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30 in 30: Core in place, Wild look for playoff run

by Staff Writer / Minnesota Wild

After failing to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a fourth straight season in 2011-12, the Minnesota Wild were willing to do whatever it took to end the frustrating drought.

Owner Craig Leipold spent nearly $200 million to land the two biggest prizes on the free-agent market that summer: left wing Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter.

Suter averaged 27:16 of ice time per game (tops in the League) and was a finalist for the Norris Trophy in 2012-13. Parise led the Wild with 38 points (18 goals, 20 assists) in 48 games. Each played a pivotal role in helping the Wild clinch a playoff berth for the first time since 2008.

"We were fortunate to sign both Zach and Ryan," Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher said. "Looking back now, in hindsight with a year removed, I can't even say how lucky we are that we did sign them. You hear horror stories of all these big free-agent signings that don't pan out, and we signed arguably the best defenseman in the League and one of the best goal scorers in the League. Both players lived up to expectations. They're great people."

The Wild's return to the postseason was short-lived. Minnesota was ousted by the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Quarterfinals in five games, scoring seven goals. The team obviously was frustrated, but the emergence of defenseman Jonas Brodin and forwards Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker has everyone within the organization excited about what lies ahead.

As the youngest defenseman in the League (19), Brodin averaged more than 23 minutes of ice time per game and was named to the All-Rookie Team. Coyle had 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 37 games, and Zucker had a goal and an assist in the playoffs.

"I think a lot of players did get a lot of good experience," Parise said after completing his first season with his new club. "You don't find every year where you get a guy like Brodin comes in and is a top-pairing defenseman as a young guy. And then Charlie comes in and plays on the top line … you don't get that. I think we should be really excited about what those guys have done for us and what it looks like going forward."

Coyle told, "Chicago's a great team and they deserved it. That's obviously every team's goal, to make the playoffs and have a chance to win the Cup. We didn't get out of the first round, but a lot of guys on our team, they had been in the League for years and that was the first time they made the playoffs."

Seeking stability in goal, the Wild did not allow veteran netminder Niklas Backstrom to test the free-agent market. Backstrom, 35, signed a three-year, $10.25 million contract on June 24 to remain in Minnesota. He started 41 games for the Wild last season and went 24-15-3 with a 2.48 goals-against average and .909 save percentage. Backstrom, who started 27 of the final 28 games of the regular season, missed the Wild's five playoff games after sustaining a lower-body injury during warm-ups prior to Game 1 in Chicago and underwent surgery to repair a sports hernia in May.

"Our first priority was to resign Nik," Fletcher said. "He's been a model of consistency over his career. We found a way to give him some security in terms of a three-year deal and in exchange he was willing to work with us in terms of our [salary-cap] situation and give us a cap number that is very workable for not just this year, but going forward. It's a win-win."

In search of more size and grit, Fletcher was busy at the 2013 NHL Draft and when the market opened for free agency on July 5. At the draft, he traded popular right wing Cal Clutterbuck and a third-round pick to the New York Islanders in exchange for 20-year-old Nino Niederreiter. The 6-foot-2, 208-pound Swiss wing is coming off a solid season in the American Hockey League, where he had 28 goals and 22 assists in 74 games for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Niederreiter, the fifth pick at the 2010 NHL Draft, is expected to vie for a roster spot in Minnesota when training camp opens next month.

"He's a young guy who is a proven goal-scorer at every level short of the NHL so far," Fletcher told the Wild website. "We expect him to contribute at the NHL level in the near future."

Niederreiter said, "I'm very excited to get a new start and a new opportunity. Scoring goals and making the right play in the right situation, that's kind of my game. I'm a power forward and I'm going to bring that to the table."

Fletcher added experience to his blue line when he signed defenseman Keith Ballard to a two-year deal July 4. Ballard, 30, struggled over the past two seasons with the Vancouver Canucks, but Fletcher is hopeful the Baudette, Minn., native will rediscover his game.

"We're pretty young on defense, so we wanted to add another quality player," Fletcher said. "Certainly, Keith is a player that's played close to 550 games in the NHL and brings a lot of experience to the table. But, he's a guy that can skate, he can move the puck and he competes. A few years ago in Florida, he was a really good two-way defenseman in this League. We're pretty confident we can get his game back and he can get his game back to where it was before. We're excited about it. He's a good hockey player."

After trading Clutterbuck to the Islanders, Fletcher knew he was going to have to find someone who could help in the hits department and on the penalty kill. On July 5, the Wild signed left wing Matt Cooke to a three-year, $7.5 million contract. Cooke, 34, had 21 points (eight goals, 13 assists) in 48 games for the Pittsburgh Penguins last season and finished fifth on the club with 97 hits. He helped the Penguins win the Stanley Cup in 2009.

"I've played a lot of playoff games, I've got a lot of experience," Cooke said. "I feel like I've excelled at the penalty kill over the last couple of years, which I want to come in and help do that. I pride myself on there not being any easy ice out there. I want to bring a physical element and get in the forecheck and hopefully create space for guys as well."

Needing to get under the salary cap, Fletcher allowed forwards Pierre-Marc Bouchard (Islanders) and Matt Cullen (Nashville Predators) to leave the club via free agency, and the GM traded right wing Devin Setoguchi to the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for a second-round pick in the 2014 NHL Draft. Minnesota also used a compliance buyout on defenseman Tom Gilbert, which freed up $4 million in cap space.

With so many young players ready to make an impact, Fletcher was comfortable making the moves.

"We like our mix," Fletcher said. "We have a good mix of veteran players and young players up front. We like our defense with the addition of Ballard. Certainly, with Nik Backstrom and Josh Harding and the emergence of Darcy Kuemper last year, we like our depth in goal. Every team could always use upgrades, but right now we're really happy with where we're at. There will be some good competition in camp and we're excited to see where some of our young players will sort out."

Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL

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Additions: RW Nino Niederreiter, D Keith Ballard, LW Matt Cooke, D Jonathon Blum

Subtractions: RW Cal Clutterbuck, C Pierre-Marc Bouchard, C Matt Cullen, RW Devin Setoguchi, D Tom Gilbert

UFAs: D Brett Clark, G Jeff Deslauriers, G Dennis Endras, C Jarod Palmer, C David McIntyre, C Joel Broda

Promotion candidates: D Mathew Dumba, C Zack Phillips

Author: Brian Compton | Deputy Managing Editor

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