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THN’s 2015-16 NHL season preview: Minnesota Wild

Devan Dubnyk came to Minnesota and catapulted the Wild into the post-season in 2014-15. The question now is if Dubnyk can do it again. Minnesota is good in every aspect of the game but they’re not great at any one thing. Minnesota’s season could hinge on how far Dubnyk, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter can carry the Wild.
The Hockey News

The Hockey News

2014-15 Record: 46-28-8 (100 Pts.)

THN’s Prediction: 6th, Central Division

What To Expect: Chuck Fletcher returns essentially the same group to Minnesota. The Wild GM says he’s happy about that but had little choice, as his books are weighed down by veteran contracts. Goalie

Devan Dubnyk demanded a hefty payout as he hit the open market. His breakout vaulted the Wild to a wild card position, but it was by far the best stretch of a so-so career, casting doubt on how he’ll perform over his next six seasons under contract. The Wild’s lone significant UFA addition was D-man

Mike Reilly, 22, one of the off-season’s most coveted free agents. He shone at the University of Minnesota for three seasons. He won’t need much seasoning before stepping in and making an impact for the Wild.

Minnesota is good at every position but not great. Last year’s forward unit did supply some bright spots, including

Zach Parise’s 33 goals,

Nino Niederreiter’s 24 and

Jason Zucker’s 21. Centers

Mikko Koivu and

Mikael Granlund disappointed, especially Granlund, who had eight goals for the second straight year. He has the talent and the opportunity to produce 50-plus points. The Wild’s offensive balance enabled them to finish 12th in goals, but they need more from their top talents, and the 27th-rated power play must improve. Fletcher wants to see younger talent deployed more often, rather than the vet-heavy top unit coach Mike Yeo prefers. Minnesota’s identity is its team defense. The club allowed the fourth-fewest shots and the sixth-fewest goals. The penalty kill was the league’s best. Possession numbers were decent, too. Blueliner

Ryan Suter plays nearly half of every game and in all situations. His emergent supporting cast is an impressive mix of young, responsible D-men. Dubnyk started 38 straight games to earn a Masterton Trophy and finish third in Vezina voting. At no point in his career — in the NHL, the AHL, or major junior — did his numbers resemble last season’s. Has he blossomed into a superstar at 29? The safe prediction is Dubnyk will be more like the rest of his team: average, but not quite up to par in the deadly Central.

Best-Case Scenario: Minnesota’s Achilles heel last season was their goaltending, which they took care of thanks to the stellar play of Dubnyk. He doesn’t need to replicate his run from last season — that would be near impossible — but having him finish as a top-10 netminder probably means the Wild are post-season bound again in 2015-16. They’re not Cup contenders quite yet, but they could put a scare into some of the Western Conference’s best teams.

Worst-Case Scenario: If Dubnyk’s play in 2014-15 was a mirage, the Wild are going to be in trouble. It was evident last season neither

Darcy Kuemper or

Niklas Backstrom could carry the full-time load in Minnesota and their play in 2014-15 probably puts some fright into the Wild should either have to start for an extended period. And playing in an extremely difficult division means Minnesota needs every point they can get in the standings. Another year of shaky goaltending and they’re on the outside looking in this season.

Who To Watch: While Dubnyk is the obvious answer, there has to be some point when the heavy minutes start to weigh on Suter, right? He'll be turning 31 this season and is on his way out of his prime years, yet he still plays nearly half of every game for Minnesota. Since 2012-13, his first season in Minnesota, he has played 5,958 minutes — 308 minutes more than any other player in the league. He logs big minutes on the power play and big minutes on the penalty kill, and eventually the wear-and-tear of that could catch up to him. His defense is still up there with some of the game's best, but his production on the other side of the puck is showing signs of slipping. He had his lowest points-per-game since 2009-10 this past season and the Wild definitely want more than two goals out of their $7.5-million defenseman.

What The Numbers Say (by Dom Luszczyszyn):

Click here for more detail on these predictions. Contrary to the rest of the staffers, the numbers really like the Wild to be a dominant team in the Central. That’ll be a tough challenge considering the other teams in the division, so it’s no surprise that there would be deviations in opinions on any team in the division. What the Wild have going for them on paper is a very strong defense core – especially the very underrated

Jared Spurgeon – that ranks highly in the West. In fact, the league’s top six defense groups are all in the West. Like forwards being the difference in the East, it seems as if defensemen are what matters out west. Minnesota’s group holds up very well.

That could be one reason Dubnyk was able to thrive after arriving in Minnesota and he may be able to continue with those six in front of him. Aside from one complete disaster of a season, Dubnyk has been an average goalie, and in Minnesota that could be all they need. The forwards are interesting because of how balanced they are. Parise is the closest thing to elite and his two over-30 linemates should still be effective too. After them is five players who project to be worth one or more WAR, all of whom are young talents on the rise. That bodes well for the aging core as the young guys are growing into very effective players. Depth is the difference maker for any team in the league, and while the Wild lack top-end talent, their balanced attack more than makes up for it. According to these projections they’re still a very dangerous team in the West and one that’s very likely to be in the playoff picture.

THN is rolling out its 2015-16 Team Previews daily, in reverse alphabetical order, until the start of the season. Check out our ‘Previews’ section to see other team breakdowns.

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