The Minnesota Wild are returning virtually the same group that raced from an under-.500 team on Jan. 13 to the first wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Western Conference and a six-game win against the Central Division champion St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference First Round.
The Wild, whose postseason ended with a four-game sweep in the second round against the Chicago Blackhawks, are likely to contend again in the competitive Central, but what's unknown is if standing pat will result in them improving.
Here are three questions facing the Wild this season:
Is Devan Dubnyk the real deal? Dubnyk was rewarded with a six-year, $26 million contract after going 27-9-2 with five shutouts, a 1.78 goals-against average and .936 save percentage while playing in 39 of the Wild's final 40 games last season. Now it's up to the Vezina Trophy finalist to justify that faith and prove he's not a fluke after showing signs of fatigue in the postseason. After stopping 66 of the final 68 shots he faced in the first round, Dubnyk was 0-4 with a 2.81 GAA and .901 save percentage against the Blackhawks.
"He's 29 years old. He's entering the prime of his career. He's had some good seasons [with the Edmonton Oilers] and had a great season this year," general manager Chuck Fletcher told the Star Tribune after Dubnyk signed. "We're not asking him to duplicate what he did this year every year. Maybe that's not realistic, but we believe he can be a good goaltender in this league. He's right at the stage of his career where he's ready to take off."
Who steps up at center? Wild centers were among the least productive (49 goals) in the NHL last season. Minnesota is counting on top-line center Mikael Granlund (eight goals, 31 assists, 39 points) to take the next step after signing a two-year, $6 million contract.
Behind Granlund, however, are questions. Captain Mikko Koivu scored 14 goals last season and one in 10 playoff games, and Erik Haula split time at fourth-line center and as a healthy scratch. Prospect Tyler Graovac led Iowa of the American Hockey League in scoring and may be in the mix for a full-time role, which could shift third-line center Charlie Coyle to wing.
Can the power play be fixed? Although the Wild converted on 33.3 percent of their chances in their first-round win against the Blues, it was a big problem in the regular season, finishing 27th at 15.8 percent. More production is needed from two players on the first unit: Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville. Of Vanek's 21 goals, five were on the power play, his fewest in an NHL season. Pominville scored 18 goals (three on the power play), his lowest full-season total since his rookie season of 2005-06.
"We know that we have a group that's better than where we were in the standings last year in terms of our power-play ranking," coach Mike Yeo said. "But we're also not going to sit around and just expect that we're going to jump up to the best power play in the League. We'd like to be, but there is a lot of things that go into it. Some of that is personnel, and some of that is getting that personnel on the same page and doing the same thing."