It’s approaching tradition in the hum-drum between the beginning of August up until camp opens in September, that writers offer some barely defensible predictions about the coming season based on some loose facts and a pinch of hubris that we like to call a “gut feeling.”
Well, I’m pushing my chips to the center of the table. The dealer asks Don’t you want to look at your cards first? I sip my appletini, look him in the eyes, and, with a slight twitch in my eye, ask, What cards?
Here are seven predictions for the Minnesota Wild’s 2014-15 season.
1. The Wild have 3 30-goal scorers
This not seem that bold to you? Two points say this is bold.
1. Jason Pominville scored exactly 30 last season and that’s the first time the Wild have had a 30-goal scorer since the 2007-08 season when Marian Gaborik and Brian Rolston both crossed that threshold. The Wild have never had more than two players cross 30 and the three times two players have crossed that mark in the same season it was Gaborik and Rolston each time.
In fact, a Wild player has crossed 30 goals just nine times in franchise history. Five of those were Gaborik, three were Rolston, and one was Pominville.
Zach Parise hit 29 goals last year, but the next closest on the team was Nino Niederreiter at 14. Thomas Vanek, if he doesn’t regress (and I don’t think he will), could make a major impact on the Wild.
2. Having three players cross the 30-goal mark doesn’t happen all that often. The last time a team had three players surpass 30 goals was the 2011-12 season when both the New Jersey Devils and the San Jose Sharks did it. Parise was one of the three Devils players and they made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. Anaheim was the only team to do it in the 2010-11 season and the Capitals were the only team to do it in the 2009-10 season.
The last time a team had four players cross the 30-goal threshold? The Philadelphia Flyers in the 2008-09 season when Jeff Carter (46), Simon Gagne (34), Mike Richards (30), and Scott Hartnell (30) all got there. (They also had Mike Knuble at 27 and Joffrey Lupul at 25.)
It’s no guarantee of success though. The Kings had didn’t have one player with more than 30 goals in either of their recent Stanley Cup campaigns. Nonetheless, the Wild need to score more and they could become a team that poses an offensive threat this season.
2. Niklas Backstrom starts less than 10 games.
There’s been no end of speculation as to what happens with the Wild goaltending carousel this season. Niklas Backstrom, Josh Harding, and Darcy Kuemper — the three netminders who are battling for playing time this season — all finished last season injured. Recent reports indicate that general manager Chuck Fletcher believes both Harding and Backstrom will be healthy to start the season. Star Tribune beat writer Michael Russo also reported that he saw Harding practice and that he looks “tremendous.”
— Michael Russo (@RussoHockey) August 19, 2014
My prediction? Harding looks great, Keumper backs him up and continues to develop while playing a significant number of games, and Backstrom becomes the Wild’s Shemp.
3. The Wild make the playoffs and aren’t a wild card team
This isn’t just because I’m skeptical of the Avalanche’s ability to repeat their success of last season. The Central Division is tough, but the Wild’s success wasn’t a fluke.
Dallas is on the rise, Colorado is a serious competitor, Chicago and St. Louis are heavyweights. Nonetheless, the Wild make the playoffs and aren’t a wild card team. To do so, they break 100 points for the first time since the 2006-07 season.
4. Mikael Granlund breaks 60 points
Yes. 60 points. He hit 41 (8-33-41) in what was considered his breakout season. But Mikael Granlund got better as the season wore on. He became more physical, more threatening, and a better all-around player, especially once the Olympics hit.
The playmaking ability was there most of the season, but the goals really started to come on at the end. He scored eight goals in 63 games, but five of those came in his final 22 games. Then he followed that up by scoring four goals in 13 playoff games. He’s going to score more in the 2014-15 season and he’s going to break 60 points. The totals maybe be a little lopsided toward the assists, like Mikko Koivu‘s totals tend to be, but he’ll get there.
5. Jason Zucker gets traded by the deadline
If you aren’t a Wild fan you may not realize just how much Wild fans love Jason Zucker, despite the fact that he’s only played 47 career NHL games spread over three seasons, with a total of eight goals and four assists.
