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Settling goaltending issues, Vanek's role key for Wild

by John Kreiser continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

All the arrows are pointing up for the Minnesota Wild.

The Wild have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in back-to-back seasons, something they had managed only once before since entering the NHL in 2000. They won a playoff series last spring for the first time since advancing to the Western Conference Final in 2003. They also have an intriguing mix of veterans and talented young players.

"Clearly we're trending in the right direction," general manager Chuck Fletcher said. "If I'm not mistaken, only 11 teams have made the playoffs in each of the past two seasons and we're one of them, so that's a small step in the right direction."

Here are three things the Wild must do to make 2014-15 a success:

1. Settle their goaltending issues -- Minnesota had five goalies win at least one regular-season game last season. Two veterans who missed the second half of last season with injuries, Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding, were expected to battle for the No. 1 job in training camp along with Darcy Kuemper, a rookie who stepped in at midseason when injuries struck and helped save the season.

But Harding broke his right foot just before training camp and is out indefinitely, and Kuemper, a restricted free agent, didn't agree to a new contract until Sept. 18. That led the Wild to invite veteran Ilya Bryzgalov, who finished the playoffs as the starter, to come to camp on a tryout contract.

Backstrom and Kuemper appear to be the main contestants for the starting job, with Bryzgalov as an insurance policy.

"I'm planning on staying healthy for the year and I'm sure Nik is," Kuemper said. "And [Bryzgalov] is back here too. I don't want to jump the gun and say it's going to be like that because, you know, it's a good opportunity for our team here and I'm sure we all just want to help the team as best we can."

2. Find the best way to use Thomas Vanek -- The Wild put almost all of their free-agent eggs in one basket, signing the former University of Minnesota star to a three-year contract reportedly worth $19.5 million.

Vanek's regular position is left wing, but Zach Parise, arguably the Wild's best player, also plays the left side. Yeo said he'll spend training camp mixing and matching to see which groupings have the best chemistry.

"He has the ability to bring out more offense in the players he plays with because of the way he plays in the offensive zone," Yeo said of Vanek. "We think it's going to be a really good fit no matter who he plays with. He's going to be a top-six forward for us and we believe we have more weapons in our top six where we can mix and match a little bit more. Hopefully we find chemistry with one group and they just stay together during the course of the year."

Vanek showed some chemistry with center Mikko Koivu early in camp, though Yeo wouldn't guarantee they would skate together when the puck drops for the regular season Oct. 9 against the Colorado Avalanche.

3. Find a workable third defensive pairing -- The Wild have a solid top-four on defense, with Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella.

But the other two slots are wide open. Keith Ballard, Christian Folin, Jonathon Blum, and 2012 first-round pick (No. 7) Matt Dumba all figure to get a chance during training camp. Dumba is No. 32 on the Top 60 prospect ranking; Folin is No. 54.

Fletcher said the increased depth on defense means talented younger players like Dumba, 20, and Folin, 23, won't have to be rushed into the lineup until they're ready to perform at the NHL level.

"As the depth of the team has improved, the need to rush young players to the NHL has decreased," he said. "We're fortunate that our depth is better, and when a player is ready he'll make our team. But if he needs a little more seasoning, we have that option."

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