NHL.com continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
The Minnesota Wild spent nearly $200 million in the summer of 2012 to land left wing Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter, the two free-agent prizes on that market. The duo played key roles in ending what was a five-year Stanley Cup Playoffs drought.
Their return to the postseason didn't last long, though. By finishing eighth in the Western Conference, the Wild had to play the No. 1 seed Chicago Blackhawks in the first round, and Minnesota lost in five games.
"The shortened season, the new additions, the lack of training camp, it made it challenging in a lot of ways for us," Wild coach Mike Yeo told NHL.com. "But that first step of making the playoffs was big for us and getting that experience … not just getting that experience, but having that feel of coming up short and taking that into next season, for sure it's going to be a good experience for us."
With the majority of last season's group back in 2013-14, the Wild will try to build off what they were able to accomplish in a realigned Central Division. Just making the playoffs won't be good enough.
"Nobody’s feeling too great about what happened last year," Yeo said. "Everybody's motivated."
Parise was everything Minnesota could have hoped for in his first season with the Wild. The 29-year-old led the club with 38 points (18 goals, 20 assists) in 48 games and provided leadership as an alternate captain. He's expected to start the season on Minnesota's top line alongside center Mikko Koivu and right wing Jason Pominville, who was acquired from the Buffalo Sabres at the trade deadline last season.
The No. 2 center position arguably is the biggest question mark in Minnesota's camp. In one corner is Mikael Granlund, the team's first-round pick (No. 9) at the 2010 NHL Draft. Granlund, 21, split last season between Minnesota and the Houston Aeros in the American Hockey League. He had two goals and six assists in 27 games with the Wild.
If Wild decision-makers conclude that Granlund isn't ready for the position, Charlie Coyle likely would shift from right wing to center. Coyle, 21, had 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 37 games last season. Should Granlund and Coyle skate on the same line, it's expected they'll be joined by Dany Heatley, who is healthy after undergoing shoulder surgery near the end of last season, an injury that forced him to miss the playoffs.
Nino Niederreiter arrives in Minnesota after being acquired from the New York Islanders in June in exchange for popular forward Cal Clutterbuck and a third-round pick. Niederreiter, 21, had 28 goals and 22 assists in 74 games for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the Islanders' American Hockey League affiliate, last season. He could land on the Wild's third line, alongside center Kyle Brodziak and left wing Jason Zucker.
"I think he's the type of guy that's going to help us play the type of game that we want to play," Yeo said of Niederreiter.
Minnesota's fourth line could be one of the more rugged ones in the League this season with a veteran trio of Zenon Konopka, Matt Cooke and Mike Rupp. Cooke signed with the Wild as a free agent after spending the past five seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He'll also fill the void on the penalty kill left by the Clutterbuck trade.
"I think most teams have guys where you're aware when they're on the ice," Yeo said of Cooke. "That's a factor in every game. There's no question we need him to be a factor on the forecheck, we need him to be a physical presence. But at the same time, we need him playing his game because he's an effective player."
Suter stepped onto Minnesota's blue line last season and led the League by averaging 27:16 of ice time per game. He also had 32 points (four goals, 28 assists) in 48 games and was a finalist for the Norris Trophy, awarded to the NHL's top defenseman.
The Wild had an idea of what Suter was going to bring to the table, evidenced by the 13-year contract they signed him to in July 2012. It was Jonas Brodin's season that caught everyone by surprise.
Brodin, the Wild's first-round pick (No. 10) in 2011, entered the League as a 19-year-old last season and performed as though he'd been there for years. The Swedish defenseman led all rookies by averaging 23:12 and had 11 points (two goals, nine assists) in 45 games.
"He's a young kid that needs to continue to get stronger," Yeo said of Brodin. "The defensive part of his game is very advanced compared to other players at his age. Where we'd like to see him continue to grow and he has the ability in the offensive part of the game, that's a little bit more just sort of a take-charge attitude. He's actually got great mobility back on the blue line, he's got a good shot when he's willing to use it. For a team that's looking to score more goals, he'd be the guy we're looking to help us in that area."
Hoping to play a more physical game this season, the Wild signed Keith Ballard to a two-year contract in July. Ballard struggled the past three seasons with the Vancouver Canucks and had the remaining two years of his contract bought out. Now, he has a chance to rejuvenate himself in Minnesota, where he'll likely be paired with 23-year-old Marco Scandella.
Jared Spurgeon, who signed a three-year contract in July, will be asked to provide some offense from the blue line and will see plenty of time on the power play. He could be paired with Nate Prosser or Clayton Stoner, or perhaps Mathew Dumba, the Wild's first-round pick (No. 7) from 2012 who is trying to avoid another season of junior hockey.
Niklas Backstrom returns as Minnesota's No. 1 goaltender after signing a three-year contract less than two weeks before the free-agent market opened. The 35-year-old is healthy after undergoing sports hernia surgery in May. Backstrom helped the Wild make the playoffs by starting 27 of the final 28 games of the regular season, but sustained the injury in warm-ups prior to Game 1 against Chicago. Backstrom went 24-15-3 with a 2.48 goals-against average and .909 save percentage in 42 games.
Josh Harding returns as Backstrom's backup. The 29-year-old had a 2.94 GAA and .911 save percentage during Minnesota's first-round loss to Chicago.
OUT: Matt Cullen, C (free agent, Predators); Tom Gilbert, D (free agent); Cal Clutterbuck, RW (trade, Islanders); Pierre-Marc Bouchard, LW (free agent, Islanders); Brett Clark, D (free agent); Devin Setoguchi, RW (trade, Jets)
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL
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