In the days leading up to opening night on Oct. 6 against the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, DallasStars.com's Scott Burnside will break down the Stars and their six opponents in the Central Division. Continuing our previews today: the Minnesota Wild.
Sept. 29 -- Winnipeg Jets
Sept. 28 -- St. Louis Blues
Sept. 27 -- Colorado Avalanche
Minnesota Wild: 49-25-8; lost in the first round
A tale of two teams: The 2016-17 Minnesota Wild were really the story of two teams -- or maybe it was one team playing two different seasons. For most of the first two-thirds of the regular season, the Wild were comfortably atop the Central Division, and at, or near the top of, most important statistical categories, including goals allowed per game and goals scored per game, and both sides of the special-teams ledger. But the Wild saw the floor fall out on their season during a 2-8-2 stretch in March that seemed to zap them of their confidence heading into the playoffs. They allowed Chicago to overtake them down the stretch and, despite finishing with a four-game win streak, they ran into a hot goaltender in Jake Allen in the first round, and the Wild were dumped by St. Louis in five games, blunting what had been a season of such promise and sending them into the coming season under an ominous cloud.
Youth movement: The biggest key for the Wild seems to be in putting 'the slide' in the rear-view mirror and, to that end, look for younger players like Mikael Granlund, who led the Wild with 69 points in a breakout season for the 24-year-old, to be looking to build on that success -- especially having signed a nice three-year deal worth $17.25 million in the offseason. Nino Niederreiter (25 goals) and Jason Zucker (22) goals both hit career-highs in that category, and Charlie Coyle had a career-best 56 points. Those three foundation parts of the Wild offensive unit, along with promising rookie Joel Eriksson-Ek (although he was pushed in camp by Luke Kunin) and young defenders Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin, have to take an even bigger bite this season.
Veterans can still guide way: Okay, so lots of good kids but the identity of this team is still in its high-profile veteran players, including captain Mikko Koivu -- who got a well-earned nod as a Frank J. Selke Trophy finalist as one of the game's top two-way forwards -- Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Eric Staal, and returning for a second-go round in his home state, Matt Cullen, who will turn 41 before the season is a month old. Staal is in good health after a nasty spill into the boards in the Wild's final playoff game, and he's coming off a renaissance season with 65 points. Staal and Cullen won a Cup together in Carolina and the hope is that if youth carries them to a sixth straight postseason berth, the veterans can show the way in post-season. One warning sign: The slow return to action during training camp of Parise, who has battled injury issues in recent years, and whose gritty style of play depends on being at full strength. His availability for the start of the season remains fluid.
About those Cup-or-bust expectations: Good thing there's no pressure being heaped on a team that hasn't gone beyond the second round of the playoffs since a fluke run to the Western Conference final in 2003. But there was owner Craig Leipold telling reporters in Minnesota that nothing less than a Stanley Cup will be acceptable. Okay. Whatever. Not saying the Wild couldn't win a Cup. The Western Conference is a crapshoot, and the Wild do begin the season with five of their first six games on the road. So just not sure how that kind of commentary is helpful.
No goaltending issues here: No one should be doubting the reality of Devan Dubnyk as an elite netminder. Starting with his arrival in Minnesota in early 2015, Dubnyk earned himself a Vezina Trophy nomination that spring and then followed it up with 72 wins over the next two seasons. He had a .925 save percentage in the playoffs last spring. The key for the Wild this season will be in getting the workhorse Dubnyk adequate relief, and to that end, they moved on from the up-and-down Darcy Keumper and brought in former San Jose backup Alex Stalock. If Stalock can ease the burden on Dubnyk, that makes the Wild a more dangerous team come April.
We like the Wild's mix of veteran savvy and youthful talent (as long as that youthful talent keeps bringing it), and we like the Wild to sneak into a playoff spot next spring as a wild-card team.
Wild finish fourth in the Central Division.
This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB, and listen to his Burnside Chats podcast here.