The Minnesota Wild established a cache of young players and prospects, and have supplemented it with star additions during the past couple of years.
Minnesota's process of building toward championship contender status has been gradual, but the Wild might be almost there. The club reached the top end of the NHL's middle, securing a playoff berth in two straight seasons and winning a round in 2014.
The next step forward is into the League's elite, but that might be more difficult than the previous upward movement. There are still questions about the back end of the defense corps, and especially about who is going to be the goaltender.
Not only did the Wild knock out the Colorado Avalanche in the first round last season, but they gave a significantly better account of themselves against the Chicago Blackhawks than they did in 2013. It is a team on the rise, but how much higher they can go in 2014-15 is a difficult question to answer.
Here is the projected 2014-15 lineup for the Wild:
Zach Parise - Mikko Koivu - Charlie Coyle
Thomas Vanek - Mikael Granlund - Jason Pominville
Matt Cooke - Erik Haula - Nino Niederreiter*
Jason Zucker - Kyle Brodziak - Justin Fontaine
Cody Almond - Stephane Veilleux
Five of the top six forwards are set, with either Charlie Coyle or Nino Niederreiter as the likely sixth. Where everyone fits is a bit of an unsolved puzzle at this point. Thomas Vanek or Jason Pominville could play on the top line. Mikael Granlund could too; he filled in well for Mikko Koivu when he was injured last season.
Zach Parise has posted a Corsi for percentage of 57.1 percent and 56.9 percent when on the ice with Koivu at even strength in the past two seasons, so that's probably a good place to start. Vanek likes to play on the left side and has played with Pominville in the past.
Erik Haula had a strong postseason, and a third line featuring him and "El Nino" or Coyle should provide more offensive production than previous depth units in recent seasons. Jason Zucker has been trying to lock down a permanent spot on the roster for several seasons, and he could be running out of time with players like Zack Phillips and Brett Bulmer at training camp, and Mario Lucia and Alex Tuch in the pipeline.
Ryan Suter - Jonas Brodin
Marco Scandella - Jared Spurgeon
Keith Ballard - Christian Folin
Ryan Suter's game log is epic. He chews up ice time on a consistent basis more than any player since Chris Pronger. That said, it might be time to question what kind of effect it is his having on his performance and whether he's really a Norris Trophy-candidate type defenseman just because he plays so much.
Suter's offensive numbers have been good but not great, in line with his days in Nashville. The issue is that his puck possession numbers aren't elite, and it isn't like he's facing the toughest possible deployment like Zdeno Chara, his old pal Shea Weber or Mark Giordano did last season.
One way to help Suter could be to ease his burden, and the Wild's defense corps might be improving just in time to do that. Jared Spurgeon had a very good 2013-14, and Suter and Marco Scandella each had significantly better possession numbers when on the ice at even strength with him.
A pair of young defensemen could play a big role in shaping this group. Matt Dumba played 13 games before going to juniors last season and could push for a full-time role in camp. Christian Folin was a top college free agent in the spring and could do the same.
Is there a more unsettled situation at any position in the NHL? The Edmonton Oilers have some answers to find at center. The Buffalo Sabres have a lot of questions in a lot of places. The two differences for the Wild are they have iced a better team than those two franchises the past two seasons, and the options aren't necessarily unproven.
Niklas Backstrom had durability (and ability) issues last season. Josh Harding was one of the most amazing stories in sports in 2013, but has played very little in 2014 because of his battle with multiple sclerosis. Darcy Kuemper is young and was inconsistent in 2013-14.
Can one of the three become the established No. 1 starter? Will there be a two-man or three-man rotation? How many times will a prominent analyst speculate the Wild need to trade for a goaltender?
Strong work in goal could make the Wild a pretty scary opponent in the spring.
ALSO IN THE MIX: F Jordan Schroeder, F Zack Phillips, D Matt Dumba, D Jonathon Blum, G Josh Harding
*Restricted free agent
2014-15 FANTASY PREVIEW:
Undervalued: Josh Harding -- Despite having multiple sclerosis, Harding was still able to post Vezina Trophy-caliber numbers when he was able to take the ice for the Wild. Unfortunately, Harding ended up missing a lot more time than was expected and never made another start after Dec. 31. In his 29 games, his .933 save percentage and 1.65 goals-against average were the best in the NHL. Minnesota expects him to be ready for the 2014-15 season and despite the risk, he's certainly worth drafting based on his upside -- target rounds 8-10.
Overvalued: Ryan Suter -- Make no mistake, Suter is one of the best defenseman in the League in reality, but in fantasy, he's more of a top-15 type. He won't hurt you in any single category, but he's not in the elite group of defensemen and shouldn't be drafted before the seventh or eighth round of fantasy drafts.
Sleeper: Mikael Granlund -- After appearing in 63 games for the Wild last season, Granlund has become a bit of a household name because of his highlight-reel goals and playmaking. However, he finished with just eight goals and 41 points, and his shot on goal totals (104) will likely scare owners from drafting him. Don't fall for it. Granlund finished last year's playoffs centering the top line with Zach Parise and Jason Pominville, and could be expected to do the same for this upcoming season. There is tremendous upside here and a 65-plus point season could be in line for the 22-year-old Finn.