Complete Guide to the Minnesota Wild's 2014 Offseason

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistMay 15, 2014

Complete Guide to the Minnesota Wild's 2014 Offseason

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    The Minnesota Wild saw their season come to an end when one long shot off the glass took a weird bounce and ended up on the stick of Patrick Kane.

    The Blackhawks' lightning-quick forward had nobody around him, and he was free to make a forehand-backhand deke and put the puck in the top shelf of the net.

    Since that goal came in overtime of the sixth game, that was the official conclusion to the Wild's season.

    Despite the painful end that saw them drop their second-round series to the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Wild made solid progress in 2013-14.

    They made the playoffs for the second consecutive year and they scored a memorable 4-3 triumph over the Central Division champion Colorado Avalanche in the first round. They pushed the Blackhawks hard in the second round, and it appears this is a team that is moving in the right direction for the future.

    Here's a look at the Minnesota Wild's offseason guide.

Season Wrap-Up

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    Top Performers

    The Minnesota Wild have gotten the star power and the leadership from Ryan Suter and Zach Parise that they were expecting when they signed them as headline-making free agents following the 2011-12 season.

    Both players have given the Wild two solid seasons of on-ice production as well as the intangibles needed to help turn a rather nondescript franchise into one that is on the rise. Parise finished the season with 29 goals and 56 points along with a plus-10 rating. He was a dominant power-play performer with 14 goals when the Wild had the man advantage.

    Suter is one of the best defensemen in the league. He is an excellent skater who can lead the rush and join the attack, while not letting any of his defensive responsibilities get overlooked. Suter scored eight goals and 43 points while finishing with a plus-15 rating. He also averaged a league-best 29:24 of ice time per game.

    Jason Pominville led the team in scoring with 30 goals and 60 points. Pominville has a hard, accurate shot and is also a quick and accurate passer. He could prove to be a top offseason trade target, if general manager Chuck Fletcher wants to go in that direction.

     

    Biggest Disappointments

    Injuries and illnesses suffered by the Minnesota goaltenders were a big problem throughout the year. Veteran Niklas Backstrom played in just 21 games and underwent season-ending abdominal surgery. Josh Harding looked brilliant at the start of the year, but he did not play during the final five months of the year due to multiple sclerosis symptoms.

    The Wild paid Dany Heatley $7.5 million last season, and all they had to show for it was 12 goals and 16 assists. Nino Niederreiter picked it up in the postseason, but the Wild would have liked to have seen more than 14 goals and 22 assists from him in the regular season.

     

    Final Assessment

    The Wild did not play their best hockey in the first half of the year. They closed December with a six-game losing streak and head coach Mike Yeo's job appeared to be in jeopardy. However, the team played a very solid second half and earned its spot in the playoffs.

    Minnesota pulled off a significant first-round upset in beating the Colorado Avalanche, and the Wild gave the Blackhawks a solid fight in the second round before losing. All in all, a good but not great season for the Wild.

Biggest Storylines to Follow

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    Speedy Wild must push the pace

    Remember the old Minnesota Wild teams under veteran head coach Jacques Lemaire? Those teams were all about scoring one or two goals and locking a game down with defense. While there were times that strategy was moderately effective, it was a dull and boring brand of hockey to watch.

    The current version of the Wild is nothing like that team. Led by youthful players like Erik Haula, the Wild is one of the fastest skating teams in the league. They need to push the pace consistently and let their speed help them become one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the league.

    They are not there yet, but their speed will give them an opportunity to make a statement in the near future.

     

    Improve the Penalty Kill

    There are some teams in the NHL that manage to get near the top even if they don't have a dominating power play. However, there are few teams that can assert themselves if they can't take care of business on the penalty kill.

    That has to be an issue for the Minnesota Wild going forward. The Wild ranked 27th in killing penalties last season, and that's a big problem. The Wild had the worst penalty-killing record of any of the 16 teams that made the playoffs this season. 

    Opponents have been able to take advantage of the Wild with shots from the blue line or make plays from behind the goal line. That has to change going forward and that situation needs to be addressed by Chuck Fletcher.

     

    Assertive play from Koivu, Granlund

    Mikko Koivu has been one of the Wild's top all-around players since his rookie season in 2005-06. However, the 31-year-old Finnish star has let his unselfish nature get the best of him at times. Koivu is coming off back-to-back 11-goal seasons. That's simply not enough scoring. 

    Koivu is more than talented enough to score 18-to-20 goals every year. He has exceeded the 20-goal mark three times in his career, and the Wild need him back at that level.

    Mikael Granlund, 22, has the tools to be a star in the NHL for years to come. But like his countryman Koivu, he is primarily looking to pass when he is on the ice. He scored eight goals and 33 assists this year, and there's no reason he can't score at least 15 goals next season.

Notable Players Hitting Free Agency

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    There's some joy in the Minnesota Wild front office as Dany Heatley's $7.5 million salary comes off the books this year, and that means the Wild will have room to maneuver their roster. There is virtually no chance the Wild will bring Heatley back next year.

