Niederreiter gets a change of scenery in Minnesota, where he will join three other 20 year old forwards that will get big minutes next season.
The Minnesota Wild did not bring in the haul they did last year when the signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to matching 13-year contracts on July 4. They did, however, make some dramatic moves that will place young players in prominent positions next season.
Devin Setoguchi, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Matt Cullen and Cal Clutterbuck were moved out, leaving plenty of ice time available for four 20-somethings: Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and newly acquired Nino Niederreiter.
The Wild did acquire some veteran players in the offseason, namely Matt Cooke and Keith Ballard, but did not make any major moves regarding goaltending and still will lean heavily on 20-year-old Jonas Brodin on the blueline.
Minnesota’s offseasons can be summarized in three categories: the excitement of having a young team built for a long stretch of losing, the pain of seeing some fan favorites move on and the question as to who will be the goaltender while Niklas Backstrom is on the bench.
Let’s start with a positive here: the Wild are built for the long term.
No fan wants to hear that their team isn’t in win-now mode because, of course, the people want to see rings—especially in a city that hasn’t seen a championship in the big four since 1991.
At the same time, general manager Chuck Fletcher and his crew are exercising some foresight and trying to bring a culture of winning to St. Paul rather than loading up on a couple big names and going all in.
While that seems fine and dandy to the casual fan, teams that are built for a single championship run usually flop due to chemistry or age issues and rarely change the perception of the franchise.
Before the Parise and Suter signings of last season, the Wild management appeared happy to ride out the honeymoon period, knowing that puckheads in the Twin Cities were ecstatic about the return of professional hockey. After signing Parise and Suter, they look ready to create a dynasty.
What this might mean is that in the short term—especially this season—Wild fans are going to see their team go through some growing pains. Zucker and Coyle will have to avoid the sophomore slump after having solid seasons last year. More pertinently, Granlund came to St. Paul with critical acclaim but spent most of 2012-13 in Houston, and Niederreiter needs to shed the “overhyped prospect” label after making his NHL debut with the New York Islanders at age 18 and spending all of last season in the AHL.
Make no doubt about it: The Wild have to make the playoffs this season. The first line consists of Parise, Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville, veterans that have all been team captains at one point in their career, as well as Suter and Keith Ballard, who will be expected to balance out the youth on the back end.
Zucker, Coyle, Granlund and Niederreiter will be expected to have some peaks and valleys next season. Brodin and Marco Scandella, 23, may make some mistakes in their own end, but the veterans on the team will be expected to stabilize this team and propel them to the playoffs.
It should be exciting to watch all the young players do their thing, but with that excitement comes the understanding that they are still learning and may hit some rough patches from time to time.
It will be hard for many Wild fans to bid adieu to Bouchard, Clutterbuck, Cullen and even Setoguchi.
Bouchard has been with the Wild ever since being chosen eight overall in 2002. Fans stuck with him through thick and thin. They’ve seen him score 20 goals, accrue nearly 60 points in 2006-07 and help guide they team to a division title the next season. They also know that he suffered a concussion and missed most of the 2009-10 campaign.
Joining him on the Islanders next season is Clutterbuck, whose 22 is worn by many fans. He made a name for himself not by scoring the puck, but by removing opponents from it by bashing them into the sideboards.
He is the kind of hard-nosed, grind-it-out type of guy that people love to cheer for and he had a mustache that would make Super Mario jealous. All will miss his slicked-back hair and glistening cookie duster.
Cullen is a journeyman player and probably will be most remembered for winning the Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes after the lockout, but he is a native son from up on the range who brought out the best in Zucker and Setoguchi last season.
He’s a hard working player that had speed and agility even in his late 30s.
Finally, Setoguchi’s departure probably will not create riots in St. Paul, as the No. 10 is still more associated with Marian Gaborik than it is with Seto, but he is a former 30-goal scorer that is in his prime.
Worse yet, he was dealt to a new division rival, the Winnipeg Jets, meaning that he could come back to haunt Minnesota down the road.
The acquisition of Niederreiter basically made Setoguchi expendable though, and Granlund is supposed to be the second-line center, something he cannot do if Cullen is on the team.
Zucker and Coyle should easily surpass Bouchard’s scoring and Cooke will provide the grit and toughness Clutterbuck brought to the table.
Change is always difficult, especially for die-hard fans, but as long as this crew can get the job done, people will adopt the new guys while rocking the 22s or holding on to the Cullen playing card.
Backing up Backstrom
One of the most surprising moves of the offseason was actually something the Wild did not do. Instead of bringing in a veteran goaltender like Mike Smith or Ilya Bryzgalov to split time with Backstrom, Minnesota opted to stick with Josh Harding and Darcy Kuemper.
Part of this may be out of respect to Harding. Despite battling with multiple sclerosis last season, Harding was able to play well at times and earned the Bill Masterton Trophy.
By all means, unless your heart is two sizes too small, everyone wants to see him succeed next season, but M.S. is difficult to control and may prevent him from reaching his potential as a hockey player.
If he can’t play, Kuemper will have to step up. Drafted in Round 6 back in 2009, he played admirably well despite being young and lacking hype.
Usually the backup goaltender is of little concern, but Backstrom’s injury before the playoffs last year reminded fans and management alike that he will have to split time with somebody in 2013-14.
That means there is an awful lot of pressure on a player with M.S. and another one that just turned 23.
The Wild are building for the future. While they will be expected to make the playoffs this season, there are a lot of players in their early 20s that will have to turn it up if the team is going to make a postseason run in 2013-14.
Fans will be quick to express discontent with the departure of guys like Bouchard, Cullen and Clutterbuck, but if Niederreiter can show signs of being a superstar, Granlund can lock down the second-line center position and the rest of the crew does their thing, there will be no talk of why Clutterbuck was dealt, why Setoguchi was traded for a draft pick or why Minnesota didn’t pick up a goaltender in the offseason.
Tom Schreier covers Minnesota sports for Bleacher Report and is a contributor to Yahoo! Sports.