After an incredible summer that brought Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to the Twin Cities, the Wild had to figure out how to integrate those two players, as well as youngsters like Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker and Jonas Brodin, into head coach Mike Yeo’s system without training camp or a preseason.
It was no easy task. The team was put together hastily and suddenly had to play a grueling 48-game schedule in the old division which had them traveling as far as Vancouver and Edmonton on a regular basis.
A year later, the Wild have gone younger, but kept the main core together. Despite the loss of guys like Matt Cullen, Devin Setoguchi and Cal Clutterbuck, the team, by and large, enters the 2013-14 season in a better place than it was last season. The team will now have a training camp, preseason and a more geographically logical division.
They have a proven top line, one of the best defensive pairs in hockey and plenty of young players that will be expected to help the Wild contend for years to come.
There are five players that have a lot to prove in camp. Two of them are young and have yet to live up to the hype they received after being drafted: Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund.
Two of them are established veterans expected to carry a lot of weight in the scoring department: Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu.
Finally, 19-year-old defenseman Mathew Dumba has a chance to earn a spot on the second pairing, but also could be sent back to Red Deer (WHL) if Minnesota does not feel he is NHL-ready.
The outcome of the first few games of the 2013-14 regular season will depend a lot on how well these two guys do coming out of the gates.
Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund
Niederreiter and Granlund could easily be paired together next season. Niederreiter was projected to be a high-scoring winger when the New York Islanders drafted him No. 5 overall in 2010, and Granny was supposed to be a setup man with a scorer’s touch when the Wild took him four picks later.
The two 21-year-olds have not lived up to expectations so far. Niederreiter was called up right away at age 18 and given time in the NHL the next season, but was stuffed in the minors last season. After demanding a trade, he got his wish as Minnesota shipped fan favorite Cal Clutterbuck and a third-round pick to the Islanders for the Swiss forward.
Nino is going to have big shoes to fill. Wild fans loved Clutterbuck’s hard-edged style of play and, to make things even more interesting, Niederreiter is going to be wearing Clutterbuck’s old No. 22 this season.
Similarly, Granlund entered last season with high expectations. The team brought him over to St. Paul two years ago expecting that he would take an extra year to mature and develop and be able to take over the No. 2 center position behind team captain Mikko Koivu.
The signing of Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu only served to help his cause. They took the spotlight off of the young center and allowed him to make rookie mistakes without being over-scrutinized.
In short, he was set up for success.
Unfortunately, he did not deliver. After scoring a goal in his first-ever NHL game, Granlund struggled and ended up spending most of the season in the minors. He has the talent to be the second-line center next season, but will have to have a strong training camp in order to earn it.
Nino and Granny could easily be paired together next season. The question is: Will they be in St. Paul or Des Moines?
Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu
If you take Dany Heatley and his $7.5 million cap hit off the books, Koivu is only behind Parise and Suter with his $6.75 million hit this season.
Because Parise and Koivu are two of the most highly paid players on the team, not to mention team captains, they will be expected to set the tone offensively for the team.
Jason Pominville, a former captain with the Buffalo Sabres, will join them on the top line—making this one of the most talented trios in the league.
That will be all for naught if Parise and Koivu cannot find a connection.
They were able to produce in the regular season last year, but were quieted in the playoffs by the mighty Blackhawks defense.
Last year they had to deal with the lockout, which meant no training camp and no preseason. It also meant that there were fewer practices in between games. Given all that, Parise and Koivu did all right, but all right won’t cut it next season.
These two guys have to be automatic if the Wild are going to contend next season.
The Wild would love to have Dumba, a 19-year-old defenseman, to make the team out of camp. He is a physical defenseman with an offensive touch (16 goals, 26 assists with Red Deer last year) who has the opportunity to break the top four next season.
This would make things nice and pretty for Minnesota. Brodin and Suter would be the first pair, of course, Dumba would likely be squared off with veteran Keith Ballard, and then two 23-year-olds, Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella, would round off the final pair.
Jonathan Blum, 24, and Nate Prosser, 27, also will be in the mix, but the addition of Dumba would essentially make the much-maligned Clayton Stoner expendable.
Stoner’s turnover-prone play drew the ire of Wild fans, especially when he gift-wrapped one to Marian Hossa during the Chicago series. At 28, he is in the middle of his prime and unlikely to improve dramatically, but the team will likely keep him around if Dumba is sent back to juniors.
Dumba will likely be a Red Deer Rebel once again next season, and Minnesota should do what’s best for his development, but if he can crack the roster it would be a major boost for an already young and talented Wild team.
Niederreiter, Granlund, Koivu, Parise and Dumba are five players with the most to prove in training camp. Nino and Granny have to show that they are ready to be everyday NHL players, Koivu and Parise need to be automatic on the first line and Dumba can earn a spot on the roster with a strong camp.
Wild fans are excited about the 2013-14 campaign after the team made a splash in free agency and qualified for the playoffs last season. How these five guys do in camp will go a long way to determining how Minnesota does coming out of the gates.
Tom Schreier covers Minnesota sports for Bleacher Report and is a contributor to Yahoo! Sports.