The “State of Hockey” has never had a team crowned Stanley Cup champions, despite the histories of the Minnesota Wild and formerly the Minnesota North Stars. As the 2013-14 hockey season gets under way, the Wild will look to improve upon last year’s playoff appearance and make an impression in the NHL’s new-look Central Division.
The team had a hard time gelling last year following the acquisitions of big names Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Jason Pominville along with 20- and 21-year-old youngsters Jonas Brodin and Charlie Coyle. Injuries to key players late in the season saw the team drop from a potential fifth seed in the playoffs to the eighth seed, which resulted in a lopsided playoff series against the eventual Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks.
The Wild come into the new season with a roster closely resembling last year’s, although they have a few key signings and departures:
Matt Cullen is the Wild’s biggest player to go, as they were forced to let him enter free agency due to salary cap concerns. In addition to Cullen, the Wild lost another Minnesotan in Tom Gilbert. Another tough loss is fan favorite Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who had played out his 10 year NHL career in Minnesota up to this point. The winger is third on the Wild’s all-time scoring list, with 106 goals and 241 assists in his time at the Xcel. Devin Setoguchi has joined the Winnipeg Jets after scoring 32 goals in two years with the Wild and enforcer Cal Clutterbuck has been traded to the NY Islanders.
The Wild acquired 21-year-old Nino Niederreiter from the Islanders in exchange for Clutterbuck and a third round draft pick. Nino is a Swiss right-winger who was the fifth pick in the 2010 NHL draft. He spent last year developing in the AHL, where he scored 28 goals and recorded 22 assists for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. He is an exciting prospect who should see significant ice time on the second or third line.
The Wild swept up big hitter Matt Cooke in free agency to replace the void left by Clutterbuck. Cooke has a history of controversial hits and suspensions, and despite his efforts to clean up his act in the past two seasons, his signing was met with mixed reviews from fans.
The Wild’s final signing was defender Keith Ballard. The Minnesota native and ex-Gopher is known for his ability to contribute both offensively and defensively and his strength on the puck.
They have the potential to make a playoff run, perhaps the longest in the franchise’s young history, provided they can achieve these four goals:
Achieve big-time production from captains Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. The first line last season failed to live up to their potential, with the defenders chipping in just six goals, and the forwards putting up quieter numbers than expected. This was compounded in the playoffs, where Parise scored the line’s only goal. Parise and Suter were signed to identical 13-year, $98 million deals in 2012 and will look to prove their worth this year.
Get production from the youth. The Wild’s roster features six players under the age of 22. Jonas Brodin proved himself capable of being a top line defenseman last year as he was named to the NHL All-Rookie Team. Nino Niederetter and the speedy Jason Zucker are expected to also play a big part in the Wild’s attack. Centers Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund are both former first round picks who have big potentials but have yet to play up to them. They had monster training camps and this should be the year they break through to become key producers on the second and third lines.
Coach Mike Yeo’s new system. Yeo has stated his intent to increase the speed of the Wild’s attack, as well as get the defenseman more involved. This style has been successful for recent Stanley Cup champions from Chicago and Boston. The Wild have the players to make it happen, and the new system could be a game-changer.
Avoid injuries that derailed their playoff hopes last season. The Wild was without their starting goalie Niklas Bakstrom, Dany Heatley and Jason Pominville as they were embarrassed last April by the Blackhawks. Many players on the team have been prone to injuries in recent years, and the Wild don’t have a particularly great amount of depth, especially with the goalies and defense.
The Wild have the capacity to be serious contenders this year, and should the pieces fall into their places, this could be the year the State of Hockey is awarded with the ultimate prize.