Minnesota Wild 2015-16 Preview

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So at the end of another season, which finished with the Minnesota Wild succumbing to the Blackhawks again. If this is the window for the Wild, how do they improve this season and finally get past the now Chicago nemesis? I am no Chuck Fletcher, but I’m more than willing to talk about the state of the franchise.

First of all, there is going to be no help through free agency this year in terms of scoring. The cap has been eaten up by some hefty contracts and this is why it’s the Wild’s window – if they don’t do it now during this window, well it will be a long retool, rebuild, scorched earth, we know the drill. Suter’s and Parise’s contracts will surely bring cap recapture penalties down the road or ageing veterans playing a diminished role with huge cap numbers, despite signing before the new CBA. Well, the Wild don’t get favours and rules rewritten for them as some franchises have. So in this 3 to 4 year window, how does the Wild push on?

Buying out Backstrom wasn’t possible; after this season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Vanek move on, especially after his recent interview which could not have impressed the front office.

So back to the here and the now.

Help from the farm?

Iowa Wild, at present and for next season it’s a categoric no. It’s of no surprise that Iowa Wild was in a bad way last year, with draft picks traded away – and, more importantly, prospects in college – the roster in Iowa has not been filled out with drafted players. There just isn’t the talent in Iowa to bring lots of help. Patience is a virtue; once the college kids come into the system, they might find a few players in all the undrafted kids they signed. Will it work? I think the prospects coming out college now, I wouldn’t bet against it. But again, this a few years away.

Some may be surprised by my next comment, but with Iowa in such a rough shape, I think there was room to gamble. There are plenty of boom or bust prospects in hockey, huge potential upside and huge risk; many of these just don’t progress at different organisations. I would have liked to see a few busts that had boom potential bought in. Let’s face it, with so many prospects in college giving the Iowa Wild a talent shortage, this was a year to try and the Wild is crying out for some natural scorers.

Despite the lack of development I would have tried one or possibly two, possibly a Scott Glennie, you never know what a change of scenery and coaching could do. Or when you’re looking for pure offensive potential, well I would have gone for one of the home state boys and given Danny Kristo a one year two way contract, just as the Blues have done. No, he is not big, but you know he might score a few. Who knows what a homecoming could do and that all important change of scenery.

In Net

With the big club this year, let’s start on the Wild’s favourite topic: goaltending. It is entirely possible that Dubnyk will not put up the same insane numbers this year or in the future, but it’s also entirely possible that Dubnyk and his calmness with the Wild’s structure is just a good fit. He has looked good in pre-season and really seems to fit in with a solid defensive team like the Wild.

It’s clear to see that Nik Backstrom is the netminder of yesteryear, but it’s possible that the Wild will carry 3 netties – it will be hard to clear Backstrom and his cap hit; I thought at the start of the summer that is was possibly more immovable than David Clarkson’s – his was moved, but Backstrom’s hasn’t been, and will not be. Oh how the Wild fans wish this was the NFL, as Backstrom’s contract would have been terminated and cap space would be created. It isn’t and they are stuck with it; the best they can hope for is sending him to Europe without cap relief, but this has potential for some egg on Chuck Fletchers face – we’ve seen how the Wild seem to have issues with netties.

Dubnyk riding the carousel solo just won’t happen over a season. Kuemper has proved to be capable in the past, he just wasn’t a number one, but he may well be in the future. You would hope that Kuemper gets his game back and with someone calm to practice with and less pressure, the hope is he improves mentally and stops conceding goals in bunches, either to be a good long term back up or bring his market value back up. You never know, Fletcher may well be able to bring some draft picks in rather than sending them out. At 25 years old, Kuemper has time to rebound from last year. Having seen him perform at a good level in the past, there is a chance we may see that again.

It’s a safe bet that goaltending will not be plain sailing with the Wild – it never is – but with Dubnyk, it could be the least problematic year in a long time.

Up Front

Getting Thomas Vanek firing is a common theme amongst the Wild fanbase, although 21 goals and 52 overall points was not a Dany Heatley level of misfiring. Is the problem with Vanek the problem with the woeful power play? 27th with a 15.9%. That was not good, not good at all. I think the Vanek conundrum and the Pomminville one for that matter comes when the powerplay improves.

