The Minnesota Wild finished with 98 points in 2013-2014, tying for the second-most in franchise history, and put forth a strong showing in two playoff rounds, raising expectations going forward.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Wild team that has a nice mix of proven veterans along with young, inexpensive talent on the rise.
When the Wild signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, making a big splash in the summer of 2012, it set the franchise on a path to being more competitive, but a big reason that they have been so competitive is the contributions of young players who still have more to give. Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Erik Haula, Justin Fontaine, Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin all played roles in the team's success last season and, by and large, there is potential for more from that group.
What that inexpensive talent allows, though, is for the Wild to spend either in free agency or in trades, because they have financial flexibility. Add another scorer and a proven defenceman to the mix and a team that gave the Chicago Blackhawks a good test in the second round could be even better next year.
A couple of concerns:
One, the Wild opened the year with improved puck possession stats, over 56% Fenwick Close through mid-November, but those numbers steadily declined and settled at 48.6% by season's end, ranking 21st, which isn't worthy of a Cup contender.
Secondly, goaltending was great early in the year, with Josh Harding playing out of his mind, but health turned into a major issue and the Wild had four goalies start at least 10 games last year. Some combination of Harding, Niklas Backstrom and Darcy Kuemper should be able to stop enough pucks but, given how last season played out, it is a position of uncertainty -- even more than it is for most teams.
All things considered, though, the Wild have an interesting roster that should have playoff expectations next season. Let's see what they do with some cap room this summer to see whether expectations should go even higher than that.
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) -- Corsi, adjusted for zone starts, quality of competition and quality of teammates, hits, blocked shots, penalty differential and faceoffs. Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be around 70, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013-2014 regular season ratings at 87.12.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
CF% = Corsi percentage (ie. percentage of 5-on-5 shot attempts), via www.extraskater.com.
Chuck Fletcher/Mike Yeo
Zach Parise is one of the most consistent goal-scorers, ranking 16th since 2006-2007, despite missing 69 games in 2010-2011. His relentless puck pursuit, combined with offensive zone starts, leads to strong puck possession numbers while facing high-quality opposition. Even so, it's worth noting that, since his last point-per-game season in 2009-2010, Parise has 169 points in 210 games (0.80 ppg), so that's a more reasonable expectation at this stage of his career.
Even more durable than Parise, Jason Pominville has missed a total of 10 games in the past eight seasons, and has been a consistent point producer in that time, with his 495 points in that time ranking 24th in the league. He's been a solid two-way player throughout his career but, in Minnesota, Pominville is focused on offence, with offensive zone starts and little, if any, penalty-killing time.
Underrated as a two-way pivot, probably in part because he doesn't score a ton of goals, Mikko Koivu has averaged more than 20 minutes per game in six of the past seven seasons, always posting strong relative puck possession stats, a trend that has been tilted even more as Koivu is used in a more offensive role when it comes to zone starts. His rep wouldn't be hurt by better playoff production, since Koivu has a goal and six assissts in 18 playoff games over the past two years.
When Mikael Granlund arrived in the NHL last year, he was hyped as a potential star, because he was already a dazzling scoring machine in Finland who had nearly a point-per-game in the AHL, but Granlund struggled as a rookie, maanging eight points in 27 games. He was a little better early in his second season before taking off in January, and finished the year with 26 points (5 G, 21 A) in his last 34 games. He still needs to generate more shots on goal, but expectations are once again high for Granlund's offensive potential.
Erik Haula started last season in the AHL, but earned his promotion to the big club after scoring 14 goals and 27 points in 31 games. Haula spent much of the season on the fourth line, playing about 10 minutes a night, until late in the year when an injury to Granlund opened the door for a more offensive role and Haula finished the regular season with seven points in his last seven games, then added four goals and seven points in the playoffs, staking a claim to a bigger role which ought to continue next season.
Power forward on the rise Charlie Coyle made progress in his second NHL season, even if he didn't finish so efficiently. He's a big body and can be used as a complement to smaller skilled players on a scoring line or on a line like the Big Man's Line, with Mikko Koivu and Nino Niederreiter, that he skated with in the playoffs.
While his suspension in the playoffs understandably brought his ugly repuation back into the light, Matt Cooke had largely changed how he plays the game. He's no saint, to be sure, but he is a useful checker, who gets force-fed tough minutes with defensive zone starts against quality opposition.
Kyle Brodziak has been taking on tough assignments pretty regularly, with fewer than 42% offensive zone starts for six straight seasons, the last three while facing a relatively high level of competition, and while that role leads to poor relative possession stats, last season's were the worst of his career.
32-year-old winger Stephane Veilleux split last season between Minnesota and Iowa of the AHL. He brings energy, but also has five points in 55 NHL games since the Wild re-acquired him in 2011-2012.
It was thought that the Wild might have fleeced the Islanders last summer, acquiring Nino Niederreiter for Cal Clutterbuck and, for the most part, that looks to be the case, as 21-year-old Niederreiter scored 36 points in 81 games all while providing a physical presence and holding his own in possession terms.
Justin Fontaine's goal production was inflated by a shooting percentage (16.5%) that he won't likely maintain, but the 26-year-old earned a mostly regular role, playing primarily with Cooke and Brodziak.
It has been rumoured for some time that the Wild may be the preferred landing spot for unrestricted free agent winger Thomas Vanek. If the Wild are interested, Vanek could fill a role as a scoring winger, sort of what they were bargaining for when they acquired Matt Moulson at the trade deadline.
Free Agent Defence
||'13-'14 Cap Hit
He's on the small side, which can present problems against bigger forwards, but Jared Spurgeon is steady, posting good possession numbers while playing more than 22 minutes a night. He is earning respect, not least of all from Blackhawks RW Patrick Kane in the post-series handshake line.
