Seven members of the Minnesota Wild were recently invited to participate in the Olympic orientation camps for their respective countries. This came after the NHL and NHLPA reached an agreement last month with the International Olympic Committee and International Ice Hockey Federation to allow NHL players to participate in the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia [See: Agreement Reached for Player Participation in Sochi].
The members of the Wild heading to the orientation camps are Mikko Koivu, Niklas Backstrom and Mikael Granlund who were invited to Team Finland, Jonas Brodin to Team Sweden, Nino Niederreiter to Team Switzerland, as well as Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to Team USA. The purpose of these camps is to prepare the squads by allowing the players to meet with the coaches, media members to interact with the teams, players to arrange workouts outside of the rinks, and to organize activities designed to bring the players closer as a group.
The camp invitations do not guarantee a spot on an Olympic roster with official selections coming later. However, if their number is called, each of these players are primed to make significant contributions at the Sochi Games. Here is a look at how these players from the Minnesota Wild may help their teams if they are selected to play for their respective countries.
Team Finland: A Wild Trio?
Of the fifty-four players selected for Team Finland’s orientation camp, only twenty-six are currently playing for an NHL club. Mikko Koivu, Niklas Backstrom and Mikael Granlund are the three players attending Team Finland’s camp from the Wild. The Fins beat Team Slovakia to win Bronze at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games but will the 2014 squad be good enough to contend for Gold?
Mikko Koivu had a solid year for the Minnesota Wild last season putting up thirty-seven points in forty-eight games. Over his career, Koivu has scored three hundred and ninety-eight points in five-hundred and thirty-six career games. This averages out to 0.74 points per game.
Despite his numbers in the regular season, Koivu hasn’t been as big of a factor in the post-season. While the sample size is not very large, he has only managed six points (five goals and one assist) in sixteen career NHL playoff games – an average of 0.375 points per game.
Likewise, Koivu was a member of Team Finland in the past two Olympic Games but he has averaged only 0.286 points per game with only four assists in fourteen career games. If he is selected to Team Finland, Koivu looks to improve his scoring touch to put up more points on the Olympic stage.
Niklas Backstrom played a key role in the Wild’s success last season amassing twenty-four wins in forty-two games played. In a lockout-shortened season, Backstrom had a .909 Save Percentage that was slightly below his career average of .917, and 2.48 Goals Against Average just above his career average of 2.43.
Backstrom was a warrior for the Wild in the latter portion of last season starting in twenty-seven of the Wild’s last twenty-eight games. This heavy workload may have contributed to the injury that held him out of the playoffs. In eleven career NHL playoff games he posted a .911 Save Percentage and a 2.55 GAA.
Backstrom was selected to Team Finland for the 2010 Olympic Games. He appeared in two games in Vancouver during which he had a respectable 1.09 GAA and a .952 Save Percentage.
Team Finland has also invited several other NHL goaltenders to camp including Kari Lehtonen of the Dallas Stars, Antti Niemi of the San Jose Sharks, Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins, and Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators. With so much depth at the goaltending position, it will be interesting to see if Backstrom can play well enough to earn a spot on Team Finland over a few of these other NHL goalkeepers.
Finally, one of the bigger questions for Team Finland will be the play of Mikael Granlund. Granlund is coming off of an inconsistent rookie season where he scored just two goals and six assists in twenty-seven games with the Wild. However, with Granlund comes tons of potential that could blossom as soon as this season.
Granlund scored 0.97 points per game for the Houston Aeros of the AHL last season with ten goals and eighteen assists in twenty-nine games. He has also put up 0.98 points per game in the SM-liiga league of Finland. Over his career in SM-liiga, Granlund has forty-one goals and eighty-six assists in one hundred twenty-nine games.
Despite his prior success, Granlund’s talents on offense have not yet translated to the NHL. He has been limited to only 0.30 points per game thus far in his NHL career. However, Granlund will have ample opportunity in St. Paul this coming season and many are intrigued by his potential [See: Will Mikael Granlund Explode Next Season?]. If Granlund can find his scoring touch, it would almost certainly secure his roster spot on Team Finland.
Team Sweden: Will Brodin Make the Cut?
Thirty-five players were invited to Team Sweden’s Olympic orientation camp that ran from August 12th to the 14th. Some of the notable NHLers who were invited include goaltenders Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers and Viktor Fasth of the Anaheim Ducks, defensemen Alexander Edler of the Vancouver Canucks, Niklas Kronwall of the Detroit Red Wings, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the Phoenix Coyotes, as well as forwards Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks, Henrik Zetterberg of the Detroit Red Wings, and Loui Eriksson of the Boston Bruins.
The Swedish squad is looking for better results in Sochi after losing in the Quarterfinals to Team Solvakia in 2010. Jonas Brodin had a very impressive 2012-2013 rookie campaign for the Wild and hopes to make an impact on Team Sweden. This past season, Brodin established himself as a reliable defenseman for the Wild and was rewarded with a spot on the top pairing with Ryan Suter.
