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Strong finish has Wild thinking 'we're a contender'

by Jon Lane / NHL.com

NHL.com continues its preview of the 2015-16 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout August.

Optimism was high after a 28-9-3 finish helped the Minnesota Wild climb from 12th in the Western Conference to the first wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They found a No. 1 goalie in Devan Dubnyk. They defeated the St. Louis Blues, the Central Division champions, in the Western Conference First Round and were poised to finally knock off the Chicago Blackhawks.

But the Wild were unable to turn their second-half run into their first trip to the Western Conference Final since 2003. Minnesota was eliminated by Chicago for the third straight postseason, this time in a four-game sweep.

"Unfortunately, we ended the season on a pretty big downer," Wild forward Zach Parise said. "It's about managing those ebbs and flows. I think we're all excited to start again and almost build off the kind of good hockey we were playing the second half of the year. Just because we lost four in a row doesn't mean you just throw everything out the window. We still have a good team. We know we have to be better."

The Wild's attempt to reach new heights begins with virtually the same team that had 100 points last season, second most in their history, and seven players signed through at least 2018-19. Forwards Mikael Granlund, Nate Prosser, Ryan Carter and Erik Haula, and defenseman Christian Folin, were re-signed. Unrestricted free agent defenseman Mike Reilly was signed out of the University of Minnesota after his draft rights with the Columbus Blue Jackets expired.

Because a salary cap-strapped roster prevented general manager Chuck Fletcher from adding more free agents, the ascension must happen from within. The Wild are about $2.5 million under the $71.4 million NHL salary cap, according to war-on-ice.com.

"A big part of our growth is going to come from our young players," coach Mike Yeo said. "We have a very good young core of hockey players that we believe as they get better our hockey team will get better. They'll play important roles: special teams and offensive and defensive situations. We're pushing these guys to get better, and as they get better our team will get better."

They'll also have a full season with Dubnyk, a Vezina Trophy finalist who signed a six-year, $26 million contract on July 4 after going 27-9-2 with a 1.78 goals-against average, .936 save percentage and five shutouts following his arrival from the Arizona Coyotes on Jan. 15.

"I'm going to ask the same of him that we asked from him last year when we made the trade for him," Yeo said. "Obviously his numbers were heroic. What he did was, looking back on it, may seem heroic, but we asked him not to come in and try to be a hero. We didn't need him to be a savior for our team. We needed him to do his job really well and we knew that we had a group that could play a good game in front of him to give him the support that he needed. It clicked."

Defenseman Ryan Suter, 30, returns to anchor a unit with five players 25 or younger (six if Reilly, 22, makes the roster). Suter averaged an NHL-high 29:03 of ice time while leading Wild defensemen with 38 points in 77 games. Yeo will monitor Suter's minutes, especially if Reilly makes the team, but to a point.

"He's still a world-class player," Yeo said. "I kind of cringe and get a little bit defensive when all of a sudden everybody thinks that maybe we just have to drop him down. He's not going to play 29-30 minutes every night, that's for sure, and there will be some nights where we want him out there that much. We have to make sure we manage it the right way."

The pieces are in place in Minnesota. Now the Wild must find a way to get not just over the hump, but over the top.

"We think we're competitive, we think we're a contender," Yeo said. "But our League is so tough that I think it would be complete ignorance on our part if we thought that we weren't going to have to work and compete extremely hard and face some tough times next season just to make the playoffs again. That's the reality of our League and playing in the Western Conference, and playing in our division. We know we're going to have to be at our best and we won't be able to get away with anything less than that."

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