    Matt Moulson, a late-season acquisition, will also be a free agent and while he has more scoring touch than Heatley, it seems unlikely Chuck Fletcher will make a big push for him. Role-playing forwards Mike Rupp and Cody McCormick are both useful players who would not cost a lot to bring back.

    The Wild appears to be well-stocked on the defensive side, and they could decide to let defensemen Clayton Stoner and Nate Prosser leave. Both are functional, but the Wild are likely to have young defensemen Mathew Dumba and college star Christian Folin at their disposal. They could also make a move for a free-agent defenseman.

Top Free-Agent Targets

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    After the Buffalo Sabres traded Thomas Vanek to the Islanders, New York made a concerted effort to sign the high-scoring winger to a long-term contract.

    Vanek rebuffed those efforts, and he was subsequently traded to the Montreal Canadiens. He has been a key contributor during their current run in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

    Vanek should be very popular as a free agent once the season ends. There has been quite a bit of discussion that Chuck Fletcher would make a pitch to bring him to the Wild.

    Vanek played his college hockey for the Minnesota Gophers, and the Wild need a veteran who can put the puck in the net.

    It's not a done deal by any stretch. Vanek can score, but he is not known for the consistency of his effort. It also remains to be seen what Vanek's asking price will be and if the 30-year-old Austrian would give the Wild a "hometown" discount.

    While the Wild have a crew of solid defensemen, they could be in the market for a talented veteran like Pittsburgh's Matt Niskanen.

Best Options in Draft

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    The Wild should be concentrating on adding offensive players in the draft. Particularly those who have shown some finishing ability around the net.

    Selecting with the 18th spot in the first round, the Wild should be interested in Dylan Larkin, a 6'0", 172-pound left wing who has played for Team USA's under-17 and under-18 teams. Larkin has a good shot and is expected to play for the University of Michigan next season.

    The Wild could also give strong consideration to center-left wing Ivan Barbashev of Moncton of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. NHL.com says Barbashev is a big-time shooter who usually looks to take that option when it is available to him.

Players Who Should Be Put on the Trading Block

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    Chuck Fletcher knew Matt Cooke's reputation when he signed him to a free-agent contract prior to the 2013-14 season.

    While Cooke is a hard worker and a hustler, his tendency to play on the edge may cause Fletcher to re-evaluate Cooke's status with the Wild. Cooke was suspended for seven postseason games for the knee-on-knee hit on Colorado's Tyson Barrie (video above), and that did not help the Minnesota cause.

    Jason Pominville was the team's leading scorer and he has five years remaining on a contract that will pay him $5.6 million per year. If Fletcher could find a trading partner, he might be willing to trade Pominville. While he has a good shot, Pominville is not the kind of player who will go into the dirty areas and make sacrifices to score the tough goals.

    Fletcher may not end up pulling the trigger, but any good general manager will listen to offers.

    Keith Ballard is a solid, functional defenseman who has one year remaining on a deal that will pay him $1.5 million next year. If the Wild are going to consider Matt Niskanen as a free agent and give Mathew Dumba and Christian Folin opportunities, Ballard could be an attractive trade target.

Top Trade Targets

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    This is a much tougher category to consider, because it's difficult to know who opposing general managers are going to be willing to move in a trade.

    However, it seems obvious that the Vancouver Canucks are going to be rebuilding following their failure to make the playoffs in 2013-14. Ryan Kesler would seem to be a top target because of his talent and versatility. Kesler has two years remaining on a contract that pays him $5 million per year, and he rebounded from a back injury to score 25 goals last year.

    Center Sam Gagner of the Edmonton Oilers could also be a trade target. The Oilers had another disappointing year, and Gagner could bring that team a combination of draft picks and a veteran player. Gagner had 10 goals and 27 assists for the Oilers last year.

     

Prospects Most Likely to Debut in 2014-15

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    The Wild drafted defenseman Mathew Dumba in the first round of the 2012 draft. The seventh overall pick should be able to break into the regular lineup next season because he has decent size at 6'0" and 184 pounds, and he can move the puck well and join the attack. Dumba was a defensive mainstay for the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League last season.

    Right wing Brett Bulmer could also make an impact in 2014-15. He is a high-energy forward who can go into the corners and win the battle. However, he may not be the kind of player who can fill up the net with regularity.

    Defenseman Christian Folin is a talented Swedish import who played his college hockey at UMass-Lowell. He should be able to move the puck with confidence at the next level.

Projected 2014-15 Depth Chart

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    Forward Lines

    Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville
    Matt Cooke, Kyle Brodziak, Nino Niederreiter
    Erik Haula, Mikael Granlund, Justin Fontaine
    Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle, Brett Bulmer

     

    Defense Pairings

    Ryan Suter-Jared Spurgeon
    Keith Ballard-Jonas Brodin
    Christian Folin-Clayton Stoner
    Mathew Dumba-Marco Scandella

     

    Goaltenders

    Niklas Backstrom
    Josh Harding
    Darcy Kuemper