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Healthy Zucker, developing Dumba are Wild X-factors

by Dan Myers

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- In order for the Minnesota Wild to advance past the Western Conference Second Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and conquer the Chicago Blackhawks, who have eliminated them in each of the past three postseasons, it will require career seasons from their young forwards, the continued development of youth on the blue line and perhaps a rebound campaign from a veteran or two.

Here are the X-factors that may decide whether the Wild can take the next step:

Keeping Jason Zucker healthy: One of the bright spots last season for the Wild was the emergence of Zucker, who burst onto the scene with a career-best 21 goals in 51 games. Zucker has shown a goal-scorer's touch in 98 games over parts of four seasons with the Wild (29 goals), but his ability to put the puck in the net was on full display in 2014-15, his first full NHL season.

The problem the 23-year-old forward has encountered during that time has been staying on the ice. A leg injury cost him the final three months of the 2013-14 season, and a broken collarbone last February robbed him of the final two months of the regular season.

If Zucker can stay healthy, he could be in line for a bigger role. He saw little time on the power play last season, and as a result, only one of his 21 goals came with the extra man. A healthy Zucker is a good bet to see significant time on the power play and even more opportunities to build on his breakout season.

"He was a very important part of our team last year, but I believe he has another step yet to take," captain Mikko Koivu said. "We have a lot of those guys, it's great to see. I think there is a bright future here. He can help us even more than he did last year."

Development of Matt Dumba: Although his first cup of coffee in the NHL last season didn't last long, Dumba made a major impact the second time around.

"I'm just coming to camp trying to be the best player I can possibly be," Dumba said. "I'm trying to build on my potential that I believe in, and I hope other guys believe in."

Dumba broke training camp with the Wild last season and played in 20 games through November. Over that span, he had a goal, three assists and a minus-4 rating, looking every bit a 20-year-old defenseman trying to make it for the first time in the NHL.

A trip to the American Hockey League, where Dumba spent the next six weeks, did him wonders. In Des Moines, he was able to play big minutes and in all situations. He earned a trip to the AHL All-Star Game and returned to the Wild in mid-January a completely different player.

Over the final 38 games of the regular season, Dumba scored seven goals, assisted on five others and was plus-17. Injuries and illness on the blue line forced Dumba to play increased minutes, and he responded.

The 2014-15 season also afforded Dumba his first taste of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, where he played in all 10 games, scoring two goals and four points. That experience, along with his dynamic second half, have the Wild thinking big things are coming for the seventh pick in the 2012 NHL Draft.

"I'm not going to take anything for granted, that's for sure," Dumba said. "We have a lot of depth here on defense and all of our positions, so I have to do my job and be the best I can be."

Consistency: The Wild last season performed a lot like a roller coaster, getting off to a decent start, hitting rock bottom in mid-January and then becoming the League's best team over the final eight weeks of the regular season after trading for goaltender Devan Dubnyk.

And while the Wild will accept a playoff berth any way they can get it, the players realize getting there with a more even-keeled, consistent path may help produce better results in the postseason.

"The more even we can be, the better off we're going to be," Koivu said. "That's something that we realized last year."

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