Minnesota Wild training camp, presented by Andersen Windows, opens the doors of Xcel Energy Center to the public today for an open practice. So, Wild.com thought it would be a good idea to give fans, new and old to the team, five things to watch for today and at training camp.
On July 1, the first day of the NHL Free Agent Frenzy, the Wild inked forward Thomas Vanek to a three-year contract. The 30-year-old gives the Wild another high-end skill player amongst its top six forwards. Vanek has been an elite offensive talent since breaking into the NHL in 2005. Since then, he’s the NHL’s eighth-leading goal scorer (277). During yesterday’s scrimmage and practice, he was on the left wing with Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle. If they stay together, with their combined size and ability to protect the puck along the boards, we could see a tornado of offensive-zone cycling. We’ll see how long Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo keeps them together, or if he tries to shuffle the lines throughout camp.
The forward’s biggest impact might be on the power play. Since 2005, he’s third in the NHL in power play tallies (113). On the man advantage, Vanek does his finest work in the slot and is one of the best in the League at redirecting shots from the point. His size allows him to hold off defenders in tight quarters and he can fire hard, accurate shots off quickly before defenders have a chance to react. As a right-handed shot, he could fit in nicely on an overload power play, with a combination of Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise or Mikael Granlund setting up on the right boards.
Throughout the summer and coming into camp, the pressing question on the collective mind of Wild fans was goaltending. As the calendar turned to September, Niklas Backstrom was coming off an injury-plagued year, Josh Harding missed the second half of last season as he battled with multiple sclerosis and Darcy Kuemper was still unsigned. Then, worse news hit, as Harding fractured his ankle. To help alleviate the goaltending situation, the club invited Ilya Bryzgalov, who played well for the team after being acquired before the Trade Deadline last season, to camp on a pro tryout on Wednesday. Then on Thursday night, the club and Kuemper agreed to a two-year contact. All of a sudden, the team’s goaltending outlook feels much better.
Last year, Backstrom was shut down towards the end of the season and underwent core muscle surgery. During informal captains’ practices and first day of camp, Backstrom looks like he’s moving well. Kuemper said he has been skating regularly in preparation of the year as he and the Wild worked on a deal. Bryzgalov has no expectations and is looking to help out during camp, and seems willing to wait and see where the tryout takes him. Wild Head Coach is keeping an open mind with his netminders at camp.
“I can probably tell you more (about the goaltenders) as camp goes on,” Yeo said yesterday. “Two, three days and we’ll start have a better feel and once we start getting into games we’ll have a much better feel after that.”
For the Wild to take the next step in the tough Central Division, the club will need its developing youngsters to take another step forward. Last year, we saw glimpses of greatness amongst the team’s youth. Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Justin Fontaine, Erik Haula and Jonas Brodin all had moments of brilliance during the regular season and playoffs. Now, it becomes a matter of doing it night in and night out on a regular basis—consistency is the mark of a true pro and a sign of maturity.
Of the group, who will make the leap from potential to essential in the club’s lineup? If all six can take on an expanded role this season, the club will be a difficult matchup for any team in the Western Conference.
Speaking of youngster trying to take the next step, Minnesota has a trio of fresh defensemen trying to make the club this season. Straight from the Traverse City Prospects Tournament, Matt Dumba, Christian Folin and Gustav Olofsson are here to make an impression on the Wild brass and make the team out of camp. According to Assistant General Manager Brent Flahr, all three had strong performances at the Michigan tourney. I spoke with all three yesterday, and they all agreed that it was good to get some actual game reps before attending the Wild’s camp.
While they are all fighting for a roster spot, it is a friendly competition, as they have bonded and become friends through summer Development Camp and the tourney. They said that they push each other in practices, but are supportive of one another. If one fails, the others are there to pick him up. If one succeeds, the others are there to celebrate with him. All three have the potential to become teammates in Minnesota one day and possibly sooner, with the club’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Iowa Wild. However, during training camp, they are all trying prove to the Wild brass that they are ready for the NHL this season.
At camp this year, the bench boss split the players into three teams, as opposed to two groups last season. Yeo is looking for more reps and playing more game-like situations during practice, so the players can get their timing back a little quicker. The change is because he hasn’t like the club’s start to the season in recent years.
“Just looking at our starts the last few years, we’ve had so-so starts,” Yeo said. “We felt we needed to try something different to see if we could get us off to a better start earlier in the season.”
It looks like the club responded in turn, as yesterday’s scrimmage between Groups A and B was a physical and intense contest. Players were finishing checks and battling like it was a regular season game.
“What you’re looking for, obviously, is what kind of shape the guys come into camp and what kind of focus they have as far as the intensity they’re ready to bring, the work they’re ready to bring,” Yeo said.
After the club’s disappointing loss in Game 6 in the Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it looks like the Wild came back hungry and ready to drop the puck.