The Minnesota Wild had a lot of things go right for them during the 2013-14 season. They had injuries to several key players, including their goaltenders, Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund, yet still finished well ahead of the Dallas Stars for fourth place in the Central Division. Head coach Mike Yeo gained trust in his young players while leaning on the veterans to get the team to another level.
The Wild have become a destination for free agents. They added one of the most sought-after free agents in Thomas Vanek and have several players fighting for the few remaining roster spots.
Despite the positive momentum the team gained during the season and offseason, the Wild need the young players to continue developing and a few other things to happen to reach the next level. After making the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, the Wild need several players to prove something about their game in order to become perennial Stanley Cup contenders.
Here are five players with the most to prove in 2014.
No. 5 - Zack Phillips
Zack Phillips improved from years 1 to 2 in the AHL, but he is one of 10 first round draft picks from the 2011 yet to make his NHL debut. Also, 15 of the 22 players selected immediately after Phillips have played at least one game in the NHL, including Boone Jenner (selected nine picks after Phillips) and Brandon Saad (selected 15 picks after Phillips) - who have already proven themselves to be future top-six forwards in the NHL. When the Wild drafted him 28th overall, everyone in the hockey world knew he can put up big offensive numbers. The knock on him was his skating ability. There were a lot of scouts that questioned whether or not he could skate with NHL players. His skating has improved and his production totals increased from 76 games played to 71, eight goals to 12 and 19 assists to 21 between his first and second seasons. Chad Graff of the St. Paul Pioneer Press talked to Phillips as well as Iowa Wild head coach Kurt Kleinendorst about the importance of this season.
Phillips now enters his third season as a professional, the last season of his entry level contract. He needs to prove he can be an NHL center this season.
No. 4 - Charlie Coyle
Charlie Coyle was a key component in the trade to send Brent Burns to the San Jose Sharks. He has, at times, been the most dominant player on the ice. But, at other times, has been non-existent. That is going to happen with young players, but at some point it needs to happen on a more consistent basis. During the playoffs in April and May, Coyle scored three goals while getting 12 shots on goal in the first four games against the Colorado Avalanche in the first round, but recorded just four assists while getting 11 shots on goal in the other nine games against the Avalanche and Chicago Blackhawks. Last season’s inconsistency could have been a combination of things from a knee injury in October to bouncing positions from wing to center and back and a pair of separated shoulders in the playoffs.
Coyle is entering the final season of his entry level contract with a nice pay raise on the horizon. He needs to prove capable of being an offensive and physical force on a consistent basis.
No. 3 - Jonas Brodin
Jonas Brodin made a huge impact as a rookie during the 2012-13 strike-shortened season. Last season, his production improved, including a jump in shooting percentage from 3.9 percent to 10.8. On paper, he had a solid season with eight goals, including three on the power play, and 11 assists. The numbers look good, but after suffering a facial injury early last season, he had times where he looked hesitant to retrieve a dumped in puck and skittish to play a puck in his own zone. The poise he showed as a 19-year-old rookie in 2012-13 was not there.
Brodin must prove that he can consistently be confident with his puck handling and decision-making while continuing to develop his offensive game.
No. 2 - Marco Scandella
Marco Scandella was a bit of a late bloomer in juniors, but has developed a well-rounded skill set for the NHL. He tied a career-high with three goals and set career-highs for assists (14) and points (17). He is not going to be a dynamic offensive defenseman despite having good puck handling skills and a good shot. But, what the Wild need from him is what he did during the playoffs last season. He used his size (listed on the Wild’s website at 6-feet-3-inches tall and 207 pounds) and skating ability to match up with the dynamic offensive players on the Blackhawks and Avalanche.
He has the physical mindset, size and skating ability to be a shutdown defender. He must prove capable of being that guy on the second defensive pairing to take some minutes away from Ryan Suter.
No. 1 - The Goaltenders
All three goaltenders on the NHL roster - Niklas Backstrom, Josh Harding and Darcy Kuemper - have something to prove in the 2014-15 season. All three faced some sort difficulty last season. Backstrom was hurt the entire season, Harding is still trying to find the perfect medication for his illness and Kuemper suffered multiple concussions. Given their respective situations, the Wild need at least one to be healthy for an entire season. Last season Backstrom posted the worst numbers of his career and played only 21 games. Harding was an Olympic candidate and likely Vezina Trophy front runner until his illness put him on the shelf for the remainder of the season in late December. Kuemper stepped in and saved the season by single-handedly winning a few games before his first concussion. His second concussion knocked him out of the playoffs.
Backstrom needs to prove that his lower body is 100 percent healthy. Harding must prove that his illness is not going to end his career. Kuemper needs to prove that: 1) concussions will not be an issue and 2) that last season’s performance was not a fluke.