The Minnesota Wild had a run last season that should keep Wild fans excited for a new season right up until the season opener on October 9. The Wild should, aside from a question mark between the pipes, be an improved team with the addition of Thomas Vanek, the continued development of young players like Mikael Granlund, Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle, Erik Haula, Justin Fontaine, and Jason Zucker, and, one hopes, the emergence of some new young talent on defense as Christian Folin and Matt Dumba appear ready to make the jump to the big time.
There are also some X factors that could go in Minnesota’s favor, like the addition of prospects Michael Keränen (here’s an over-analysis of that signing) and QMJHL standout Guillaume Gélinas, the signing of former first round pick and Minnesota-native Jordan Schroeder (here’s a look at what he brings to the table), or maybe Kyle Brodziak hitting those empty nets he missed last season. (Ok. He got too much heat for that. He had a rough shooting percentage last season at 7%, but it’ll come up again.)
The Wild project to be an exciting team in a Central Division that is scary good and got better during the off-season. The Predators added James Neal, Mike Ribiero, and Olli Jokinen; Chicago added Brad Richards; the Blues added Paul Stastny; the Avalanche added Jarome Iginla; the Stars added Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky; and Winnipeg… wait, what did Winnipeg do?
Here are five games that you should catch even if you’re not a Minnesota Wild fan.
5. Los Angeles at Minnesota, November 26
Any time the defending Stanley Cup champions come to town it’s a good game to catch. This will be the Kings’ first of two games in Minnesota this season. It’s an opportunity for the Wild to prove that they’ve got the physical presence and overall skill to play with the best teams in the league. The Wild’s postseason performance left many feeling that the Wild could, for the first time in franchise history, compete with any team. That’s a great feeling, but they’re going to need to prove it this season and this is a big opportunity for them to prove it.
The Wild take on the Kings in Los Angeles on October 19, so this will be the second match of the year between the two teams. It’ll also be Marian Gaborik’s first appearance in Xcel Energy Center sporting a Kings sweater.
4. Minnesota at New York Islanders, March 24
These two teams have swapped a number of players over the last couple of seasons, meaning that these matches always have an extra story-line or two. Like last season when the Wild throttled the Isles 6-0 in Matt Moulson’s first game back. The fans cheered for both of Moulson’s goals and ended the game chanting “We Want Moulson!”
This will be a second return to the Island for Nino Niederreiter — who didn’t have a great experience there, it’s also a return for Vanek who briefly played there last season, and another chance for the Wild to see former fan favorite Cal Clutterbuck. Unfortunately, for Wild fans hoping to catch Pierre-Marc Bouchard again, he’ll not be present after a late-season trade to Chicago, where he languished in the AHL, and an off-season signing that is sending him to Switzerland.
This is the second of two meetings between the teams, but a good one to catch for Wild fans as time will be winding down on the Islanders final season at Nassau Coliseum. After this year the Isles will be headed to Brooklyn to play at the very nice Barclay’s Center. (You can order food from your seat via app and just pick it up at the counter. It’s great. Caught the Devils vs. Islanders exhibition game there last season and it was a great space to see hockey. Though it’s sad to see hockey leaving Nassau County.)
Another reason to catch this game is that the Islanders were a kicking post for most hockey fans last year, but they look like they’ve improved quite a bit over the off-season and like they’re a team that won’t be completely unhinged by a single injury this year. This is an opportunity for Wild fans to have their expectations altered about an Islanders team that is on the rise.
3. Chicago at Minnesota, January 8
It’s surprising that it will take until January 8 for Chicago to make their first appearance in St. Paul, but Wild fans will have to wait until 2015 to see the return of the team who has knocked the Wild out of the playoffs two years in a row.
Chicago has only made slight alterations to the team that lost in the Western Conference Championship after beating the Wild in six games the round before. Most notable of their changes is the addition of Brad Richards, who will likely center Chicago’s second line. Richards had his fair share of struggles with the Rangers, but he could be a force playing on Chicago’s second line. (Read Jason Lowenthal’s analysis of that signing for the Hockey Writers.)
The third meeting between the two teams will take place just days later on January 11. That game will take place in Chicago and will be broadcast nationally on the NBC Sports Network.
2. Minnesota at Buffalo, January 15
This will be the second of the Wild’s meetings with the Sabres, but the first in Buffalo. This should be a good game because of a few story-lines taking place. Firstly, it’ll be Vanek’s first game in Buffalo since signing with the Wild and only the second time he’ll have played in Buffalo while not wearing a Sabres uniform. Jason Pominville, though he’s been out of Buffalo longer, hasn’t played many games there since being traded to Minnesota and this will be the first time that both former Buffalo captains suit up together against their former team. Between the two of them, they have 18 seasons of experience in Buffalo sweaters.
Secondly, the Sabres’ roster boasts Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick, both of whom were acquired at the trade deadline by the Wild from the Sabres last season. Once free agency hit on July 1, both of them returned to Buffalo. Torrey Mitchell remains in Buffalo as well, who was sent there by the Wild as a part of that trade after reportedly asking for a trade.
Lastly, if you’re a fan of any other team in the league, you have to get in at least one Sabres game this year. No, they probably won’t make the playoffs, but they’re worth watching because this team could be a contender in a few years with the insane pool of prospect talent they’ve got. If they manage to grab Jack Eichel or Connor McDavid in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, they’re going to be dangerous very soon.
Colorado at Minnesota, October 9
Really, you should add the next game in with this one because these two rivals who did a lot to develop some healthy animosity between the teams and fans in the playoffs last season will start the series with a home-and-home series. That’s right. Bring all that bad blood from last season into the start of the new season.
While Colorado lost both of their top possession forwards (on a team that finished 27th in the league in possession) in Paul Stastny and P.A. Parenteau, they’ve added famed #WildKiller Jarome Iginla who has scored more goals against the Wild than anyone else, ever.
Between their first round series going to seven games and then some overtime, blown calls on both sides, the Matt Cooke knee-on-knee hit against Tyson Barrie, coach Patrick Roy’s inability to give the Wild any credit, and fans stoking the fire throughout the off-season, this home-and-home should start the season off with more fireworks than any other two teams’ first pair of games.
What Else to Watch
These five games provide some good story-lines for fans of the Wild or fans of other teams looking to get a good sense of Minnesota’s season and the stories that are driving their year so far. These five games are a good place to start.
See the Minnesota Wild’s complete 2014-15 schedule here.
Dustin Nelson writes about news and the Minnesota Wild for The Hockey Writers.