By the time the puck drops on the Minnesota Wild season, January 19th, it will have been over eight long months since they last took the ice in an NHL contest. A lot has happened since the Wild lost 4-1 to the Phoenix Coyotes on April 7, 2012; Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signed with the club as free agents; the NHL lockout (remember that?) robbed the team of half its games; team owner, Craig Leipold,-reportedly a hawk during the lockout- was involved in a shouting match with free agent defenseman Chris Campoli during the intense labor negotiations; elite prospect Mikael Granlund made his long-awaited North American pro debut; and, last but not least, goaltender Josh Harding was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. With that said, let’s get to the second part of the 2013 Minnesota Wild season preview, and answer some questions.
Will the Wild start the season slowly?
-With a ton of new players, there are bound to be growing pains for the Wild to begin the season. And with a short training camp, there will not be a lot of time to work out the kinks before the games begin. Because any sort of losing streak will be even more magnified thanks to the 48-game schedule, the Wild can not afford to fall too far behind the pack in the tough Western Conference. IF this team can tread water in the first month of the season, they will put themselves in prime position to make the playoffs. As they should get better as the season goes along; growing accustomed to each others movements on the ice and coach Mike Yeo’s system.
Who will be the Wild’s best player this season?
-Good question. For the first time in years, there is actually a debate on this topic. But the answer is the same as it has been for the past while: Mikko Koivu. Koivu, the Wild’s captain, is the most underrated player in the whole of the NHL. He is a great all-around player; equally adept at the offensive and defensive aspects of the game. Plus, he competes as hard as any player in the NHL. With those qualities, and the addition of actual NHL caliber talent to his team he should post the best numbers of his career on a per-game basis.
Which prospect(s)(besides Mikael Granlund) will make the Minnesota Wild’s roster out of training camp?
-The Wild are loaded with elite prospects. The hockey’s future website named Minnesota as having the best group of prospects in the NHL. But the Wild have room for maybe just one prospect on the big-league squad, as of now. And if Pierre-Marc Bouchard is cleared to return from his concussion in time to start the season, there will probably not be room for any prospects to make the club out of training camp.
If Bouchard is unable to play right away, look for prospect Jason Zucker to start the season as the Wild’s third line left winger. In fact, even if Bouchard is healthy, the Wild should find a way to play Zucker on its third line. He has great speed and has averaged a point-per-game (16goals, 17assists, 33 games played)so far this season for the Houston Aeros, the Wild’s AHL affiliate. Plus, he had a cup of coffee with the Wild late last season. So he knows what is expected of him, and how the game is played at the NHL level.
Can Mikael Granlund win the Rookie of the Year(Calder Trophy)?
-Yes. This kid has all the skill in the world. And he is sure to receive a large share of ice-time- including significant time on the power play. Plus, he will be playing with fellow Finnish countrymen Niklas Backstom and Mikko Koivu, so he should be comfortable on the ice and in the locker-room. He has the talent to be the best player in Minnesota Wild history. You might be saying big deal. And I would grant you the Wild don’t exactly have the history or legacy of the Montreal Canadiens. But look at this list of Wild greats Granlund can better: Maxim Shushinsky, Warren Peters, Andrei Zyuzin, Mark Parrish, Cam Barker, Eric Belanger, Colton Gillies, James Sheppard, Chris Simon and the immortal Antti Miettinen. Need I say more? Those are some illustrious names right there. And I would put any of those guys up there with the Rocket Richard’s, Jean Beliveau’s and Guy Laflleur’s of the ice hockey world.
Are the Wild a legitimate Stanley Cup contender this season?
-Despite the optimism and high fan expectations, the Wild are a not a legit threat to win the cup this season.While they should be an improved team, you can’t expect them to make the jump from missing the playoffs the previous four seasons to being a cup contender this year. That is just too high of a goal. Did the team get better in the offseason? No Doubt. But the Wild still need to add an experienced, quality top 3 defenseman to be considered a cup contender. They are too young on the blueline to be expected to bring home a cup this season.
Where will the Wild finish in the Western Conference standings?
-The Wild will end the season in sixth place in the Western Conference, and will finish in second place in the Northwest division, behind the Vancouver Canucks. Yes, the Minnesota Wild added a lot of talented pieces to its roster this past offseason. But you have to remember that the Wild scored the fewest goals in the National Hockey League last season. They also managed to finish dead last in shots-on-goal per game, with just 26.5 shots on net per game. Although that number should rise with the additions of Parise, Suter, Granlund, et al.- and help them make the playoffs, it will not rise enough for the Wild to overtake the Canucks’ stranglehold on the Northwest division. Especially in a truncated season, with an abbreviated training camp and little practice time during the season.
Making the playoffs, however, should be the team’s lone goal this season. And, as the old cliche goes: once you make the playoffs-anything can happen. Just ask the LA Kings.