The Minnesota Wild qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season for the first time since 2008, but their return lasted five games, quickly ousted by the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Quarterfinals. With much of the roster returning this season, the Wild will aim to build off what they accomplished in 2012-13.
Coach Mike Yeo, who celebrated his 40th birthday July 31, returns for a third season after guiding the team to a second-place finish (26-19-3) in the Northwest Division. Chuck Fletcher has been the general manager since May 2009 and replenished the prospect pool while the Wild endured their four-year playoff drought.
"The new additions, the lack of training camp made it challenging in a lot of ways for us," Yeo told NHL.com. "But that first step of making the playoffs was big for us and getting that experience. Having that feeling of coming up short and taking that into next season, for sure, is going to be a good experience for us."
Here are six questions facing the Wild:
1. How will Minnesota fare in the new Central Division? -- Because of realignment, the Wild have moved from the Northwest to the Central Division and will begin new rivalries against the Blackhawks, Winnipeg Jets, St. Louis Blues, Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators. The Colorado Avalanche, who were with Minnesota in the Northwest, also moved to the Central.
Travel will be better for the Wild, who had to make frequent trips to western Canadian cities (Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton) while playing in the Northwest. The shorter commutes could help moving forward.
"The travel part is going to be huge for us," Yeo said. "The schedule will be compressed again with the Olympic year, but in the two years that I've been here, it's been a real eye-opener for me, just the travel that we've had, especially coming from the East when I was in Pittsburgh. It affects you. You lose a lot of practice days because of travel days, you lose rest time bouncing through different time zones. I think it's going to bring a little more normalcy for us and give us a better chance."
2. Can Jonas Brodin actually improve off last season? -- Nobody could have expected the 10th pick in the 2011 NHL Draft to have the impact Brodin had in Minnesota last season, when the defenseman was so solid he joined Ryan Suter on the top pairing, led NHL rookies by averaging more than 23 minutes per game, and was named to the All-Rookie Team.
By the time the playoffs rolled around, Brodin was playing nearly 29 minutes a night. Not too bad for someone who was the youngest defenseman in the League at age 19.
So what does Brodin do for an encore next season? Can he really be even better?
"Hopefully he does just what he did last year," Yeo said. "With young players, the key is to make sure they come back and they have that same type of attitude where they're looking to prove themselves, where they're looking to establish themselves. I know he's the type of kid that won't come in with any complacency. He's the type of kid that plays with so much consistency in his game because of his maturity level. He's a very structured, very strong-minded player. His skating ability, his talent level should able him to keep playing at that level."
3. How durable is Niklas Backstrom? -- A healthy Backstrom will go a long way in determining whether the Wild will make it back to the postseason. The 35-year-old, who went 24-15-3 with a 2.48 goals-against average and .909 save percentage last season, signed a three-year contract worth $10.25 million at the end of June that will keep him in Minnesota through 2015-16.
Backstrom started 27 of the final 28 regular-season games, which may have played a role in the lower-body injury he suffered during warm-ups prior to Game 1 of the playoffs against Chicago. Backstrom, who underwent surgery to repair a sports hernia in May, will likely have to play more than 50 games if the Wild are going to make the playoffs.
"Last year, we were kind of forced into a situation where we played him a ton," Yeo said of Backstrom. "He was a warrior for us and did an unbelievable job. Certainly, we can sit here and say maybe he wouldn't have gotten hurt before Game 1 of the playoffs if we had an opportunity to give him a little bit more rest. But [he] has been feeling good and he's excited about the season. I know he wants to play more games next year, but we really are going to go in without a plan per se and just make sure we're just sort of evaluating it every day. We've got two capable goalies and we know [he] needs to get his games to be on top, but we also have to make sure that we're monitoring his rest and that we're giving him the best chance to be at his best every night."
4. Will Mikael Granlund make an impact? -- Competing for the No. 2 center job with the Wild, Granlund started the 2012-13 NHL season with Minnesota but was demoted to Houston of the American Hockey League after producing one goal and five assists in 17 games. He returned to Minnesota on April 4 and had one goal and one assist in eight games. Clearly, more production will be needed if Granlund is going to start next season behind Mikko Koivu on the depth chart.
"We're not going to go in with preset lines," Yeo said. "We're going to be trying a lot of different combinations, we're going to be trying guys at different positions. Luckily we've got a longer camp and it should be able to give us a chance to kind of see things progress.
"If Mikael Granlund is capable of filling that position, it would open a lot of things up for us, especially with his playmaking ability, his skill level coming up the middle of the ice, his ability to distribute the puck. I think it would be beneficial for him and for our team."
But who will be the guy clearing the net? More will be expected in that department from 28-year-old Clayton Stoner, who certainly has the frame (6-foot-3, 218 pounds) to assume the role. Keith Ballard, who arrives after spending the past two seasons with the Vancouver Canucks, also will be expected to bring a physical game each night. Matthew Dumba, the club's first-round pick (No. 7) in 2012, can provide that should he make the club out of training camp.
"A huge part of Clayton's game was to bring a physical presence, and we need him to do that every night," Yeo said. "We need to do that by committee, it doesn't matter what kind of player you are. If we're on the blue paint (in the crease), I think that's an area we can get a little harder, a little bit nastier, and I think we've got to make sure that we're bringing that. As a team, we're looking to get better and we're looking to add on to the things we're already doing well and improve some areas we're not doing well enough, and certainly that's one that we can improve on."
6. Will Nino Niederreiter thrive in his new home? -- The 20-year-old Swiss wing is coming off a somewhat tumultuous season after reports surfaced in January that he was seeking a trade from the New York Islanders when the team didn't invite him to training camp. The fifth pick at the 2010 NHL Draft, Niederreiter played in the NHL as an 18-year-old and had one goal in 55 games, though he spent much of that time on the fourth line alongside defensive-minded forwards Marty Reasoner and Jay Pandolfo.
Niederreiter played well in Bridgeport of the AHL last season, finishing with 28 goals and 22 assists in 74 games. His production decreased in the second half; he had three goals between March 17 and the end of the season, a span of 15 games.
Niederreiter, who was acquired at this year's draft in exchange for right wing Cal Clutterbuck and a third-round pick, could benefit from a change of scenery. He will be given every opportunity to make the Wild out of training camp.
"I know things didn't go right for him [with the Islanders], but you can see a lot of things that get you excited as a coach," Yeo said. "His size, his skating ability, his puck strength and puck-moving ability … I think he's a guy that's going to help us play the type of game that we want to play."