The Minnesota Wild made the playoffs for the first time since 2008, but were quickly sent packing by the Chicago Blackhawks in Round One.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at an improved Wild club that will have to make some tough decisions this summer as they attempt to keep a playoff-calibre team intact while remaining under the $64.3-million salary cap.
Perhaps the most difficult decision facing GM Chuck Fletcher is what to do with Dany Heatley, whose performance has declined to the point that it's tough to commit $7.5-million of the salary cap for him while still maintaining flexibility to add at other positions of need, most notably a starting goaltender.
While it would be easy to be down on the Wild for such a quick exit from the playoffs, it should be noted that starting goalie Niklas Backstrom was injured in warm-ups before Game One against Chicago and missed the postseason and RW Jason Pominville suffered a late-season concussion, making it back for two games in the Blackhawks series. Those two players may not have made a huge difference, but the Wild most likely would have been better with them in the lineup.
"I look where we were a year ago today to where we are now, there's just been a dramatic improvement, a dramatic difference," Fletcher told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune
at season's end. "Clearly we're on the right path. But you play a team like Chicago, you see where you have to get better. Their talent level, their depth is pretty impressive. You see where you need to get to, but at the same token, last year we were Mikko Koivu
and a bunch of prospects."
The Wild are on the right path, but they're hardly locked into it. Until they stabilize their goaltending situation, until their highly-touted prospects start producing, there is the risk of falling back. After all, they made lots of progress just to get to eighth in the Western Conference last season. It wouldn't take much for some bounces to go the other way, leaving the Wild on the outside looking in.
The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013 regular season ratings with a 93.65.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
Chuck Fletcher/Mike Yeo
Wild Forwards Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com
It's fair enough to question whether Zach Parise is the kind of player to warrant the free agent contract that the Wild heaped upon him last summer, but Parise came as advertised. A skilled and relentless player whose production was right in line with his 2011-2012 season, but Parise also produced tremendous puck possession stats as the Wild used him more frequently in the offensive zone.
Acquired at the trade deadline from Buffalo, Jason Pominville had nine points in ten games with the Wild before suffering a concussion on a hit from the Kings' Dustin Brown. He returned for a couple of playoff games, in a lesser role, so the Wild didn't really get to see how his addition might improve their playoff chances. Moving forward, Pominville is a reliable two-way player who has 435 points over the last seven seasons, a total that places him 27th in the league over that span.
2013 was going along like a typical Mikko Koivu season -- steady, productive -- and then he flopped in April (four points, minus-6 in 14 GP) before coming up empty (zero points, minus-6 in 5 GP) in his first taste of the playoffs since 2008. Koivu's a strong two-way peformer, which should figure to make him a good fit with Parise. Certainly possession numbers indicate that they should be successful over the long haul.
Despite playing his fewest minutes per game since his rookie year, Devin Setoguchi delivered a productive season, finding good fortune with Matt Cullen and either Jason Zucker or Pierre-Marc Bouchard on the Wild's second line. He may never match his 31 goals and 65 points from the 2008-2009 season, but Setoguchi is a quality shooter that can provide secondary scoring.
It wasn't that long ago that Dany Heatley was firing 40 goals a season, but it seems like a lifetime ago now. It's getting harder for the Wild to fit Heatley on a scoring line and he could be a compliance buyout if Minnesota decided they wanted to get free from the last year of his contract (which will pay him $5-million, but come at a $7.5-million cap hit). He's 32-years-old, so Heatley's best years are clearly behind him, but it's possible that he could find the right situation, whether in Minnesota or elsewhere, where his size and finishing ability could still net him 25-30 goals in a full season.
Rookie power forward Charlie Coyle impressed so much with his play that he was taking regular turns with Parise and Koivu on the No. 1 line. He still needs to generate more shots to be a productive scorer, but Coyle was an effective possession player in his first year, setting the stage for higher expectations in his second season.
A year after his career-best season, Kyle Brodziak struggled in 2013; his minus-18 rating was worst among Western Conference forwards. That wasn't all on Brodziak, who didn't have the same kind of linemates as he did in prior years, but the results were decidedly worse. One positive, though, is that Brodziak always shows up, having missed seven games in the last six seasons.
Coming into the season, the Wild had supposedly found an upgrade for their second-line centre spot in Finnish sensation Mikael Granlund, but it didn't quite work out that way as he was outmuscled too often and couldn't consistently generate offence in the NHL. However, given his track record in Finland (127 points in 127 games in his last three seasons) and last season in the AHL (28 points in 29 games as a 20-year-old), there is reason to believe that Granlund can be a point producer, but he'll have to be better.
While he was tasked with challenging zone starts, Torrey Mitchell's first season in Minnesota was a bust, with a career-low scoring rate (0.18 ppg), career-low minus-8 rating and career-low 10:30 average time on ice per game. Given the financial commitment that the Wild made to Mitchell, they should probably try to find a role that matches their investment more appropriately.
Acquired from the New York Rangers for Darroll Powe and Nick Palmieri, veteran Mike Rupp put up typically modest numbers, but he's a huge presence on the fourth line, capable of skating on that line as well as being big enough to tangle with the league's heavyweights.
With 85 fights over the last four seasons, Zenon Konopka was one of two forwards (Powe was the other) to play more than 300 minutes and record zero points in 2013.
Last season was the first time in Cal Clutterbuck's career that he finished outside the top three in hits (he was ninth, with 155 in 42 games) and his role was reduced compared to previous seasons. Prior to last season, he had been able to contribute offensively, scoring 34 goals in the previous two seasons, but with four goals last year, Clutterbuck's production dipped.
