With a core of, from left to right, Zach Parise, Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle, Mikko Koivu and Ryan Suter, the Wild have enough talent to make a deep playoff run.
The goal for the Minnesota Wild this season should be to make a playoff run. With the celebrated addition of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in the offseason and the development of top prospects like Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin and Mikael Granlund, Minnesota is poised to be a playoff team for the next 10 years or so.
Last year, the team broke through the playoff ceiling, albeit while giving their fans a scare towards the end of the season, and set themselves up to take another leap forward in 2013-14.
To position themselves to make a run in the deep Western Conference, the Wild must address goaltending and depth on the blueline. They also have to figure out how to deal with a lowered salary cap and many expensive players on the books.
Finally, although they will not be making another Parise/Suter-type signing in the offseason, they must figure out how to add the necessary pieces while keeping the core of the team together.
In short, this is a difficult task, but something that if done right will provide instant results next season.
The acquisition of Pominville left the Wild without a first-round pick this year.
Due to the Jason Pominville trade with the Buffalo Sabres, the Wild no longer have a first round pick in this year’s draft.
That is no problem, given that the team has an incredible amount of young talent, but they can still improve their team with their selections in New Jersey.
The Wild should try to add defensive depth early, maybe grab a forward somewhere in the mid-rounds and focus on goaltending with the latter picks.
Great defensemen have been chosen in the middle rounds (Shea Weber and Keith Yandle, for example) and many starting goaltenders on playoff teams are either undrafted (Antti Niemi), were selected in the middle rounds (Jonathan Quick) or were drafted really late (Tim Thomas).
Minnesota will not benefit immediately from good drafting, but it is something that will pay dividends in the future.
Minnesota re-signed Niklas Backstrom for three-years, $10.25 million in the offseason.
According to CapGeek.com, the Wild have the league’s second highest payroll behind the Vancouver Canucks. The Wild currently have 20 players signed for $62.8 million total, meaning they only have $3.3 million to spend in free agency after re-signing goaltender Nicklas Backstrom for two years, $10 million and defenseman Marco Scandella for two years, $2.05 million.
Minnesota still needs to add a goaltender that can split time with Backstrom, who carried a large workout late in the season and got injured in pregame warm-ups in Game 1 and have to address defensive depth behind the top pairing of Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin.
Heatley, left, used to be an elite goalscorer, but is no longer worth a $7.5 million cap hit.
The top two buyout candidates are forward Dany Heatley and defenseman Tom Gilbert. Both will be unrestricted free agents next year.
Heatley is the second highest paid player on the team. His $7.5 million cap hit is slightly less than what Parise and Suter make per year and higher than Mikko Koivu’s annual cap hit ($6.75 million).
Once an elite scorer with the Ottawa Senators, Heatley, 32, has gone from a 50-goal scorer in his heyday to a guy that can score 25 goals per season at most.
With a top line of Parise, Koivu and Pominville and plenty of young talent to fill in after them, there is no reason to have a forward making that kind of money on the roster.
Unfortunately, they cannot buy out Heatley right now because he is injured.
Gilbert, 30, has a significantly smaller cap hit ($4 million) and is still a capable depth player, but with the re-signing of Scandella as well as the eventual call-up of Mathew Dumba, it appears the second pairing is starting to take shape.
The jury is still out on Nate Prosser (under contract) and Justin Falk (RFA), while Jared Spurgeon (RFA) is more of a power play specialist, but there are definitely plenty of depth guys on the roster.
Certainly there is an argument to be made for keeping the Bloomington native in town, but his name has been tossed around when it comes to compliance buyouts.
By taking Gilbert’s contract off the books, Minnesota would be able to take that $4 million and use it to get a second goaltender.
Bouchard has been in the Wild organization since being drafted in 2002, but may be wearing another sweater next season.
There is an argument to be made for keeping Pierre-Marc Bouchard, the No. 8 overall pick in 2002 who has played in Minnesota for his whole career, but the Wild have a lot of young forwards and would be smart to keep Matt Cullen in town.
Bouchard has suffered major setbacks due to head injury in his career and never spawned into the volume scorer he was projected to be. He is still a good second or third line center that has a scoring touch, but as a 29-year-old veteran, he may demand more money in the open market than the Wild are willing to spend.
