The Minnesota Wild made great strides last season and hope to get into the Stanley Cup contender mix in 2014-15. Here's our preview of the team and the NHL's Central Division.
2013-14 RECORD: 43-27-12, 98 points (fourth in Central, wild card; lost to Blackhawks, 4-2, in second round)
VITAL SIGNS: 2.43 goals per game (24th); 2.42 goals-against per game (7th); 17.9 power play pct. (16th); 78.8 penalty kill pct. (27th); shootout record: 8-8 (10th)
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART:
Zach Parise — Mikael Granlund — Jason Pominville
Thomas Vanek — Mikko Koivu — Charlie Coyle
Matt Cooke — Erik Haula — Nino Neiderreiter
Jason Zucker — Kyle Brodziak — Justin Fontaine
Stephane Veillieux, Jordan Schroeder
* Josh Harding (injured)
OUTLOOK: Thomas Vanek's arrival via free agency gives the Wild a bonafide sniper in his prime, something the team hasn't had since Marian Gaborik's heyday, and the 30-year-old winger's scoring and playmaking will be essential to this up-and-coming team's fortunes. Despite their lack of offense, the Wild made great strides last season, the second in St. Paul for winger Zach Parise and workhorse defenseman Ryan Suter, by winning their first playoff series since 2003. The team's young talent played a big role in getting to the Western Conference semi-finals, so forwards Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine as well as defenseman Jonas Brodin will be counted on to keep progressing. The big question about this team can be found in net, where presumptive starter Josh Harding's foot injury forced the Wild to re-sign RFA holdout Darcy Kuemper, who will battle Niklas Backstrom for the No. 1 role until Harding returns. Ilya Bryzgalov was brought in to camp on a PTO and remains available as insurance, should Kuemper falter or Backstrom fall prey again to injury. (He missed the second half of last season due to abdominal surgery.) The Wild should have no problem returning to the playoffs, but once there, getting through the stacked Western Conference will be a big challenge.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Charlie Coyle
The 22-year-old forward (a first round pick by San Jose in 2010) certainly has the flash and the dash—look at his numbers at every level at which he's played. With a full NHL season of experience (12 goals, 30 points in 70 games) and a potential line pairing with Vanek, he'll quickly become a contributor to one of the Central's rising offensive forces. Coach Mike Yeo's leash on Coyle doesn't have to be long, however, as Minnesota has plenty of highly-touted prospects in the pipeline.
PREDICTION: 93 Points, fifth in Central (wild card 2)