The Wild have prospects that should move into more significant roles next year, most notably Jason Zucker and Mikael Granlund, but the Wild could go for a bargain free agent too, praticularly if they do end up buying out Heatley.
Wild Defence Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com
The Wild paid through the nose to get Ryan Suter and then made sure to put him to work, as he played a league-high 27:16 per game and he earned a place as a Norris Trophy finalist for his sound two-way play. He also went on a stretch through the middle of the season during which he scored a point-per-game over a 24-game span.
Rookie Jonas Brodin was a defensive whiz for the Wild, mostly partnering with Suter and playing tough matchups, yet still producing favourable puck possession numbers. He doesn't put up the offensive numbers that would garner him more notice, but the Wild have a top-pair defenceman for a decade or more.
He may not be quite a shutdown defender, but Clayton Stoner is a big body who played a career-high 18:13 per game in a no-frills defensive role last season.
When he was acquired from Edmonton in 2011-2012, Tom Gilbert logged more than 27 minutes per game over the final 20 games that he played for the Wild. In 2013, it was down to a career-low 19:19 per game and Gilbert had mediocre possession stats. The Wild need more from him.
Nate Prosser was left to a limited part-time role last season, dressing for just 17 games and playing 11:15 per game, not exactly a vote of confidence for more responsibility going forward.
Undersized Jared Spurgeon has been a supreme bargain the last couple seasons, playing more than 21:30 per game and putting up solid possession numbers. He's due for a nice raise as a restricted free agent, but it is warranted by his play.
Justin Falk was another one to see his minutes cut on the blueline, down to 13:13 per game last season, and while his plus-minus wasn't great, he was largely a victim of poor goaltending when he was on the ice (essentially, bad luck given how the Wild goaltending performed on the whole).
It's possible that top prospect Mathew Dumba could challenge for a spot, but a veteran who can provide a physical presence on the low end of the depth chart wouldn't be a bad idea.
Free Agent Goaltender
||'12-'13 Cap Hit
Considering that he played just five games all season, as he dealt with the effects of Multiple Sclerosis for much of the year, it was extraordinary that Josh Harding was not only able to step in for an injured Niklas Backstrom in the playoffs, but Harding performed at a high level. That's not a huge shock, based on his play (.915 SV%) throughout his career but, under the circumstances, it was impressive.
It might be a reach, however, to expect Harding to handle a full-time starter's role should Backstrom leave as a free agent since the soon-to-be 29-year-old has played a total of 39 games over the last three seasons.
The Wild could explore trading for the likes of Ryan Miller, sign a free agent like Mike Smith or Evgeni Nabokov or they could take their chances with Harding and top goaltending prospect Darcy Kuemper. Miller would be the boldest stroke and an indication that the Wild are playing with urgency to win now.
||Red Deer (WHL)
||16-26-42, +10, 62 GP
||24-26-50, -6, 55 GP
||13-8, 1.88 GAA, .934 SV%
||16-35-51, +19, 37 GP
||20-13, 1.70 GAA, .932 SV%
||38-35-73, +7, 60 GP
||8-19-27, -11, 71 GP
||Notre Dame (CCHA)
||12-11-23, -4, 32 GP
||29-39-68, +27, 60 GP
||2-15-17, +2, 45 GP
A dynamic puck-moving defenceman who throws his weight around, Mathew Dumba plays much bigger than his size and the seventh overall pick from last summer may need to learn how to pick his spots a little bit more as a pro, but he has a chance to be something special.
California native Jason Zucker scored enough as a rookie pro to earn 20 games in Minnesota, with the Wild, where he scored four goals and five points in limited ice time. If he's not ready for full-time duty as a scoring winger, he's awfully close.
Darcy Kuemper only has 40 AHL games (plus 11 ECHL games) under his belt in two pro seasons, but a .929 save percentage in those 40 games has the 23-year-old knocking on the door.
With 100 points in 80 games over his last two seasons at the University of Minnesota, Erik Haula could be expected to produce offensively, but he'll get some time in the AHL to prove that he can do it.
A sixth-round pick in 2010, Johan Gustafsson has been outstanding in Sweden, posting a .931 save percentage in 62 Swedish Elite League games over the past two seasons. Expectations need to be kept in check, at least until he plays some in North America.
A seventh-round pick in 2011, Tyler Graovac broke through with a big offensive season, scoring 38 goals after scoring 20 in his first three OHL seasons combined. If it's a case of a 6-foot-4 power forward taking longer to put it together, the Wild may have come up with a potential steal.
20-year-old Zack Phillips, a first-round pick in 2011, went through some adjustment to the pro game in his first year. He's still young and has a scorer's pedigree, so it will be up to him to generate more in his second campaign.
Lanky winger Mario Lucia missed time in his freshman season with a broken leg, but the 2011 second-round pick has time to develop.
A second-round pick last summer, Raphael Bussieres continued to improve this past season, putting up a total of 84 points in 79 games (regular season plus playoffs).
It's difficult to consider Marco Scandella, a 23-year-old who has played 89 career NHL games, a prospect, but he spent most of last season in the AHL, so here he is; a capable puck-mover who can fill-in any time with the Wild.
Other prospects like 2008 first-rounder Tyler Cuma, physical winger Brett Bulmer and 25-year-old scorer Justin Fontaine are also worth monitoring.
No first-round pick
According to www.capgeek.com, the Wild have approximately $57.9M committed to the 2013-2014 salary cap for 18 players.
Check out my possible Wild lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.
Needs: One top nine forward, depth forwards, depth defence, starting goaltender.
What I said the Wild needed last year:One top line forward, one top nine forward, two top pair defencemen, backup goaltender.
They added: Zach Parise, Mikael Granlund, Torrey Mitchell, Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin.
Dany Heatley, Tom Gilbert, prospects.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.