ST. PAUL -- For the past few seasons, the Minnesota Wild was waiting for its crop of young talent to grow into a core the team can build on for years to come. Looking back, the Wild might pinpoint 2016-17 as the year the future became the present.
Several players 25 and under had career seasons as the Wild set franchise records in wins and points. Defensemen Matt Dumba (22) and Jonas Brodin (23) had their best offensive seasons yet. Despite encountering hot and cold streaks, Charlie Coyle (25) tallied 56 points in his fifth season in a row of increasing his year-over-year points total. Jason Zucker (25) doubled the 23 points he netted in 2015-16, garnering 25 goals and 47 points this season.
Perhaps the two most impactful members of Minnesota's young core this season were Mikael Granlund (25) and Nino Niederreiter (24), who will both become restricted free agents this summer.
Granlund led the Wild in points this season with 69 and came second in goals (behind Eric Staal) with 26. Niederreiter tallied one fewer goal than Granlund, and his 57 points were the club's fourth-most.
But the Wild's first-round Stanley Cup Playoffs series against the St. Louis Blues saw both Granlund and Niederreiter stymied by St. Louis' big, powerful defensemen. Neither forward managed to put any pucks past Blues goaltender Jake Allen; Niederreiter had one assist and Granlund had two.
"[Granlund]'s a guy that, as we spoke this time last year, had questions about whether he was even going to become a top-line NHL player. He became a top-line NHL player, and when you're a top-line NHL player you get top-line defensive coverage, and I think this was a great growing experience for him," said Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher at his end-of-season press conference Tuesday. "He didn't have any time and space. They defended him hard. They put guys on him. They put their best defensive players out against him. They hit him every time they could.
"You know, he played a lot of minutes this year, starting in World Cup. But he competed right to the end. I think he'll take some things out of this. He'll have to learn ways to create more time and space for himself. I just think he's such a competitive and such a smart player, he'll learn."
Fletcher also revealed that Granlund had been playing in the postseason with a broken right hand, but the forward refused to use the injury as an excuse.
"I could play with that. I had no problems with that. Just a little sore," Granlund said. "Everybody has something going on. It's just a part of playing."
In addition to his career season, Granlund was also named a Lady Byng Memorial Trophy finalist for the first time in his career. The award, which goes to the NHL player who combines gentlemanly conduct with high playing ability, signals that Granlund has arrived on a League-wide stage seven years after he was selected by the Wild in the first round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.
Video: Granlund Injury and Niederreiter's Potential
When discussing Niederreiter's performance this season, Fletcher called him a goal-scorer with "streaky" tendencies, like many goal-scorers across the League.
"He's been streaky before. He'll be streaky again. He gets hot. He gets cold," Fletcher said. "I don't know that he's that much different than a lot of goal-scorers. He certainly made a lot of big plays in Game 5 there and arguably put a puck in the net that maybe could've counted and certainly made a play on Koivu's power-play goal."
Fletcher was mum on his plans for the new contracts Granlund and Niederreiter will command going into the 2017-18 season. The Wild must decide before July 1 if it wants to re-sign the forwards to long-term contracts, issue them qualifying offers or let an arbitrator decide on fair salaries for each.
One thing is certain, though: Granlund and Niederreiter's career years are evidence that the young core that the Wild has been waiting on has arrived.
"We were a remarkably consistent team," Fletcher said. "That whole group of kids [age] 24 to 26 all took a step, not even just in terms of production where they had career years, but I think you look at a couple of them in particular and Granlund and [Jared] Spurgeon have begun to take on leadership responsibilities, which is very important.
"To me we took a lot of steps this year. … You look over 82 games and we took big strides and were one of the more competitive teams in the League. There's no reason we won't continue to be that way."