It was announced in the early hours of Sunday morning that the National Hockey League and the NHL Players Association reached a deal agreeing on the framework of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. There is a lot left to do and, according to Commissioner Bettman, there are a lot of I’s to dot and T’s to cross and everything needs to be put to paper. However, for the 30 teams in the NHL, it’s go time. Not only does this mean putting in the ice sheets in the arenas and making sure staff are ready to go, it also means it’s time for training camp to get underway and that’s when the real fun begins.
It’s time for Minnesota fans to get excited because, not only do they have a few more star veterans on the team, they’ve also got some new grit and a few young guys that stand a serious chance of forcing their way onto the roster. Before we get started here, let’s take a look at what the roster looks like without any of the rookies—aside from Granlund—he’s basically guaranteed the 2nd line center spot.
Not a terrible looking roster, however, as much as I love watching Matt Cullen and Pierre-Marc Bouchard play, I think they may be in danger of losing their jobs. Cullen is a great player, a hometown kid, and a guy I firmly believe belongs in Minnesota’s roster—just not in the top six anymore. That wouldn’t be a problem unless you look at the bottom six we already have. It’s deep; it’s gritty and there’s just no room for a player like Matt Cullen in it.
What does Yeo do with Bouchard? In this hockey writer’s opinion, it’s top six or bust for Butch. The guy is clearly a skilled, slick skating finesse player and that kind of player doesn’t belong in the bottom six in Mike Yeo’s style of coaching. So, a line of Setoguchi-Granlund-Bouchard looks pretty good, except for the fact that Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker could both give Bouchard a run for his money on Granlund’s line, considering they have developed exceptional chemistry with the young Finnish sensation while playing for the Wild’s top minor league affiliate. Do both Zucker and Coyle make it on the starting roster? That depends on how Coach Yeo uses Setoguchi on that line. If Seto plays left wing, Coyle is the choice, if right wing, Zucker. Even if Coach Yeo decides to stick with Cullen and Bouchard, Zucker and Coyle will most likely get their chance at some point during the season along with fellow top forward prospects Zack Phillips and Johan Larsson.
On defense, the Wild has a great top pairing of Suter and Spurgeon—a young man I firmly believe will soon be recognized as the legitimate NHL defenseman he truly is. The second pairing is made up of a couple of offensive-minded defenders in Tom Gilbert and Minnesota 2008 2nd rounder Marco Scandella. The third pairing is very gritty with defensively sound guys (with some size) like Clayton Stoner, Nate Prosser and big Justin Falk. This bottom pairing, combined with any of our bottom six forwards, will make life very difficult for opposing teams.
The Wild has a decent top four, but not entirely elite in NHL standards, however, elite defensive help is on the way in the next few years in top prospects Jonas Brodin and Mathew Dumba. Both young guys may yet get a shot at wearing a Wild sweater this year with Brodin coming back from an upper body injury within the next month or so and Dumba could very well get his nine-game cup of coffee before being sent back to Red Deer of the Western Hockey League. There are also a couple of intriguing guys playing for the Houston Aeros in the AHL that could step up and make a huge contribution to Minnesota.
Brian Connelly played with Prosser at Colorado College and is an AHL All-Star, while Chay Genoway captained the University of North Dakota and notched an assist in his only NHL game last season. Steven Kampfer—acquired in a trade with the Bruins that saw Wild defenseman Greg Zanon shipped out to Boston—is another great young defender that can lay a big hit and also stun a few goaltenders with his surprisingly heavy shot, as well. Then, of course, there is Tyler Cuma, Minnesota’s top pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. Could this be his chance to finally make the roster? You never know, that depends on how he plays and what the Wild brass thinks of it.
In net, we have the ever reliable tandem of Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding. With this being the last year on Backstrom’s contract, and Harding being re-signed to a three-year deal, Backstrom should be quite motivated to playing at the top of his game. While it is unlikely Minnesota will re-sign him, other teams are sure to be looking for a top-end goaltender to sign in free agency. Behind Harding is Matthew Hackett, who is undoubtedly NHL ready, big Darcy Kuemper and Swede Johan Gustafsson. Yes, Minnesota is quite secure in net.
The new acquisitions certainly generate a lot of optimism for Minnesota and, even though the injury bug will bite at some point, we have some great prospects and depth players that are able to step up and keep the ball rolling. No matter what, the NHL is back and we could possibly see games start as early as January 15th. I don’t know about you, but this hockey writer can’t wait to sit back, click the remote and watch some NHL hockey on the television. Let’s drop the puck, folks!