One of the reasons is this:
Another is this (hands, speed, goal):
You also probably wouldn’t understand that saying this is heresy to a certain segment of the Wild fanbase, but I’m saying it. I like Zucker. He’s a fun player to watch. He’s got electric speed, nice hands, a great shot, and plays with the excitement of Wild energy-man Stephane Veilleux.
The problem is that there isn’t a role for Zucker any longer and he may bring more in return than he can bring to the team. He’s not great on the defensive end of the ice — something that’s routinely discussed when discussing his role. But the Wild’s top six is clogged. He’s not a center, so there are four spots available to him. Three of those are taken by Parise, Pominville, and Vanek. The fourth is presumably Charlie Coyle. If it’s not Coyle, there are a lot of other players who will contend with Zucker for that spot.
If Zucker’s not in the top six and he hasn’t fixed issues with his defensive play, it’s hard to imagine him establishing a consistent role for himself in the bottom six when young players like Erik Haula, Justin Fontaine, and Niederreiter have proven themselves to be defensively responsible. Haula is even likely to be a mainstay on the penalty kill and has the ability to play a top six role — as he showed last season when Granlund was hurt — if injuries make that necessary. He also has the versatility to move between center and wing. Outside of the established young players you have Matt Cooke, Kyle Brodziak, and Veilleux to contend with.
Then it’s on to other young players who will compete for a role. Brett Bulmer has offensive upside and plays a gritty game that works well in the bottom six. Michael Keränen has a lot of potential and should get a shot at some point. (More on why I think that.) Kurtis Gabriel, Zach Phillips, Brady Brassart, Tyler Graovac, Brett Sutter, Zack Mitchell, and Tyler Graovac are all looking to steal a spot. Zucker may bring back more in prospects, picks, or veteran defensive depth than he can provide given how the depth chart currently sits. By the deadline the Wild will be a playoff team, but imperfect. Zucker is a chip they’ll be able to deal in order to acquire a role player to fill a need.
6. Ryan Suter is a Norris Trophy finalist again
Mostly because of this.
Ryan Suter is well respected around the league, but writers who don’t watch him night in and night out tend to discount his impact and shrug off the fact that he can lead the league in average time on ice by over two minutes.
Suter plays in every situation and there are few players in the history of the game who have proven an ability to play a ton of minutes — and play them effectively — like Suter does. That may also be the reason he doesn’t become a finalist again: the voting process tends to favor defensemen with more offensive prowess. However, he won’t win it because he doesn’t have the goal-scoring ability of other Norris competitors like P.K. Subban, Drew Doughty, Shea Weber, and Duncan Keith. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve to be a finalist again this year.
7. The Wild have four players voted into the All-Star game
The All-Star game is back this season and the Wild will have four players representing the team there. I think Pominville, Vanek, Parise, and Suter are four likely candidates. Koivu or Harding, if he stays in the lineup, are possible, as are some players that might surprise like Jonas Brodin, Coyle, Granlund (especially if he’s on track for 60 points), or Jared Spurgeon.
That speaks to how the Wild have developed. The last time there was an All-Star game the Wild had Koivu selected, though he didn’t play, and Nick Johnson was selected as one of the rookies (that’s the only full season he’s played over a five-year career). In 2011 the Wild had Brent Burns and Martin Havlat voted in. That’s two players, if you’re generous, each year of the last two All-Star games.
In 2012 the Ottawa Senators and the Phildelphia Flyers led the league with four players each. In 2011 the Chicago Blackhawks had four players, as did the Pittsburgh Penguins, if you count the fact that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were voted in but were unable to play due to injury. The Wild will tie with other teams for the most players in the game.
That’s it. Seven predictions. Have to it in the comments. I know you disagree and that it’s unlikely that all seven of these happen, but I’m all-in.
Dustin Nelson writes about news and the Minnesota Wild for The Hockey Writers.