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Wild count on youth, new system to build momentum

by Dan Myers

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- After a four-year absence from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Minnesota Wild finally returned there last season.

Between trips to the postseason, a number of changes took place in Minnesota. One of the most stable franchises in the NHL saw ownership switch hands, a new look in the front office and a pair of coaching changes. That half-decade of building finally culminated in a return to the playoffs.

Now, the goal is to get back there.

General manager Chuck Fletcher started by building through the NHL Draft, a process which has finally started paying dividends. Last season, the first wave of the Wild's highly touted prospects arrived in the Twin Cities, and the continued development of players like Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin, Jason Zucker and Mikael Granlund will go a long ways towards keeping the team in the playoff hunt this season and beyond.

Jonas Brodin
Jonas Brodin
Defense - MIN
G: 2 | A: 9 | P: 11
SOG: 51 | +/-: 3
Throw in winger Nino Niederreiter, acquired at the 2013 draft in a trade from the New York Islanders for Cal Clutterbuck, and the Wild have a number of young players on entry-level contracts that need to keep progressing.

A full year of winger Jason Pominville will help too. Acquired at the trade deadline, Pominville scored nine points in 10 games for Minnesota before a concussion knocked him out for six games, including three playoff contests.

"I'm excited for Jason, to play with him and for him to be around here," Zach Parise said. "He started off really well and then he got hurt, and I think that what everyone remembers is him being hurt and kind of forget how good of a player he is and how big of an impact he can have on our team.

"To get him for a full year and hopefully more years too, he's going to fit in real nice."

The Wild also swapped out lineup regulars in Clutterbuck and defenseman Tom Gilbert for Matt Cooke and Keith Ballard -- moves which the team believes better balances its lineup.

The team also bolstered its blue line depth with the signing of defenseman Jonathon Blum, a 2007 first-round pick of the Nashville Predators, to a two-way deal. He'll start the year with Iowa of the American Hockey League, but gives Minnesota important depth in case of injuries or ineffectiveness.

Besides lineup changes, Wild coach Mike Yeo hopes some subtle system changes will make Minnesota a better team this season. His goal is increased puck possession. Instead of crossing center ice and simply dumping and chasing, a system that requires solid forecheckers, Yeo hopes a puck possession game will suit the Wild's skill players better.

"What we're looking for is to take situations where we have in the past just put a puck into the zone and gotten after it, can we create more situations where the initial rush is not there?" Yeo said. "But because of our puck support, because of the way we execute through the neutral zone, we can take something that might not be there and create something from it."

With the super-skilled first line of Parise and Pominville centered by Mikko Koivu, as well as the remaining presence of former 50-goal scorer Dany Heatley and the kids Minnesota hopes are ready to step up, it could be an effective strategy.

It's a system predicated on a great first pass out of the defensive zone. With Suter and Brodin playing big minutes, and guys like Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella also solid puck-movers, the Wild are well-equipped to make the adjustment.

"Coming out of defensive zone coverage has to be a big part for us," Yeo said. "The way we come out of our coverage and the way we go back and retrieve pucks, we definitely want to execute and come out with it on our stick. Our defensemen have always done a very good job of that as far as I'm concerned."

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