Brodin recorded eleven points last season scoring two goals and nine assists in forty-five games. He finished second only to Suter in Average Time On Ice (ATOI) with 23:13. He logged key minutes and played in many different situations for the Wild – very impressive for a nineteen year old.
The youngster’s importance to the Wild continued in the playoffs. He amassed an ATOI of 26:23 in five playoff games. Brodin did not score any points in the playoffs but, he was rock solid and heavily relied upon during the post-season.
Brodin led all NHL rookies in average ice time last season and his strong play led to his selection to the All-Rookie Team. If his strong play continues Brodin has a good chance of making Team Sweden.
Team Switzerland: Can Nino Niederreiter Establish His NHL Game?
Nino Niederreiter will be among forty-eight invitees to Team Switzerland’s Olympic camp. Other NHLers invited to the camp include goaltender Jonas Hiller of the Anaheim Ducks, free-agent forward Damien Brunner, and defensemen Rafael Diaz of the Montreal Canadiens, and Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators.
The 2014 Games will be Niederreiter’s first opportunity to play in the Olympics should he be selected to Team Switzerland. This will hinge upon his ability to find his game with the Wild after a falling out with the Islanders.
After showing some promise, Niederreiter played a very limited role for the Islanders in the 2011-2012 season. He appeared in fifty-five games but averaged less than eight minutes per game. He played on the bottom six and he finished with a -29 and only a single point.
Neiderreiter did not receive an invitation to the Islanders’ training camp this past season from GM Garth Snow. Instead, Neiderreiter spent the year in the AHL. He posted a respectable twenty-eight goals and twenty-two assists in seventy-four games. However, Neiderreiter was noticeably dismayed by not getting any NHL playing time and he requested a trade. As a result, the Wild sent Cal Clutterbuck and a third round pick to the Islanders in exchange for Niederreiter this summer. [See also: The Minnesota Wild Select “El Nino” In the 2013 NHL Draft]
To date, Neiderreiter has not had much success at the NHL level. However, like Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter has plenty of upside. He has 1.08 points per game in the WHL where he scored seventy-seven goals and fifty-three assists in one hundred and twenty career games. Neiderreiter also has thirty-one goals and twenty-three assists in eighty career AHL games averaging out to 0.68 points per game.
Nino Neiderreiter joins a core of youngsters on the Minnesota Wild who are each looking to earn a more permanent role with the club. He is a very creative player who plays with a lot of energy. If he can play his game consistently in the NHL this season and make Team Switzerland, he will be a very interesting player to watch in Sochi.
Team USA: Parise and Suter Pursuing Gold
Team USA won the Silver medal at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver after falling short in a dramatic showdown against Team Canada. Both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter were members of Team USA in Vancouver. The squad looks to take it a step further in 2014 and win Gold in Sochi. Parise and Suter will be part of a group of forty-eight other players at Team USA’s orientation camp that also includes goaltenders Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings and Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres, defensemen Zach Bogosian of the Winnipeg Jets, and Ryan McDonagh of the New York Rangers, and forwards Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks, and Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs among others.
In six Olympic Games played in Vancouver, Parise had four goals and four assists. Among his goals, Parise’s most memorable goal came in the gold medal game against Team Canada. In the closing seconds of the game, Parise’s goal tied it up and sent the game to overtime.
Parise has had plenty of big game experience since the 2010 Olympics. He has played in thirty-four NHL playoff games since the Vancouver Games including a run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011-2012 when he was captain of the New Jersey Devils. Parise has emerged as a prolific goal scorer. He has scored 0.81 points per game with two hundred and twelve goals as well as two hundred and thirty-six assists in five hundred and fifty NHL games. His scoring touch, leadership and clutch performances in big games can be a strong asset for Team USA.
Ryan Suter has become a terrific defenseman for the Wild. He played a key role in helping the organization clinch their first playoff berth since the 2007-2008 season. Minnesota heavily relied on Suter who ended the season with an ATOI (Average Time On Ice) of over twenty-seven minutes.
During the regular season, Suter put up thirty-two points (four goals and twenty-eight assists) playing in many key situations. Suter was tied for first on the team in even strength assists with sixteen and was second only to Mikko Koivu in assists on the Powerplay with twelve.
Suter’s stellar season led to his nomination for the Norris Trophy. While he didn’t win the award last season, he is poised to have another strong year. His versatility and ability to log big minutes make him an excellent candidate to lead Team USA’s defense in Sochi.
Wild Olympic Hopefuls
There are many Olympic hopefuls on the Minnesota Wild and this speaks to the recent success of the organization. Those selected to their national teams will have an opportunity to play big games on the world’s stage. Should the Wild play consistent hockey and clinch a playoff spot, this big game experience will be valuable in helping the club pursue a deeper playoff run. It remains to be seen who will be selected for the Olympics. However, each of the Wild Olympic orientation camp invitees have a unique element to offer their countries while the experience they’ll gain will only help the Wild if they qualify for the post-season.