I’m speaking for everyone who follows the Wild, Mike Yeo, go with the hot unit! Stop going with the clearly non-functioning 1st unit powerplay. Vary it up and let people earn powerplay time. If a veteran is not getting it done, his ice time should diminish and one of the young guns should get the chance. That is the only time I’m going to put an exclamation point in, as I’m patient and Mike Yeo is growing each season – 3 trips to the playoffs show the growth.

That’s 3 big questions which may well all be connected – will the powerplay, Vanek and Pomminville improve? It must be noted that Yeo is making all the right noises about giving more ice time to the youngsters and they are looking at changing the powerplay. Who knows, Suter and Parise bringing in Adam Oates in to work with them, it might have just backed the Wild into a corner. If it doesn’t change and improve, it’s egg on the face of the coaching staff.

How to replace Kyle Brodziak, what? Kyle Brodziak! The much lamented Kyle Brodziak. Given, he is not an offensive dynamo, but he is a pretty darn good defensive forward and an excellent penalty killer, bringing some grit to the side. Carter will be relied upon to bring some grit and Erik Haula needs to have a bounce back year on his penalty killing. There just isn’t the same quality as Brodziak on the farm at the moment, Graovac may become a good third line centre but moving him up to 4th line will not do the one bright prospect in Iowa any good. Graovac only comes up in the top 9 and other prospects such as Gabriel and Bussieres aren’t ready yet, and they might never be.

As the season approaches it looks like Graovac may well make the team, bringing some much needed size to the lineup, and with the recent waiver wire pick up of Chris Porter, this an area they might actually improve in. Brodziak will never be missed by many of the Wild fans, but he was a work horse. Graovac, Porter and Haula need to fill that void, because a void exists. One player in the farm who has the potential to be a responsible 2 way forward is Adam Gilmour, but as of yet, he is in college and some few years away.

Improvement From Within

Internal improvement is a line being talked about by Chuck Fletcher. This is a key area for the Wild with so many young players. It is doubtful with Dubnyk in net that the Wild will have a truly disastrous stretch like last season where the confidence of the team was shot. The back end is pretty set but the development of Dumba and hopefully Mike Reilly or Christian Folin are key. The top 4 is set but with a long season and injuries, there will be minutes to impress and improve. Folin is one I hope continues from a good camp, he has some size the team needs and a booming shot. The ever dependable Nate Prosser fills out the back end; he might not have the greatest skill set, but he is a dependable righty lefty defenseman who can be bought in, when he is he isn’t a liability.

With the forwards, the veterans need a bounce back year, but it will be interesting to see how the younger lads do. Can Zucker keep up his development after a truly spectacular break out year and will Granlund and Coyle improve? The latter two simply have to if the Wild are to ever surpass the Blackhawks and make a meaningful run at the Stanley Cup.

I’m also interested to see how Jordan “Shredder” Shroeder performs in camp. A 1st round pick by the Canucks in 2009, he was seen by many to be a first round bust. But he showed excellent signs of development last year; his homecoming was encouraging, he has speed and offensive potential, something the Wild still need. It’s up to him to secure a place in the top 9, there are spaces available this year, at least a space as 3rd line right wing. If not he will be an up and down player from Iowa.

One final player worth a mention is  one of the late round flyers from 2012 – Christoph Bertschy. Largely unknown, but he possesses blistering pace and good hands; after a breakout year with SC Bern in his native Switzerland he is heading stateside. I for one am interested in seeing in what he can do in Iowa and in some possible mid season call ups.

External Factors

Other than internal development and bounce back years, the area that might close the gap with the Blackhawks, is the Blackhawks themselves and the salary cap. With Toews’ and Kane’s new contracts kicking in, there will be salary cap casualties. Saad has gone to the Blue Jackets, Patrick Sharp to Dallas as well and let’s not forget Brad Richards, who anchored the second line putting up 37 points, is now in Detroit.

One loss is something the Blackhawks have tended to get past, but that is 3 losses from the top 3 lines, 2 of them being veteran presences. The Blackhawks may do what they always do and get past it, but this hit to the depth at forward may be what helps the Wild.

What’s To Come?

Either way it’s going to be an interesting year. The Wild are a good solid team, getting to the playoffs for 3 straight years, though they have never looked like they were in with a shot of the big prize. This season, with more growth, they might just bring themselves into the discussion, and from there, grabbing a seat at the table.

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