The biggest storyline heading into the Minnesota Wild’s 2013-14 training camp is how a band of 20-somethings is going to build off of last season’s playoff appearance.
Sure, Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Ryan Suter are still around, but the team lost a lot of experience when it unloaded Matt Cullen (36), Tom Gilbert (30) and Devin Setoguchi (26).
This means that a young core will be expected to carry the team. Parise, Koivu and Jason Pominville will likely man the first line, but Nino Niederreiter, 21, and three other 20-year-olds—Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund—should be playing big minutes behind them, especially if Dany Heatley continues on his tailspin.
Defensively, general manager Chuck Fletcher replaced Gilbert with another 30-year-old Minnesotan, Keith Ballard, but there will be a lot of pressure on second-year blueliner Jonas Brodin (20) and Marco Scandella (23), who recently signed a two-year extension and spent most of last season in the minors.
An overlooked factor heading into camp is how the goaltending situation is going to hold up with the aging Niklas Backstrom (35) and backup Josh Harding, who is suffering from Multiple Sclerosis. Minnesota will also have to ensure that Parise and Koivu build strong chemistry and are capable of handling a bulk of the scoring this season.
It should be an interesting upcoming season for the Wild. They easily could make a deep run in next season’s playoffs following their five-game ouster by Chicago, but they could also fall victim to youth and inexperience and end up with a hiccup in the second year following the big acquisition of Parise and Suter.
Youth Gone Wild
Or maybe Wild gone youth would make more sense.
Keep in mind here that Fletcher had to get under the cap with four albatross contracts on the books: Parise and Suter (of course) as well as Koivu and Heatley (who is making a whopping $7.5 million next season).
One of these four guys is not worth their price tag. Care to venture a guess?
Maybe Heatley explodes for 50 goals in his contract season, but it is pretty well known that some forwards have trouble producing during their 30s, especially snipers like Heatley.
A speedy, cerebral winger like Cullen or Martin St. Louis can be productive after 35 if he stays in peak condition compared to a more well-rounded forward that plays two-way hockey, say the Sedin twins, tends to last. Pure scorers, however, like Heatley, Ilya Kovalchuk or Marian Gaborik start to show question marks once they pass 30.
This means that Niederreiter, Granlund, Coyle and Zucker are going to have to account for a lot of scoring this season.
The latter two, Coyle and Zucker, have already established themselves as NHL-ready players. Coyle played on the top line with Parise and Koivu until Minnesota traded for Pominville in the middle of last season, and Zucker was a threat until Corey Perry tried to take his head off in a contest against the Anaheim Ducks.
Coyle will likely be considered as the second-line center, but he can also play the wing on any of the top three lines. He is extremely versatile.
Similarly, Zucker can be an asset on just about any line. The Las Vegas native trains with MMA fighters in the offseason and has a lot of grit to his game. He’ll wreck opposing players with massive, clean body checks and has a scoring touch as well.
Nino and Granny, on the other hand, have a lot to prove.
Niederreiter was the No. 5 overall selection by the New York Islanders and was expected to save the franchise. He didn’t and was stuffed in the minors last season as a result.
The expectations in Minnesota are more reasonable. With a strong training camp, he can earn a spot on the second line; otherwise, there is enough depth on the team that he can begin the year on the third line (or as a healthy scratch) and work his way up. The team would love to see him turn into a 40-goal scorer, but it doesn't need him to in order to succeed.
Granlund will probably be penciled in as the second-line center, but he'll face a lot of pressure from Coyle or possibly veteran Kyle Brodziak. Granlund is both a scorer and a setup man that is blessed with incredible natural ability. Expect him to have a long leash this season as team management knows that he needs time to grow into his role.
Finally, Brodin and Scandella will have big roles on the blue line while another 23-year-old, Jared Spurgeon, is likely to join Suter to form the first defensive pair on the power play.
After last season’s performance, few people are concerned about Brodin’s play. While he may be 20, he plays like a 30-year-old veteran. He is always well positioned, capable of clearing bodies and pucks away from the net and is a great compliment to Suter.
Scandella is a little less proven.
He spent most of last season in Houston after playing over 60 games for the Wild in 2011-12, but he was called up for the playoffs last year and outplayed Justin Falk, to the point that the latter D-man was made expendable.
Scandella is a lot like the other Wild defensemen in that he doesn’t really stand out—but that’s a good thing. He’ll just make sure opposing players don’t get good looks at the net and let the forwards take care of the scoring.
His projected partner, Ballard, stands out only because his hip checks absolutely wreck opposing players. He showed a little scoring touch in his early days back with the Phoenix Coyotes and Florida Panthers, but it’s doubtful that he’ll be an impact scorer from the back end.
In truth, while there may be a few veterans sprinkled in here and there, this is a young team. Parise, Koivu and Suter have to carry their weight, but they can’t drag the Wild to the playoffs. Brodin, Granlund, Niederreiter, Coyle, Zucker and crew have to be productive if this is going to work out.
Uncertainty in Net
Niklas Backstrom is signed on for this year and will enter the season as the starting goaltender. He will not be able to take on a heavy workload like he did in last year’s shortened season. The injury he sustained in warm-ups before the Chicago playoff series indicates that he wore down and will have to split time with another netminder this season.
Longtime backup Josh Harding is the natural pick to relieve Backstrom, but last year’s Bill Masterton Trophy winner is battling Multiple Sclerosis and may not be able to get through an full season. The entire Wild fanbase is pulling for him, but if he can’t go, Minnesota will have to turn to two young, unproven goaltenders to pick up the slack for Backstrom and Harding.
Darcy Kuemper got a few starts against Chicago and held his own against Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and the Blackhawks. Unfortunately, he looks like he still needs time to develop, and time will tell if he’s ready to be a reliable netminder at the game’s highest level.
Another option is prospect Johan Gustafsson. The 21-year-old Swede did not play in St. Paul last season, and there is uncertainty surrounding his game entering this season.
There could be a couple new faces in net next season, which is equally exciting and worrisome for a team that is expected to make the playoffs in 2013-14.
Koivu and Parise Need to Click Immediately
Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise are two of the most talented forwards in the game, and on paper, they should be a perfect match: Koivu is one of the league’s best setup men; Parise is capable of finding the net against any opponent.
The two played well together during the regular season—especially considering that they did not have training camp or exhibition games following the lockout—but they went cold in the postseason.
Granted, they were playing against the Blackhawks, one of the NHL’s best defensive teams, but these two guys should be able to play against the best of the best.
Now that they will be able to work out the kinks in the preseason, not to mention during the increased number of practices during the regular season, things should work themselves out between these two guys.
If they don’t, however, this team is in trouble.
Minnesota is capable of making a playoff run this year. In order to do so, the young guys will have to step up, things will have to stabilize in net and Parise and Koivu have to catch fire.
If those things happen, expect the Wild to compete for a title in the new Central Division against two very tough teams—the Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues—and position themselves for a deep run.
If those things do not happen, however, this team could take a big step back.
Tom Schreier covers Minnesota sports for Bleacher Report and is a contributor to Yahoo! Sports.
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