Veteran Brett Clark looks to be as good as gone, but other than that there shouldn’t be too many other departures in the offseason. The Wild would be smart to keep the team together and allow them to build chemistry over the next few years. Expect to see restricted free agents Cal Clutterbuck, Justin Falk and Spurgeon back in town next year.
Cullen, 16, has been a great influence on young players like Zucker, 16.
Minnesota should lock up Cullen, 36, to a three-year deal and ensure he retires in a Wild sweater. Not only is this his hometown team, but he still has quick legs, sharp passes and good instincts on the ice.
On top of that, his presence on the team has been vital to the development of two young, gifted wingers: Devin Setoguchi, 26, and Jason Zucker, 21. The Wild’s second line should be Setoguchi-Cullen-Zucker next season and they need to fork over the cash in order to make that happen.
They also could get a goaltender that could split time with Backstrom via free agency.
If they want to go with experience, Evgeni Nabokov and Jose Theodore are out there.
If they want to go high-risk, high-reward, Ray Emery and Ilya Bryzgalov need a home.
If they want a player in their prime that is a bit of a project, Anton Khudobin, Al Montoya and Thomas Greiss are all in their mid- to late-20s.
Former Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith is a possibility, but as the top name on the market, he may be too expensive for the cap-strapped Wild.
Setoguchi's name has been mentioned in trade rumors, but the Wild risk losing a great player that improved while playing alongside Cullen.
Right now, the Wild would be smart to keep the band together and avoid a blockbuster deal.
If there is somebody that wants to pick up Heatley, that would be just dandy, but most teams know he’ll probably be amnestied anyways.
Setoguchi’s name has been thrown out there as well, but he showed signs of life when playing with Cullen and Zucker last season and Minnesota runs the risk of trading away a potential superstar with little in return by dealing the former San Jose Shark.
Trading one of the top prospects at this point is pointless. At some point, they all might get too expensive and one or two might have to go, but for right now they will develop better on a stable team with plenty of talented players in their prime.
In short, Minnesota should probably avoid making a trade unless they are certain they are getting the better end of the deal. Free agency is the way to go during this offseason.
Brodin looked like a veteran while paired with Suter last year.
Oh man, there are many! And this is a really, really good thing.
Brodin, 19, stepped in and immediately became Suter’s defensive partner. He will, without a doubt, win a Norris Trophy before his career is up.
Coyle, 21, joined Parise and Koivu on the top line and fit in just fine. Pominville is an upgrade, of course, but is acquisition should not be a slap in the face to Coyle. In truth, the former Saint John’s Sea Dog (QMJHL) is probably better served on the second or third line where he can grow alongside younger players and use his size for defense.
Zucker, 21, looks like a little Parise. He is an absolute puck hound. The Las Vegas native plays with a physical edge, but also can find the back of the net. He is an absolute stud.
Don’t give up on Granlund just yet. He is still young, 21, and has a lot of raw talent.
While everything seemed teed up for him to have a big rookie season last year—he got to play on the second line, had an extra year in his native Finland and was surrounded by other young talent—it was also his rookie year and most players take a few years to adjust to the game at its highest level.
Granlund wasn’t really all that bad, it’s just that Brodin, Coyle and Zucker made being a rookie in the NHL look easier than it is. That, in and of itself, isn’t really a bad thing if you think about it.
The Blackhawks and Wild will be division rivals next season...which should be absolute madness.
Expect big things from the Wild this year.
They have three of the best players in the league—Parise, Suter and Koivu—four stars on the rise—Brodin, Coyle, Zucker and Granlund—and should re-sign key supporting players like Cullen and Clutterbuck.
There is no reason why this team shouldn’t be in the mix for a top seed in the Western Conference. Granted they will have to compete with the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks and an impressive St. Louis Blues team in their new division, but they also get to beat up on the Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets.
Even if they do not win their division, which is going to be difficult, they should at least get a good seed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and go on a run.
Get excited, Wild fans—this is a team that is good and should remain so for a long time!
Tom Schreier covers Minnesota sports for Bleacher Report and is a contributor to Yahoo! Sports.