The Minnesota Wild has been a hockey team known for god awful ghastly uniforms and superior goaltending over the life of the franchise. In the last three years, goaltending has become average to above average as the team has signed some higher profile players to keep interest and stay in the playoff hunt in recent years. Minnesota is a hot bed of rabid hockey fans and frozen ponds with many players joining the American College ranks and representing the USA Olympic teams over the years. However this has not always translated to NHL fans as many put their wise blue collar dollar into following the many College hockey programs and USHL USA junior development teams. There are four major professional teams to follow in the greater Twin City area and all of them for some reason or another seem to have issues with paying fans and keeping the seats filled. This has led to some mediocre teams fielded and interest can be lost fast if these teams don't jump out from the gate fast and catch the interest of paying fans. It's so cold for so long in Minnesota that many fans would rather stay home and watch the teams play on TV rather than trek out during the worst of weather to pay a high price for a seat during a Wild game. Therefore with the NHL being the lowest earning professional sport league by dollar for TV revenue, it makes a team like the Wild push a hard business plan and keep a hard dollar cap on team outlays.
That being said the Wild made a remarkably smart PR move to sign two high profile free agents three years ago that were homegrown Minnesota kids to twin eight year contracts in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. As high profile free agents signing together and last year both represented their country on the USA Olympic team, they brought youth, credibility and dynamic skill to the franchise and the Wild is still in the process of building around them to create a culture of winning and success. They placed 4th last year and faced Colorado in a first round playoff series that had high drama and plenty of grit winning in seven games. They then faced the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks and succumbed in 6 games to a much more talented and experienced team. The goal this season is to build on last years success and find their way back to the playoffs and possibly into the second round. The problem being in the Central Division, is playing behind Chicago, St.louis and Colorado that have well established teams built for successful regular seasons and playoff pushes. A secondary problem is the growing emergence of Dallas and to a lesser degree Nashville as they are trying to build teams as fast as the Wild are. Regardless of how things develop this season, I think the Wild has built in enough good will to keep the fans happy and keep the interest level high.
Getting right to the management, GM Chuck Fletcher has done a remarkable job seeding the franchise in recent years from a first rate AHL affiliate in the Iowa Wild (formerly Houston Aeros). About 60% of the teams players have come from within and every new season sees the addition of one or two new players earning they way onto the team. The credit is in building a great scouting department and that is made easier by the Wild's access to Canadian and American development teams. The team over the years has been built back to front and in recent years some highly skilled forwards have started to emerge. The Coaching staff is led by Mike Yeo, who when he was hired by Fletcher was kind of a head scratcher unknown entity. He has a philosophy of stretching the ice through hard transition flow. He may have to adjust his style this year as the increased area of the trapezoid and hybrid icing may impact his dump and push offense. If there is one area of question on this team heading into the new season for me, it's what is the role of Matt Cooke. Everyone remembers the ugly senseless hit on Tyson Barrie during the first round of the playoffs and I have to wonder that on a team trying to develop and market top talent, isn't having Cooke in your lineup an invitation for other teams cheap shot artists, a ticket to chase after your stars? Mike Yeo can fix that waiving Cooke and giving a talented youngster his spot. In my mind the Cooke hit on Barrie was an ugly smudge on what was a gallant team effort in the playoffs.
The defense led by Ryan Suter, a top 5-6 defenseman in this league and his skill and acumen is still growing. Keith Ballard and Jared Spurgeon balance a defense core of grit and depth and have plenty of youthful assistance in Jonas Brodin and Justin Falk. Marco Scandella will be pushed to hold onto his spot by Matthew Dumba and Christen Folin as they bite at the bit for larger minutes and roles.
The Forwards have high end talent in Parise and Pominville and have added free agent sniper Thomas Vanek. Complimented by three zone players Mikko Koivu, Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle that can offer secondary scoring as well back checking. Emerging Nino Neiderreitter and Erik Haula have a lot to prove this season and you can expect them to move around the forward lines to see where they fit best.
The big question mark on this team is Goaltending. Niklas Backstrom is 36 now and on the down side and can't play 40 games a year and Josh Harding with his cheerful but determined fight againt MS hasn't proven that his can be the man now. He has been indefinitely suspended for breaking his foot in a non hockey related event off the ice and last season rookie hero of sorts, Darcy Kuemper will get his chance to show his capabilities.
I'd place this team in the top three of the division if the goaltending could match what St. Louis, Chicago and Colorado has. But with the uncertainty, I have to place them fifth, maybe a shot at fourth in the very tough Central Division.
Until Next Time!