The Minnesota Wild look like a team on the rise after winning their first postseason series in 11 years and giving the Chicago Blackhawks all they could handle before losing in six games in their Western Conference Second Round series.
But going from a team that can win a round in the Stanley Cup Playoffs to one that can compete for a championship is a big leap. General manager Chuck Fletcher said his players' demeanor after losing the series to Chicago indicates that they're not satisfied with what they've accomplished so far.
"The interesting thing was that at the end of the season, after we lost to Chicago and even for a week or two afterward, there wasn't any sense of euphoria," he told NHL.com. "I think everyone recognizes how competitive this League is and how difficult it is to win. We lost a series to Chicago and that stung. That's great when there's that sense that we could have done more and could have done better."
Here are five questions the Wild must answer in order to build on last season's success:
1. Who's the goalie? -- Niklas Backstrom, Josh Harding, Darcy Kuemper, Ilya Bryzgalov and John Curry (who won his lone late-season start) all had at least one victory in a season of tumult for Minnesota goaltenders . Harding was 18-7-3 with an NHL-best 1.65 goals-against average, but he didn't play after Dec. 31 because of the effects of his battle with multiple sclerosis. Backstrom struggled all season and played a total of 22:25 after Jan. 11 before season-ending abdominal surgery. Minor-league call-up Kuemper (12-8-4, 2.43 GAA) and Bryzgalov (7-1-3, 2.12 GAA), acquired in a trade on March 4, got the Wild to the playoffs.
The question now is who fits where this season. Fletcher and coach Mike Yeo said they are content to go into training camp without a designated starter and see what happens in a competition between Backstrom, Harding and Kuemper (Bryzgalov remains a free agent).
"We have three guys who are quality goaltenders, three guys who at points in the season have been our starting goaltender and played very good hockey," Yeo told NHL.com. "We're expecting some good competition in camp."
2. Where does newcomer Thomas Vanek fit? -- Vanek, a native of Austria and a college star at the University of Minnesota, opted to return to his "hometown" team, and he left a lot of money on the table in the process when he signed a three-year deal reportedly worth $19.5 million.
Vanek had 27 goals and 68 points in 78 games during a season in which he was traded twice, first from the Buffalo Sabres to the New York Islanders and then to the Montreal Canadiens. He has 277 goals in 663 games since coming to the NHL in 2005 and is being counted on to boost an offense that averaged 2.43 non-shootout goals per game.
Yeo said he and his staff haven't settled on a permanent home for Vanek, but that he'll make things better for his linemates, whoever they are.
"He's an underrated playmaker, and will help the guys around him create more offense and score more goals," Yeo said. "If we can add a few more goals, it's going to equal a few more wins for us."
3. Is Matt Dumba ready for a regular spot on defense? The Wild have high hopes for Dumba, their top pick in the 2013 NHL Draft. He started the season in Minnesota and played 13 games before being sent back to junior hockey, where he helped the Portland Winterhawks to the Western Hockey League final.
Fletcher said the Wild won't rush Dumba and will send him to the Iowa Wild of the American Hockey League rather than rush him into the NHL if they feel he's not ready.
"For us to keep him, he's going to have to be one of our top-six defensemen," he said. "We're happy with his progress so far."
4. Will the kids keep blossoming? The Wild have a core of solid veterans, but the real improvement has to come from a group of young players who are starting to make their mark. One of them, Nino Niederreiter, scored the overtime winner in Game 7 against the Colorado Avalanche in May, giving Minnesota its first series victory since 2003. Forwards Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Erik Haula are being counted on for improvement, and four of the six regular defensemen could be 24 and under.
"We have a lot of quality veterans, but you probably know what you're going to get from them," Fletcher said. "The exciting thing is the young players -- how high can they go? What's their upside? We think they're all just starting to scratch the surface of their potential, and if we can help them get to where we believe they can get to, we'll be a very competitive team for the next few years."
5. Are the Wild risking a burnout of defenseman Ryan Suter? -- No one in the League played more hockey last season than Suter, who dressed for all 82 games and averaged a mind-blowing 29:24 of ice time, a full 2:20 per night more than runner-up Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators and the most by any player in 12 years.
However, Fletcher said he's not worried about Suter wearing down despite a workload that has seen him lead the League in average ice time in each of his two seasons with the Wild.
"He's such an effortless player," Fletcher said. "He's not a physical player and he's not necessarily a player who's leading the rush offensively. He defends really well, he moves the puck really well. He's such an intelligent, intuitive player. He knows where to go and doesn't waste a lot of energy flailing around the ice."
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