This article appears in the March/April issue of Wild Magazine.
Youth is no longer an excuse for the Minnesota Wild.
Not after five consecutive playoff appearances. Not with its veteran core another year older. And certainly not with its "second wave" of talent becoming veterans themselves.
Players like Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund are just entering their primes. And despite an early season of frustrating injuries for both, the Wild's hopes for a deep playoff run could depend in large part on the two taking the next steps in their careers.
Both have shown promise.
Niederreiter has three 20-plus-goal seasons to his credit, and if he can stay healthy this season, will likely add a fourth. Granlund led the Wild in scoring last season, blowing his previous career high in points out of the water by posting 26 goals and 69 points -- the former number doubling his previous high.
It led to an expensive summer for the Wild in 2017.
"I want to prove to myself every day that I earned that contract."
-- Nino Niederreiter
The club invested multiple years and big dollars in the pair, believing each player was on the precipice of stardom. But that hasn't changed much for the two quiet, hard-working European wingers, who go about their business much the way they did before.
"It's the same attitude," said Granlund, whose 57 points this season rank second on the roster behind Eric Staal. "You try and do your best every single night and get better all the time. For me, it's not a factor at all. I go out there and play and do the best I can."
There's a reason Wild coach Bruce Boudreau at times has referred to Granlund as the club's best player.
When Granlund is playing well, the Wild's offense runs at a different level. When he's right, and confident and chipping in offense, Minnesota resembles a well-oiled machine.
"That would be accurate," Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said. "When he's going well, and he's playing 20 minutes a night, he has the puck all the time and he's controlling the play. And when he's controlling the play, it's making whoever he is playing with better."
It's no coincidence that last year during the best regular season in club history, the line of Granlund, Jason Zucker and captain Mikko Koivu was -- for a bulk of the season -- virtually unstoppable. Zucker had a breakout year offensively, while Koivu surged even as a 33-year-old, rejuvenated by the younger legs flanking him.
The trio hasn't been a staple this season. Boudreau, notorious for his willingness to scramble lines, has done just that on numerous occasions. But when nothing is clicking and he's in search of something to kick-start the club, it's often Granlund he asks to get his team going.
While injuries have limited Granlund this season -- he came to training camp with an ankle injury, then sustained a groin injury in the season opener at Detroit -- Niederreiter's battle with the injury bug has been even more frustrating.
First it was a high ankle sprain in Chicago in the third game of the season. Then it was a lower-body injury in Florida just before Christmas.
In all, the Swiss-born left wing has missed 20 games. But when he's been on the ice, he's more than held his own. In fact, had he not been hurt, Niederreiter would likely be approaching the 30-goal plateau he's envisioned himself reaching for the past two seasons.
And while some players avoid setting goals -- or at least making them public -- Niederreiter is open about his desire to not only reach 30 goals, but also do it regularly.
"He has the ability to get 30, and I think everybody sees that ability," Boudreau said. "We just need to see the consistency follow it up. If he consistently does the right things, he will score that many goals."
The injuries have been a setback for Niederreiter's checklist, but they have pushed him to new heights mentally. After a summer in which he signed a five-year contract with the Wild, rising expectations finally matching his own goal-scoring ambitions, Niederreiter hasn't let a little bad luck slow him down.
"It's very important that we make them into leaders, because they're going to drive the bus pretty soon."
-- Wild coach Bruce Boudreau
In fact, he believes the challenges he has overcome mentally will make him a better player in the future.
"I don't remember the last time I was hurt or missed a game, then all of the sudden, you have injury after injury," Niederreiter said. "I wasn't prepared for it. I didn't really know how to handle it, to be honest. It's been a huge learning process for myself."
Fortunately for Niederreiter, he doesn't lack confidence.
That's why, in the day and age of the no-trade clause, Niederreiter didn't demand one in his contract with Minnesota.
"I want to prove to myself every day that I earned that contract," Niederreiter said. "I don't want to be that piece that the team can't move because 'he has a no-trade clause.' At the end of the day, I want to play for someone who wants me and who believes in me, and the Wild giving me a five-year deal says that."
Drafted fifth overall in 2010 by the New York Islanders, Niederreiter endured a difficult first NHL foray. Selected for his goal-scoring prowess, Niederreiter had just two goals in his first 64 games in the League.
Deemed expendable by the same people who drafted him, he was traded to Minnesota for veteran winger Cal Clutterbuck and a draft pick. Niederreiter has never looked back but admitted he still plays with a chip on his shoulder.
"Everything happens for a reason," said Niederreiter, who tallied his 200th career point and 100th assist on the same play last week against Carolina. "For whatever reason, things didn't work out the way I was hoping for on Long Island. But I've got a great place now and I couldn't be happier."
Like Niederreiter, Granlund is playing with higher expectations of his own after signing a new three-year contract. The two are expected to no longer be young complementary parts.
They're expected to be building blocks.
"Especially at their age," Boudreau said. "It's very important that we make them into leaders, because they're going to drive the bus pretty soon."
Those expectations are just fine with them.
"We need to step up and try to play as good as we can, but we know we need production, too," Granlund said. "You feel that way, and it's awesome. As a hockey player, you want to be good and want to be an important piece of the puzzle."