Wild Season Preview: Getting over the hump
The Minnesota Wild are too good to have been eliminated in the second round of the playoffs each of the last two seasons. At least that's the way they see it. And essentially the same squad as last year will try to get over the second-round hump in 2015-16.
While there's no shame in losing to the Blackhawks in the postseason, which has been the case the last two springs, the Wild were swept by Chicago last May, losing three games by a goal. It's that lack of scoring that hurts - even though, in fairness, the Wild outscored the Blackhawks during the regular season (231-229).
The Wild boast prolific top-six forwards, which is why it's hard to believe Zach Parise led the team in scoring with only 62 points last season. Parise, Mikko Koivu, and Thomas Vanek combined to tally 68 goals in 2014-15 - Parise had 33 - and 94 assists, good for 162 points. An average of 54 points is not nothing, but the triumvirate is taking up almost $21 million of Minnesota's salary cap. That amount of money should mean more production.
But production came from other players: Nino Niederreiter scored 24 goals while playing only 14:30 a night, Jason Zucker scored 21 goals in 51 games, and Mikael Granlund had 39 points in 68 games. All three players are just 23 years old.
It's on defense, though, where the Wild boast a collection of riches. Ryan Suter - who averaged 29 minutes a night last season - and Jonas Brodin make a formidable, reliable top pairing. Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon are 25, Matt Dumba 21, and Christian Folin 24. Prized college free agent Mike Reilly joins the crew as well, and he's 22. There may not be a deeper blue line than in Saint Paul.
And then there's goaltender Devan Dubnyk, who finally found his game - and a home - with the Wild last year. His was one of the more absurd stories in the league last season, and got paid because of it.
Make no mistake: This Mike Yeo-led team can make the Western Conference finals, maybe even the Stanley Cup Final, even if only one player on the roster finishes with more than 60 points. But it would probably help if the Wild's road didn't go through Chicago.
Projected Depth Chart
|Zach Parise||Mikko Koivu||Jason Pominville|
|Thomas Vanek||Mikael Granlund||Nino Niederreiter|
|Jason Zucker||Charlie Coyle||Justin Fontaine|
|Ryan Carter||Erik Haula||Jordan Schroeder|
|Ryan Suter||Jonas Brodin|
|Marco Scandella||Matt Dumba|
|Mike Reilly||Jared Spurgeon|
|Christian Folin||Nate Prosser|
Dubnyk, of course. Can he do it again?
The 29-year-old won 27 of 39 starts after he was traded to the Wild, posting a sparkling 1.78 GAA and a sublime .936 save percentage. He even had five shutouts.
To expect that again - Dubnyk has a career 2.69 GAA and .914 save percentage - may be foolhardy, but that's where Minnesota's deep blue line comes into play. Dubnyk doesn't have to be as good as he was last season - he simply has to play like the No. 1 goalie he's now being paid as.
But there will be doubts, and a long-term contract with a $4.3-million cap hit comes with pressure.
Player to Watch
Once upon a time, Vanek was a lock for 30 goals and 60 points. But he's out of his scoring prime now, at 31, and it's worth asking whether he's worthy of a second-line role, especially with the likes of Niederreiter and Zucker around.
There's also the fact Vanek didn't score a goal in 10 playoff games - when the Wild needed him most.
What Vanek - and Koivu - do offensively will be a major factor this season, and the focus will especially be on them if they find themselves on the same line.