Predicting Minnesota Wild's Overachievers and Underachievers in 2013-14
The bottom line with the Minnesota Wild is that a lot of players have to overachieve this season if they are going to be successful.
Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Ryan Suter will enter the year with high expectations, of course, and should perform well under pressure. Younger players like Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter and Jonas Brodin are going to get big minutes, meaning five players in their early 20s will be expected to carry the team in some capacity.
There is also some concern as to how well older players like Niklas Backstrom, Dany Heatley and Matt Cooke will hold up throughout the year. Backstrom suffered a fatigue-related injury at the end of the season last year, Heatley hasn’t been the same since his days with the Ottawa Senators and Cooke is, at the very least, a little volatile on the ice.
The following is not a complete list of every player on the ice, but simply the ones most likely to overachieve or underachieve next season.
Overachiever: Nino Niederreiter
Let’s start with a big name right away.
Niederreiter came over in the Cal Clutterbuck trade. His presence made Devin Setoguchi expendable and much is expected of the No. 5 overall pick in the 2010 NHL draft.
He had two stints with the New York Islanders as a teenager and was stuffed in the minors last year, but he could break out in St. Paul this season. He is supremely talented and will be playing on a much better team for a significantly better organization.
I see Niederreiter stepping up and playing significant minutes on the second line for the Wild by midseason at the latest.
Underachievers: Either Zucker, Coyle or Brodin
One of these youngsters is due for a sophomore slump in 2013-14.
It’s the unfortunate reality of being a young second-year player in a professional sport. All four of these guys possess NHL talent, and all four will be expected to make a significant contribution next season.
By all means Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle and Jonas Brodin all had strong seasons last year, but kind of like in a Final Destination horror flick, one of these four guys knows that he is going to be sucked into a violent vortex of slumptitude no matter what he does.
It’s just the nature of sports. It sucks, and young players have to deal with it.
Overachiever: Mikael Granlund
Notice that I did not say anything about Granlund in the last slide.
Why? Because he struggled in his first season.
The official rules of the sophomore slump indicate that a player must have a strong first season for it to be considered a slump…otherwise he just is not very good in general and cannot be considered slumping.
Not only do I expect Granlund not to struggle—I expect him to have a breakout year in 2013-14.
He was supposed to be set up for success last year when Parise and Suter came to town, taking the spotlight off of the young center, but Granlund struggled to produce in the lockout-shortened season and found himself in the minors for part of the season.
With a core of young players around him—as well as a dangerous top line ahead of him—Granlund is once again put in a situation to succeed and will elevate his game to the next level with another year of experience under his belt.
Underachiever: Dany Heatley
At age 32, Dany Heatley should be in the prime of his career, but his best days appear to be behind him.
Before age 30, Heater had two 39-goal seasons, two 41-goal seasons and two 50-goal seasons. After age 30? He topped out at 26 three years ago, had 24 in his first season with the Wild and only 11 last season.
Granted, last year was shortened due to the lockout, but at this point, a 30-goal season would be a shocker. That’s a long fall from grace for a player who at one time was considered one of the best in the league.
Overachiever: Marco Scandella
Marco Scandella got scant playing time in the regular season last year, skating in only six games after getting 63 as a 21-year-old in 2011-12, but also participated in all five of the team’s playoff games against the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Wild must have liked what they saw from Scandella because they re-signed him to a two-year, $2.05 million deal in the offseason.
Suter and Brodin will get the most ice time as the team’s top pair next season, but expect Scandella to get significant playing time alongside Keith Ballard. He should produce at a high level in 2013-14, establishing himself as a part of the future in Minnesota.
Underachiever: Clayton Stoner
Clayton Stoner may become the odd man out next season.
He is known for his physicality and experience, but the Wild are lacking in neither department now. Plus, Stoner proved to be a bit turnover prone.
At age 28, he is in the prime of his career, and there is no reason to believe that he will get significantly better than he is right now.
Brodin, Scandella, Nate Prosser and Jared Spurgeon are all in their early 20s—and Suter and Keith Ballard are established blueliners at this point—meaning that Stoner’s days in a Wild uniform are likely numbered at this point.
Overachiever: Darcy Kuemper
With Niklas Backstrom entering the final years of his career and Josh Harding battling multiple sclerosis, the Wild may have to lean on Darcy Kuemper yet again next season.
A sixth-round pick who is only 23 years old, Kuemper may not have been projected to be a franchise player, but Minnesota has put faith in the young netminder. Unless the team signs another goaltender—really, it is puzzling why it has not—Kuemper should get some significant time in net next season.
Great players rise to the occasion, and I expect Kuemper to do that this season.
Underachiever: Niklas Backstrom
He also began his tenure in the Twin Cities as a 28-year-old rookie, however, and was over-used last season.
It’s not really Backstrom’s fault if his play declines next season. The Wild should add another veteran goaltender to split time with him, but any time you rely to heavily on a player in his late 30s it usually backfires.
Overachiever: Mikko Koivu
Koivu got called out for his lack of production last year when he got shutout and had a minus-six plus/minus rating in the postseason. He also had fans calling for his head, saying he was not an elite forward and could not bring out the best in Zach Parise and Jason Pominville.
Expect Koivu to kick it up a notch this season. He will have a full training camp with Parise and Pominville, the latter who arrived via trade midseason, and should find instant chemistry with two of the game’s elite players.
The combination of his natural skill set, complemented by extra practice, should yield big-time results for Koivu and the first line next season.
Underachiever: Matt Cooke
Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher enters 2013-14 on the hot seat after dealing away fan favorite Cal Clutterbuck, a potential 30-goal scorer in Devin Setoguchi and not re-signing Matt Cullen in the offseason.
The signing of Matt Cooke only adds fuel to the fire.
Cooke developed a reputation as a dirty player over the years, highlighted by his blindside hit on Marc Savard in 2010, and while he has cleaned up his game recently, people still questioned his intentions when he stepped on Erik Karlsson’s Achilles tendon last season.
Safe to say, this man will not get the benefit of the doubt next season, and one wrong move could turn fans against Cooke and Fletcher in a hurry.
There are a couple of players I did not mention in the slideshow who will get significant playing time for the Wild in 2013-14 who will meet—although maybe not exceed—expectations next season.
Ryan Suter will be stud once again. He could easily lead defensemen in ice time next year and should lock down the best forwards in the league.
Parise will also enter the year with big expectations, but as mentioned in the Koivu slide, he should benefit from a regular training camp with Koivu and Pominville and be productive as ever throughout the season.
Zenon Konopka will bring all kinds of nasty and win faceoffs at critical junctures in the game.
Also, don’t sleep on recently acquired Keith Ballard. The Minnesota native has a great hip check and latent offensive ability. He could have a solid season as a member of the second pairing next year.
I expect big numbers from the top line, but young forwards really need to step it up. While I see Niederreiter breaking out next season, one of the other three guys might take a step back. It’s unlikely it’s Brodin, but the sophomore slump happens to some of the best players in the league.
All in all, it should be another solid season in Minnesota, especially with the team playing more geographically logical foes in the Central Division. The overachievers should offset the underachievers, and the Wild should once again be a playoff team in 2013-14.
Tom Schreier covers Minnesota sports for Bleacher Report and is a contributor to Yahoo! Sports.