The Minnesota Wild's summer was highlighted by the signings of Zach Parise
and Ryan Suter
, the top two free agents on the market. The question for the fall and winter is exactly what effect the newcomers will have on the team.
Though the Wild's forward corps is deeper and has an abundance of prospects with offensive flair who may be able to step right in, no one knows whether the team will resemble coach Mike Yeo's hard-driving squad that was at the top of the league in December, or the one that struggled in the second half.
Here are the six most pressing questions for the Wild:
1. Will the arrival of Parise and Suter mean a return to the playoffs?
Championships are never won in the offseason, but there is the temptation to instantly anoint the Wild as a playoff team because of their free-agent bonanza.
The Wild should undoubtedly be better than the team that averaged a League-low 2.02 goals per game last season. Parise is a consistent 30-goal scorer, and his presence should make life easier for two-time 50-goal man Dany Heatley, who struggled in his first season in Minnesota but was the Wild's 2011-12 MVP, according to coach Mike Yeo. Heatley and Parise are likely to be paired with captain Mikko Koivu, who was among the Wild's legion of walking wounded last season.
The team's second line could feature slick-handed rookie Mikael Granlund, solid scorer Devin Setoguchi and either a healthy Pierre-Marc Bouchard or one of many talented prospects, and there's increased depth on the bottom two lines.
But the Wild face a tough task to get back into the top eight in the Western Conference. In their own division, the Northwest, the Vancouver Canucks are coming off back-to-back Presidents' Trophies, four teams in the Central Division had 100 points last season and both teams in the conference finals (Phoenix and Los Angeles) came from the Pacific Division.
Yeo realizes his new star duo now casts a brighter, hotter light on the club.
"The reason we are all sitting here is that we want to win a Stanley Cup," he said at Parise and Suter's introduction. "You can talk about pressure, and to me, that just sounds like it's a negative thing. I think it's a good thing. It's going to change the way we view ourselves, what we're capable of. And now with these guys coming in, we believe that we're that much closer. We know that there's still a lot of work to do. But to me, it's much more excitement instead of pressure."
2. Who's on D?
Suter put up 46 points last season in Nashville – but he was playing with First-Team All-Star Shea Weber. Generating that kind of production in Minnesota won't be easy – Suter's point total was twice that of Jared Spurgeon, the Wild's top-scoring defenseman a year ago.
The supporting cast around Suter on the blue line will have to jell quickly. According to Yeo, Suter will be paired at first with Spurgeon, who along with Tom Gilbert are known commodities as puck-movers.
Inexperience is the rule for the rest of the defense corps. Returnees Marco Scandella, Justin Falk, Clayton Stoner, Nate Prosser and Steve Kampfer have just 511 NHL games combined among them. Suter has played in 542 games, and is the only playoff-tested defenseman the team has with 39 games.
The Wild's last two first-rounders, Jonas Brodin (2011) and Matt Dumba (2012) will get a long look in camp.
3. Is Mikael Granlund ready to be an impact player in the NHL?
The Wild haven't had the kind of pure offensive talent Granlund brings since the departure of Marian Gaborik three years ago.
Granlund is already a mega-star in his native Finland thanks to his heroics at the 2011 World Championship against Russia. He also won a league championship, a scoring title and top rookie honors in Finland all by the age of 18. Until Parise and Suter were signed, he was likely to be the most anticipated new face in the lineup.
The signings of Parise and Suter should take a lot of the spotlight off Granlund's arrival and make it easier for him to adjust to the NHL game. His speed, skills and shot should more than compensate for a relative lack of size (he's 5-foot-10). Yeo has said he'd like to start Granlund at center in line experimentation at training camp.
If Granlund can center an effective second line and give a boost to a power-play unit that was 26th last season, the Wild will take a major step toward the postseason.
4. Can Mikko Koivu stay healthy?
The Wild are a different team with their captain, one of the NHL's best playmakers and two-way centers, But in Koivu's injury-filled seven NHL seasons, he's played more than 71 games just three times. That's a big reason Koivu has never scored more than 22 goals and has cracked the 60-point mark just three times.
The Wild were a different team without Koivu in 2011-12 -- they went 8-16-3 without him. He lost four games to a knee injury and 23 more to a shoulder problem, finishing with 44 points in 55 games.
If health is not an issue, Koivu could be in line for a career year playing between snipers like Parise and Heatley.
"He's such a warrior in the way he goes out," coach Mike Yeo told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "His will to win is so high that it's infectious on the rest of the group."
5. Which of the Wild's prized prospects will make the team?
If the Wild hadn't signed Parise and Suter, they might have been one of the youngest teams in the NHL. Granlund is the crown jewel of one of the deepest talent pools in the League, and Yeo is likely to face some tough choices in camp.
Charlie Coyle and Brett Bullmer are the type of big-bodied power forwards that the Wild can use to replace the departed Guillaume Latendresse. Coyle dominated in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's postseason for St. John's last spring, leading the league in scoring and winning playoff MVP honors en route to the Sea Dogs' President's Cup Championship. He's almost certain to at least get a look with the big club this season as Bullmer did last year.
Playmaker Zack Phillips starred with Coyle during the QMLHL playoffs, and with the Wild loaded at center can take his time developing his game at Houston of the AHL. Jason Zucker had two assists in six games with Minnesota last season after finishing his season with the University of Denver, and the team likes his scoring abilities
Adding some international intrigue at camp are left wing Johan Larsson, the Swedish Elite League rookie of the year, as well as 2011 first-rounder Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba, the Wild's top pick in this year's draft.
The Wild have a host of other young players in the fold who got a chance to play last season because of injuries. The competition for precious few spots on a deepened team will be strong.
6. What is the Wild's identity now?
The Wild became known for their defensive style of play under Jacques Lemaire and didn't generate much scoring in two seasons for Todd Richards -- the spate of injuries and inconsistency in the second half of 2011-12 led to very telling numbers that indicated how badly offense is needed.
Not only did the Wild finish last in offense – they had 22 fewer goals than Los Angeles, which was 29th in offense – but they were last in shots on goal (26.5 per game) and 5-on-5 goals (112), as well as the second-worst winning percentage when scoring first (.500).
Second-year coach Yeo, who enjoyed a Stanley Cup victory in 2009 as an assistant coach with Pittsburgh, will strive to continue changing his team's culture and attitude.
The Wild got a major infusion of talent by luring hometown hero Parise back home – and Suter, a Wisconsin native, decided to come with him. But their arrival also increases the pressure to make the playoffs.
The team that takes the ice at the Xcel Energy Center this season will look vastly different that the one that fell apart after a strong start. Yeo's biggest task at camp is to figure out who plays with whom – and do it quickly. Getting all the newcomers and holdovers to mesh will determine whether the Wild can parlay the improvement in their talent base into a return to the playoffs.
Author: Brian Schiazza | NHL.com Staff Writer