The Minnesota Wild has been doing their best to shed the image of "defensive specialists." They've introduced a bit of scoring to their arsenal. While there are some quality pieces in place (Mikko Koivu and Martin Havlat), there wasn't a ton done over the off-season to help this plan. Drafting Mikael Granlund, however, was a step in the right direction. More of the moves were to improve their playoff prospects.
As far as scoring goes, avoiding the injury bug could be the biggest thing done to help progress.
While it's out of the Wild's control, losing players such as Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Brent Burns to injury didn't help last year. Along with that, starting the season without James Sheppard sets them back too even if he's coming off of a big down year.
Then there's always the concern that the oft-injured Havlat could be stricken with something as well.
In their history, the Wild have developed a track record that leaves their fans with high expectations. This is a team that expects to compete for a playoff spot. To not do so last year was a big let down.
This year the post-season is firmly in their sights again. They have a renewed attitude that Wild can make it back to the promised land with the help of a few bold predictions.
1) Pierre-Marc Bouchard plays in 55 games
Bouchard is making great strides to resume his NHL career. To do that he needs to get full clearance to play and get back in to playing shape. The season-opener is a goal for Bouchard, but the Wild will take no chances in simply trying to get him to play 82. Conditioning might be a bit of a problem. With his start date still up in the air, 55 seems like a fair starting point.
2) Josh Harding spends the full season with the Wild
Surprised? Once we see how the season plays out, it might not be so surprising. Harding has the talent to be a platoon goalie in the league. The jury's still out on his 50+ game potentia. But he has yet to gain enough experience at this level for anything but a trial by fire. If Minnesota isn't in the playoff picture, the free agent-to-be becomes tradable. Consider, however, whether goalies like Tim Tomas will be a cheaper for playoff teams come March because of the pro-rated time remaining in the season. The impending free agency would make Harding attractive, but does the lack of experience hurt him? We'll find out.
3) Greg Zanon blocks 200 shots
He did it in his last season with Nashville, and there's really no reason why he shouldn't be able to do it again. For some reason I'm in a fantasy league that counts blocked shots. I'm taking Zanon in the third round based solely on that.
4) Matt Cullen starts slow but picks it up towards the end of the season
Cullen has been hot and cold when it comes to good starts with new teams. He had 12 points in his first 25 games with the New York Rangers for the 2006-07 season. Cullen recorded just eight points in 21 games for the Ottawa Senators post-deadline last year. He picked it up for the Sens with eight points in six playoff games. A slow start followed by a strong finish could be in the works for Cullen this season.
5) Mikko Koivu establishes another career-high in points
Koivu has developed into one of the best centres in the league last year with a 71-point season. It's not like he has to worry about teams paying more attention to him defensively either. Last year he was the prime target for the shut-down lines and still chipped them apart. Koivu turns it up another notch this year and continues his assent.
6) Martin Havlat scores 25 goals
Scoring 18 in 73 games last year was a disappointment for Havlat, but he was also contending with a creaky hamstring and groin. With a year in the system and a chance to stay separate from Koivu and draw periodically weaker coverage, Havlat re-discovers his form and clanks in another 25.
7) Cal Clutterbuck leaves'em hanging again in fantasy circles
Fantasy "experts" figured Clutterbuck would be good for 20 goals and 100 penalty minutes last year. He didn't reach either of those totals, and while he could get the 100 penalty minutes, I don't think he hits 20 goals. A great energy presence that could easily lead the league in hits again, Clutterbuck will probably end up with 15 or so.
8) Brent Burns sneaks in five goals and 32 points
With the past two years derailed by concussion problems and an assortment of other injuries, the Wild need Burns if they're going to compete for the playoffs. A good-sized defense man with great offensive instincts is plenty useful. And with Marek Zidlicky not getting any young, Burns will need to prove he can stay on the ice and be the number one guy. A sneaky little season is in order for Burns, but nothing that will break the bank.
9) Minnesota ends up between 220 and 225 in goals-for
The improvements from Havlat, Cullen, and Koivu will help but there are some significant questions offensively. Can Guillame Latendresse repeat last year's totals? Can Chuck Kobasew re-discover 20-goal form after a season marred by knee injuries? Will Andrew Brunette continue to be an outlier and get better with age? Minnesota needs to hope the answer to each one of those questions is of benefit to them this season.
10) Nik Backstrom squirms his way to 30 wins
Just by the skin of his teeth Backstrom makes 30 this year. He's been a jaw-dropping talent since he entered the league. There's no doubt in my mind the save percentage goes up and the goals-against average drops this year, but he needs help offensively to win games. It wouldn't be surprising if Backstrom's record is a misnomer of how he plays this season.
The Stretch (Remember to laugh): The Wild score a combined 16 goals in their first two games in Helsinki. While they can't convince the NHL to schedule all of their games their, the Wild play all of their home games across the pond, catapulting themselves into the league leaders in scoring.
Bryan Thiel is a senior writer and a columnist for Hockey54.com—The Face of the Game! If you want to get in contact with Bryan you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter at BryanThiel_88.