With the Minnesota Wild's 2015-16 season beginning on Thursday with a game against the Avalanche in Colorado, Wild.com is breaking down different elements of the team entering the season.
Read part 1 of the preview: Forwards
Like the forward position, there will be plenty of continuity among the Wild's defensive corps. As far as games played, the top-seven Wild defenseman from 2014-15 are all returning, led by perennial workhorse Ryan Suter.
When things began to click for Minnesota last season, a major part of the renaissance was stingy defense. During Wild's first 42 games of the season, they were 29th in the League, allowing 2.9 even-strength goals per game. In the final 40 games, they were first overall, allowing 1.6 even-strength goals per game.
"I'm not exactly sure, but I think down the stretch, as a team we were playing a lot tighter defensively, and we weren't giving up as many quality scoring chances," Jared Spurgeon said. "We also started finishing our chances as well. Last year was good down the stretch, but it's a new year, and we have to start from scratch again."
Of the seven returning Wild defenseman, six were positive possession players, with Spurgeon leading the way with a shot-attempts percentage of 53.76. After spending last season primarily paired with Marco Scandella, Spurgeon spent training camp playing to the right of Ryan Suter.
"With the learning curve for systems, it's easier to get into practices knowing what the expectations are," Spurgeon said before camp opened. "For defensive partners, you're not sure who you're going to be playing with, but everyone has played some games last year, so you're going to be able to know the system and know those retrieval calls."
With Spurgeon, a right-handed shot, playing on his strong side with Suter, a left-handed shot, the Wild coaches said it could benefit Suter offensively.
"That could open some things up through the neutral zone, but I would say more specifically the offensive zone — getting some pucks coming across to him, having somebody that would be on their forehand, that could help him and benefit him to create a little bit more offense," Head Coach Mike Yeo said.
Suter led all defensemen with 38 points, and tied Pominville with a team-leading 36 assists. Suter, also averaged the most ice-time per game in 2014-15, and has played more than any other skater over the past three seasons, could see those minutes monitored.
No matter how he's deployed though, Yeo said Suter would still be used quite often.
"To drop Ryan Suter's minutes considerably would be pretty foolish," Yeo said. "He's one of the top defensemen in the National Hockey League, and we have to make sure we're utilizing him the best we can."
The Wild will also lean on its two of its younger defensemen, and two player who made up a pairing in preseason in Jonas Brodin (22 years old), and Matt Dumba (21). Each of those players was strong in five-on-five play last season: Dumba was on the ice for 40 even-strength goals for versus 26 against; Brodin was on the ice for 58 even-strength goals for versus 38 against.
Rounding out the Wild's blue line in training camp was Scandella and Christian Folin. Yeo said multiple times during training camp he was pleased with Folin's play.
"For him, what we're looking for is something a little bit different," Yeo said last week in Duluth. "He's a heavy body, and he's a guy that we think has the ability to be a real strong defender, a physical presence. But with that, he has to be able to play the game the way we want it to be played, and a huge part of our game is execution, transition, and the way that he's been handling the puck coming out of our defensive zone through the neutral zone has really helped us."