The 5 Players That Will Determine the Season for the Minnesota Wild
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The Wild's new stars Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Jason Pominville will be experiencing a full Wild training camp for the first time. The Wild will look to use this opportunity to build the chemistry that is absolutely necessary for a Stanley Cup contender.
However, the Wild will not be able to build on their playoff success without consistent performances from many key players this season. While players like Parise, Suter, Mikko Koivu and Pominville will likely lead the way for the Wild this year, these players have proven to be consistent and reliable so far in their careers. They will likely not make or break the Wild's season.
Instead, five players look to have a significant impact on the Wild's 2012-13 season. If these players do not step up and meet expectations, the Wild will likely not be able to build upon last season's first-round playoff loss. Starting with the honorable mentions, the players that will likely determine the outcome of the Wild's season will be discussed in the upcoming slides.
*Contract/salary information is courtesy of capgeek.com.
Honorable Mentions: Keith Ballard and Jason Zucker
Keith Ballard, now a member of the Wild, hopes to rebound from disappointing years in Vancouver.
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Just barely missing out on the top five, Keith Ballard and Jason Zucker will both play a large part in the Wild's future this season.
After five consecutive 20-plus point seasons, Ballard signed a six-year, $25.2 million deal with the Vancouver Canucks. Unfortunately for him, he did not have any seasons with more than seven points with the Canucks.
The Canucks decided to amnesty Ballard this offseason, which will cost them $1.4 million a year for the next four seasons. Ballard seems ready to once again prove his ability as a puck-moving and top-four defenseman for the Wild this season. Considering the Wild's lack of defensive depth last season, Ballard could prove to be a valuable piece if he finds his old form.
Zucker, on the other hand, showed plenty of flashes of brilliance last season. While he did not receive much ice time (11:16 ATOI in the regular season), he was able to score four goals in 20 games. Even more impressively, he consistently showed one of the highest compete levels on the Wild with speed and tenacity last season.
Considering his 91 points in two seasons at the University of Denver, Zucker looks to build on those numbers. As a likely second- or third-line forward this upcoming season, Zucker will once again provide the Wild with world-class speed, something the Wild desperately could use.
5. Jonas Brodin
Jonas Brodin was exceptional as a rookie last season.
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To say Jonas Brodin exceeded expectations last season is a huge understatement. Brodin, only 19 years old last year, was expected to spend the majority of the season in the AHL with Houston.
Instead, Brodin played in 45 games for the Wild and amassed 11 points. Even more amazing, Brodin showed the poise of a veteran by playing with Ryan Suter and matching up with the top lines of other teams. Brodin gained the trust of coach Mike Yeo, and he played 26:23 minutes a game in the playoffs.
Why will Brodin's play be so influential for the Wild after such a consistent season?
Simply put, young defensemen do not usually mature so quickly. Typically, young defensemen follow the path of someone like Adam Larsson, another Swede drafted in 2011. Larsson was the top defenseman in pre-draft rankings, and as a result, he had very high expectations in New Jersey.
After a rookie season with 18 points for the New Jersey Devils, Larsson was mostly a healthy scratch in the 2011-12 playoffs when the Devils made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. Then, Larsson only had six points last year and played less minutes than in his rookie season.
If Brodin takes a step back this season, the Wild will likely take a step back as well. Already unquestionably the Wild's second best defenseman, Brodin needs to continue to play his mostly mistake-free hockey of 2012-13. Even better, if Brodin can begin to display his offensive game, he could quickly ascend into one of the top defensemen in all of hockey, regardless of age.
4. Charlie Coyle
Charlie Coyle will continue to add necessary toughness to the Wild.
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Like Brodin, Charlie Coyle was another rookie who stepped up in a major way for the Wild last season. Coyle was trusted with first-line duty for most of the season, and he responded with 14 points in 37 games.
More importantly, Coyle provided the necessary toughness the Wild needed amongst their top forwards with hard hits and strong work along the boards. A former first-round pick, Coyle looks to contribute more offensively this upcoming season. While Jason Pominville will likely usurp his spot on the first line, Coyle will compete with Mikael Granlund to be the second-line center.
Unlike Granlund, Coyle provides the versatility to play on any forward line for the Wild. While his skating still is not great, Coyle can be a valuable presence on any line with his shooting, checking, size and hard work.
