The Minnesota Wild will begin the 2013-2014 NHL season on Thursday evening when they face-off against the Los Angeles Kings at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Face-off is scheduled for 7:00 PM and the game will be televised nationally on NBC Sports Network.
After making the playoffs as the #8 seed on the last day of the 2012-2013 season and quickly bowing out of the playoffs in five games to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, the Wild were much quieter during the 2013 off-season than they were in 2012. They did acquire a pair of veterans who should help their depth this coming season in forward Matt Cooke and Baudette, MN native defenseman Keith Ballard. The Wild parted ways with center Matt Cullen who signed on with the Nashville Predators and they bought out defenseman Tom Gilbert with one of their compliance buyouts.
The Wild also parted ways with long-time forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard who signed on with the New York Islanders and forward Cal Clutterbuck who was traded to the Isles. In the Clutterbuck trade the Wild acquired the #5 overall draft choice in the 2010 draft, forward Nino Niederreiter. Niederreiter (El Nino) is blessed with size and offensive talent. He racked up terrific statistics in the Isles minor league system but was thought to have been brought up too early by the Isles and languished on their 4th line, scoring two goals in 64 games on Long Island. Most knowledgeable hockey people believe Niederreiter was misused by the Isles and rushed to the NHL before he was ready.
Losing Cullen left the Wild without a proven 2nd line center so third-year head coach Mike Yeo and general manager Chuck Fletcher opened up that spot on the team to two of its best prospects; Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle, both of whom spent significant time with both the Wild and their AHL affiliate, the Houston Aeros during the '12-'13 season.
The Wild moved their AHL affiliate from Houston to Des Moines, IA over the summer and renamed them the Iowa Wild.
Training camp got underway on Sept. 12 and the Wild went 4-2-0 in six pre-season games. Along the way first-liners captain Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Jason Pominville got a chance to gel a lot more than they did in the lockout shortened '12-'13 season. Pominville was acquired from the Buffalo Sabres in a trade on April 3. The Koivu-Parise-Pominville line has the ability to become one of the best in the NHL.
Charlie Coyle had a terrific training camp and pre-season and won the job as 2nd line center. He will be flanked initially by veteran Dany Heatley, who is returning from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for the last month of the '12-'13 season, and Niederreiter who had a terrific training camp and pre-season. The Wild are counting on Coyle to take ownership of the 2nd line center position and play beyond his years there and he showed every sign of doing just that in camp. Niederreiter showed the Wild that he may well may be ready to play up to his potential and if he does, the Wild will be that much better.
The Wild's 3rd and 4th lines will be comprised of a combination of veteran centers Kyle Brodziak and Zenon Konopka and wingers Cooke, Granlund, Torrey Mitchell and UMD alum Justin Fontaine, who beat out the speedy Jason Zucker for the final forward spot. Zucker was assigned to Iowa but don't count on him being there all season. The Wild will surely call him up at some point.
On defense the Wild will be going with star Ryan Suter and steady sophomore Jonas Brodin as their top pair. Their second pair will be Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon. After that veterans Clayton Stoner and Ballard will pair up. Nate Prosser will be the 7th defenseman and 19-year-old rookie Matt Dumba will get what amounts to a nine-game tryout with the big team before the Wild has to decide whether to keep him or send him back for one last season with his junior team, the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League. Odds are good that Dumba will return to Red Deer. That said, last season another 19-year-old defenseman named Jonas Brodin made such a good impression on the Wild that they kept him and paired him up with Suter. So, anything is possible.
In goal the Wild retained the services of veteran Niklas Backstrom as their #1 goaltender. Backing him up will be veteran Josh Harding. Backstrom became a workhorse for the Wild last season after it became clear that Harding would need further evaluation and treatment for multiple sclerosis which he was diagnosed as having before the '12-'13 season. Ideally, the Wild will get somewhere around 45 games from Backstrom and 35 or so games from Harding. The 35-year-old Backstrom played in 42 of 48 regular season games for the Wild. He was injured during warm-ups before game 1 vs. Chicago and did not play in any of the five games in the series. Backstrom's workload is going to have to be reduced if he hopes to stay healthy the entire season.
Mike Yeo is entering his third season as head coach. He has had mixed success at the NHL level. The Wild flew out of the gate in his first season only to fall apart due to injuries in the second half. Last season the Wild were so-so at the beginning of the season, terrific for about six weeks in February and March and then faded down the stretch in April. The Wild limped into the playoffs and as previously mentioned, were taken out in five games by Chicago. If the Wild get off to a slow start this season, Yeo is thought to be a coach who could very quickly wind up on the hot seat.
The Wild are counting on a lot of their young players coming through for them and playing key roles in any success they have. Coyle in particular is being looked at as the best of the best in terms of the Wild's young players. If he plays in the regular season like he played in the pre-season the Wild will have a terrific 2nd line center. If he falls down the job goes to Granlund who will need to play much better than he did last season as a rookie. Second line center is a make or break position for the Wild. If the young guys can take care of it the Wild's chances of success go up dramatically.
In addition to the lineup changes the Wild made the NHL also realigned divisions which means the Wild get an almost completely new set of division rivals. Gone are Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary along with the late night face-offs on the road. The Wild instead will play in the new Central Division and count Chicago, the St. Louis Blues, Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators, Colorado Avalanche and Winnipeg Jets as their division rivals. All but Colorado are in the Central Time Zone so road games should start before bed time and end right about bed time!
With a healthy Heatley and with Pominville on board for the whole season, and with a full training camp and pre-season to come together as a team, the Wild should be better offensively in '13-'14, they should be as good if not better on the blue line and perhaps about the same in goal. They finished in 8th place last season. What Wild fans should realistically expect this season is for them to finish 2nd or 3rd in the Central and 5th or 6th in the Western Conference. Fans should expect them to make the playoffs again this season and hopefully will win a series or two.