Much was expected from the Minnesota Wild after they revived their season. A six-game losing streak left them at 18-19-5 on Jan. 13 and outside of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They responded by finishing 28-9-3 and eliminating the Central Division champion St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference First Round.
Those high expectations crashed when they were swept out of the second round by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. The Wild did not make any significant changes to the roster but are confident the answers to improving lie within.
Here are four reasons for optimism in Minnesota:
Stability in goal: The Wild have their finest goaltending depth in years with Devan Dubnyk and Darcy Kuemper. Dubnyk went 27-9-2 with five shutouts, a 1.78 goals-against average and .936 save percentage after he was traded to Minnesota by the Arizona Coyotes on Jan. 15. He was rewarded with a six-year, $26 million contract and is the unquestioned No. 1 goalie, but won't have to start 39 of 40 games again.
Kuemper is 27-22-6 with a 2.48 GAA and .910 save percentage in 63 NHL games (56 starts). He is capable of giving Dubnyk a breather, which is important considering Dubnyk and the Wild ran out of steam against the Blackhawks.
"Right from the start I want [Devan] to compete and I want him to play a lot of hockey games, but we know Darcy Kuemper is very capable," Wild coach Mike Yeo said. "I think he'll provide some good support for Devan. And Devan is going to help him too, an awful lot. As a young player (25), there's not going to be quite as much on his shoulders as there was in the past, and that will allow him to kind of settle into his own game, feel confident, feel good about himself, and with that we'll see his game continue to rise."
Strength on defense: Ryan Suter led the NHL in average time on ice (29:03) for the third straight season while skating 30-plus minutes in 23 games, but those days may be over thanks to the emergence of Minnesota's young defensemen. Matt Dumba scored six goals and 10 points in his final 27 games last season and his plus-13 rating set a Wild record for a rookie defenseman. Minnesota could receive a bigger boost from Mike Reilly if the Hobey Baker finalist makes the Wild out of training camp.
Mikael Granlund: The Wild signed Granlund, 23, to a two-year contract worth $6 million to give him the opportunity to build off a season when he set NHL career highs in games (68), plus-minus (plus-17) and average time on ice (17:53). Granlund has yet to flash the form of a future star who excelled for Finland at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but he finished second on the Wild with 24 points in 36 games after his return from wrist surgery on Jan. 27, a stretch that included a goal and nine points in his final 12 games while centering the first line with Zach Parise and Jason Pominville.
"He's a guy that we count on to score a lot of goals and create a lot of goals for our team," Yeo said. "I think he has the ability to play against the top players in the League from an offensive and defensive standpoint. We're anxious to see how he comes in this year and if he's ready to take another step."
Zach Parise: The left wing endured a season of injury (concussion) and tragedy with the passing of his father, J.P. Parise, but scored 33 goals (his most since 2009-10 with the New Jersey Devils) in 74 games while setting a Wild record for plus-minus by a forward (plus-21). Entering the fourth year of a 13-year, $98 million contract, Parise led an offense that averaged 2.77 goals per game, equaling the Wild's most, set in 2005-06.