NHL.com predicts he will have a spot as a second-line right wing this season, and Coyle looks to become an offensive weapon no matter where he plays. The Wild needs Coyle to help take scoring pressure off the first line in order to become more balanced. If Coyle is not up to the task, the Wild will run the risk of becoming too top-heavy once again this season.
3. Dany Heatley
Dany Heatley needs to have a rebound season in 2012-13.
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Considering Dany Heatley's previous 50-goal seasons in the NHL, many Wild fans expected more than the 35 goals he has provided in two seasons for the Wild.
Heatley never was considered a top defensive forward to begin with, and now he clearly has begun declining. His skating is definitely below average in the NHL, and as his minus-12 rating showed last season, he needs to generate consistent offense in order to justify his $7.5 million cap hit this season.
The Wild needs Heatley to rebound this upcoming season. Heatley still had a 13.3 shooting percentage last season, which shows he still has sniping ability. The Wild will also likely be playing him on the second line again after he played much of last season on the third line, and he should benefit from the increased opportunity.
For the Wild to move further into the playoffs, they need Heatley to provide secondary scoring. Even though he has not had a 30-goal season since 2009-10, the Wild needs about 25-30 goals from him in order for him to prove his worth this season. By putting him on the second line and giving him time with the first power play unit, Heatley may be able to recreate some of his old magic. However, this production may be too much for Wild fans and management to expect from a player whose best seasons are clearly behind him.
2. Mikael Granlund
Mikael Granlund is a ready to assume a bigger role with the Wild.
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Mikael Granlund came over from Finland with super-sized expectations last season. Considered a "rock star" in his native country and a former No. 1 overall prospect in the NHL, Granlund was expected to be a Calder Trophy candidate and the No. 2 center for the Wild.
Instead, Granlund struggled mightily in the NHL last season. Although he put up 28 points in 29 AHL games, Granlund oftentimes seemed too slow and weak for the NHL. However, a midseason demotion to the AHL seemed to improve Granlund's play. He came back from the minors with more determination, even though he was playing mostly with the fourth line.
Granlund will be given the inside chance at the second-line center position because of his playmaking ability. On a team that struggled to score goals last season (2.46 goals per game), Granlund seems to be the player most likely to help the Wild improve upon that number this season.
If Granlund does not earn the No. 2 center spot, he will very likely be sent down to the minors. He currently does not possess much value in a bottom-six role. However, given an offseason to gain strength and confidence, look for Granlund to seize the opportunity and show Wild fans why he was such a celebrated prospect.
A breakout season from Granlund would be a huge boost to the Wild. He would likely be a perfect complement to a sniper like Dany Heatley and a great boost to the second power play unit. Of all the young players, Granlund could be the most important piece in deciding if the Wild will sink or swim this season.
1. Niklas Backstrom
Niklas Backstrom will likely have a major part in the outcome of the season for the Wild.
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Of all the Wild players on this list, Niklas Backstrom is the most important deciding factor for the upcoming season.
The reason is because the Wild have numerous question marks in goal. Backstrom was a workhorse last season as he played 42 games and had a 2.48 GAA. Unfortunately, Backstrom was hurt before the first game of the playoffs, and the Wild never really had a chance vs. the eventual champion Blackhawks after his injury.
Backstrom will be 35 years old this season, which means that his workload will need to be lessened. Backstrom has seemingly always had issues with minor injuries, and he has not had more than 50 starts since 2009-10.
Backup goalie Josh Harding is undoubtedly the best story in the NHL as he refuses to let his battle with MS keep him off the ice. Harding also has had many issues with injuries in his career. He has missed an entire season (2010-11) and all but five regular season games last year. Even though he filled in admirably for the Wild in the playoffs last season, he also was eventually hurt in that round.
Prospects Darcy Kuemper (2.08 GAA in six regular season games) and Johan Gustafsson both are highly ranked prospects, but a team aspiring for a playoff spot needs more stability in net. Both goalies would likely be capable fill-in goalies for a couple games, but they would not be great options this season if injuries hit Backstrom and Harding again.
Backstrom holds the key to the Wild's season this year. If he is injured again, the Wild simply does not have another goalie ready to assume his role. Mike Yeo will need to figure out a way to give Backstrom more breaks in order to keep him healthy over the course of the season, because without him the Wild will likely be destined for a disappointing season.