdominal surgery, so he’s no shoo-in to regain his old form at 36. Darcy Kuemper has proven a useful stopgap, but he remains relatively unproven.
If Dumba can’t make the team, the Wild’s defense will be among the league’s smallest, especially after Clayton Stoner left in free agency. They need another thoroughbred to run alongside the minutes-machine Suter, especially if Brodin’s sophomore slump extends to Year 3. The Wild have a few clear flaws, and that’s worrisome when they play in hockey’s toughest division. An injury or two to a star could push them back toward the playoff bubble.
Bottom Line: The Wild keep getting better, and they have enough high-end talent to legitimately challenge the best teams in the West. That puts them in the Central’s top three. Until GM Chuck Fletcher addresses some holes on defense and in goal, however, consider Minnesota a second-tier contender, just outside the elite. This team is ready to attack top-tier teams with everything it has but not quite sturdy enough to withstand the counterattacks.
Prospect To Watch: Christian Folin, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound defenseman signed out of UMass-Lowell, will have a shot to crack the opening night lineup. Folin scored 20 points in 41 games last season, his second and last in the NCAA. Another young defender to watch is Dumba. The seventh overall pick from 2012 scored two points in 13 games with the Wild last season, though he is more likely to start the season in the American League.
THN’s Prediction: Third in Central Division
Contributors: Matt Larkin, Rory Boylen