After signing the two top free agents on the market the Minnesota Wild easily made the biggest splash in the offseason. The addition of two all-star caliber players in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter has given hope to a hockey crazed state that has suffered through four seasons of playoffless hockey. Fans are finally beginning to dream of the day that the Stanley Cup will make its way to Minnesota and in those dreams that day isn’t very far away. Too bad the rest of the hockey world doesn’t see those dreams as coming true anytime soon.
The common opinion is that even with the addition of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter the Wild, at best, are a sixth seed in the ultra competitive Western Conference. That belief stems from the idea that Suter + Parise + 2011-2012 Wild = slightly above average hockey team. If that were the equation that we were basing the 2012-2013 season off of then I’d be inclined to agree, but that equation is incorrect. The team everyone witnessed last year is not the one we will be seeing in 2012-2013. Not by a long shot.
There are two things that everyone remembers about the Minnesota Wild’s 2011-2012 campaign; 1.) they topped the league standings in December for a brief period of time and 2.) they missed the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. What everyone tends to forget is how exactly that decline occurred.
If the Wild’s 2011-2012 season were to be summed up in one word it would be ‘injuries’. Only three players (Dany Heatley, Kyle Brodziak and Darroll Powe) laced up the skates for all 82 games while key players such as Mikko Koivu (shoulder), Pierre-Marc Bouchard (concussion) and Guillaume Latendresse (concussion) missed significant time throughout the season. The Wild were consistently in scramble mode, recalling and sending down players in order to plug the holes that were constantly emerging in their lineup.
When all was said and the done the Wild had used a total of 48 players. If the Wild’s 12th place finish in the Western Conference was to be blamed on any single thing, injuries would be it. Although no one would have expected the Wild to continue the torrid pace they were on during the infancy of the season the injuries made the Wild look worse than they actually were and that is where the limited expectations have come from.
The truth is, even if you ignore the addition of Parise and Suter, the Wild will be a much improved team entering the upcoming season. Finnish phenom Mikael Granlund will make his long awaited debut for Wild after spending several years in SM-liiga with HIFK and the organizations depth will get a much needed boost with the additions of highly touted prospects like Charlie Coyle, Zach Phillips, Jason Zucker, Johan Larsson, Brett Bulmer and Jonas Brodin.
The Wild’s offense, notorious for its incompetence, will have a new balanced look that the organization has never seen before. The
projected top line of Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Dany Heatley have the look and feel of a high powered first line, blending the playmaking ability of Koivu with the energy of Parise and sharpshooting of Heatley into an extremely well balanced unit. Their second line, which will most likely consist of Pierre-Marc Bouchard – Mikael Granlund – Devon Setoguchi would be on the smaller side but would have the added advantage of being ultra-skilled and incredibly shifty. The third line would then be made up of a twenty goal scorer in Kyle Brodziak, one of the most aggressive and agitating player in the NHL in Cal Clutterbuck and a wily veteran in Matt Cullen. Add the three lines together and the Wild have compiled an impressive offensive unit that will no longer be their weakness.
The defense, which didn’t receive nearly as much criticism as the offense despite struggling just as much, received a much needed boost when Suter signed on the dotted line. Suter will undoubtedly head the group of blue liners and will most likely be paired with 22 year old Jared Spurgeon who played his first full season in 2011-2012. Although Spurgeon is small at 5’9” he has shown exceptional positional play and has offensive upside to his game that should increase this upcoming season.
Tom Gilbert and Marco Scandella will likely be the 2nd pairing on defense, combining the oldest defensemen in Gilbert with the youngest in Scandella. Scandella had a rough first full season with the Wild but has the skill set to become a dominating defensive force as long as he increases his awareness and decision making. Justin Falk and Clayton Stoner will round out the top six defensemen while Nate Prosser will try to crack the blue line corps. This group will be the biggest question mark entering the season but if they play up to their talent level there should be no problems.
Perhaps their biggest strength going into the 2012-2013 season is their goaltending. There is no denying that the Wild currently have two starting caliber goalies in their lineup in Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding. Although neither of them posted overly impressive numbers in the previous season, both have shown the ability to be elite netminders in the past.
Both Backstrom and Harding will have extra motivation for this upcoming season as well. Backstrom is in the final year of his contract and will most likely be treating 2012-2013 as an audition for prospective buyers in the upcoming offseason while Josh Harding will be trying to justify the three year deal that the Wild gave him this offseason. There is also the fact that hot goaltending prospect Matt Hackett will be nipping at their heels throughout the season, waiting for one of them to drop the ball so that he will be given the chance to win the backup role.
With the amount of talent on the roster as well as an impressive balance it’s hard to imagine the Wild not competing with the top tier teams in the Western Conference. They might not have the superstars that the Canucks or Blackhawks have and they might not have the elite netminder like the Kings or Blues but what they do have is one of the most balanced and deep lineups in the NHL. This Wild team shouldn’t be shooting for a sixth seed; they should be competing for home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.