The only skater in the league play more than 3500 minutes over the past two seasons, Ryan Suter has possibly been overused because his possession numbers have declined compared to his time in Nashville. This doesn't mean Suter isn't a very valuable two-way defenceman, just that he could be spread a little thin by playing more than 29 minutes a night.
By contrast, Marco Scandella is someone who might be able to handle more minutes, putting up solid numbers last season in a defence-first role and earning more ice time late in the year and into the playoffs.
Hailed for his outstanding rookie season in 2012-2013, Jonas Brodin wasn't as effective in his second season, seeing his ice time reduced in the last quarter of the year, but he's a 20-year-old who has already played big minutes and that puts him in a relatively rare group.
It was probably worth a look to see if Keith Ballard could rebound with a fresh start away from Vancouver, but he couldn't establish himself as part of Minnesota's top six on defence, playing a career-low 13:37 per game while dressing in 45 games. The 31-year-old has a year left on his contract, which could help him keep a depth role on a defence that may have some openings.
While there could be openings for prospects like Mathew Dumba and Christian Folin on the blueline, the Wild may want to take a run at a proven veteran like Willie Mitchell, Stephane Robidas or Brooks Orpik could add some experience.
Free Agent Goaltenders
||'13-'14 Cap Hit
Josh Harding was enjoying a storybook season when issues related to his MS kept him out of the lineup after December 31. He's expected to be ready for training camp, and that makes the Wild a better team, but other options need to be readily available since Harding has never played more than 34 games in an NHL season.
Niklas Backstrom has battled injuries recently and the 36-year-old is coming off his worst NHL season. If Backstrom is healthy, he should still be a contributor, but there may not be a team with more questions hanging on the health of their goaltenders.
When Backstrom and Harding went down with injuries, Darcy Kuemper stepped in and gave the Wild credible goaltending (.921 SV% in 24 GP from January on), but also got hurt late in the year and in the playoffs. Nonetheless, the 24-year-old is an up-and-comer who could have a significant role again next season depending on the health of Harding and Backstrom.
||8-16-24, +31, 26 GP
||6-14-20, +10, 41 GP
||8-5-13, -8, 22 GP
||Colorado College (NCHC)
||4-4-8, -12, 30 GP
||17-35-52, +12, 52 GP
||12-21-33, -30, 76 GP
||Notre Dame (HE)
||16-15-31, +1, 40 GP
||13-12-25, -23, 64 GP
||11-8-19, -10, 43 GP
||5-14-19, -5, 61 GP
||2.98 GAA, .903 SV%, 40 GP
A dynamic puck-moving defenceman who plays more physically than his size might suggest, Mathew Dumba started last season with the Wild, and fared all right in a sheltered role, before he ripped up the WHL on a powerhouse Portland team. The 2012 first-rounder should have a legit shot at sticking for real next season.
Swedish rearguard Christian Folin was signed following his sophomore season at UMass-Lowell and got into one game with the Wild. He has the size, strength and poise to handle the pro game now, so he'll compete for a spot with the Wild in camp.
Jason Zucker was a second-round pick in 2010 and has a dozen points (8 G, 4 A) in 47 career games with the Wild. He has some offensive upside, but had a hard time cracking the Minnesota lineup last season and has never put up decent possession numbers in the NHL.
A second-round pick last summer, Gustav Olofsson is a 6-foot-4 defenceman who can skate and he left school after one year at Colorado College, joining Iowa for eight games. He's only 19, so has lots of room to develop before he's considered for a spot with the Wild.
24-year-old forward Michael Keranen was signed after a breakout season in Finland, tying for the league lead with 52 points in 52 games. If he can handle the North American game, the creative forward could offer another scoring option.
Taken in the first-round in 2011, Zack Phillips is skilled, but has to improve his skating and refine his play without the puck if he's going to challenge for a spot. Next season could be crucial for the 21-year-old to determine which way he's going to go as a pro.
A winger with good size who can score, Mario Lucia has completed two seasons with Notre Dame and has more time to fill out his 6-foot-3 frame before embarking on a pro career.
6-foot-5 centre Tyler Graovac broke through offensively in his final junior season, scoring 38 goals, and improved as his first pro campaign progressed. The 2011 seventh-round pick could be a steal if he continues on his upward trend.
A big physical winger who has played 14 games with the Wild, Brett Bulmer has battled injuries, but remains an intriguing prospect if he can stay healthy.
Drafted in the second round in 2012, Raphael Bussieres didn't produce much in his first pro campaign, but he's only 20-years-old. See if he can raise his game over the next year or two to throw his name into the mix for a spot in Minnesota.
A sixth-round pick in 2010, Johan Gustafsson made the move to North America last season and needs consistency and improvement if he's going to take the next step.
While he's already played 106 NHL games, it may be worth keeping an eye on Jonathon Blum, a restricted free agent who didn't hurt the Wild in 15 games that he played with the big club last season.
Wild advanced stats and player usage chart from Extra Skater
18th - Alex Tuch, David Pastrnak, Dylan Larkin
According to www.capgeek.com, the Wild have approximately $46.8M committed to the 2014-2015 salary cap for 15 players.
Check out my possible Wild lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.
Needs: One top six forward, depth forwards, one top four defenceman, depth defencemen.
What I said the Wild needed last year: One top nine forward, depth forwards, depth defence, starting goaltender.
They added: Nino Niederreiter, Matt Cooke, Justin Fontaine, Keith Ballard, Mathew Dumba.
Justin Fontaine, Jason Zucker, Kyle Brodziak, Niklas Backstrom.
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.