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2018-19 Preview: Now healthy, Minnesota Wild aims for new heights

After injuries wreaked havoc virtually all of last season, club hopes to prove it has what it takes to ascend in a tough Western Conference

by Dan Myers @DanMyers / Wild.com

This story appears in Wild.com's 2018-19 season preview.

Not even injuries to several of its top players over the course of a long 2017-18 season could derail the Minnesota Wild from making a sixth consecutive trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Zach Parise missed half the regular season. 

Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle were banged up early and battled ailments all year long. 

Mikael Granlund began the regular season with a bum wheel. Ryan Suter ended it with one. So did rookie forward Luke Kunin. 

A broken cheekbone slowed Marcus Foligno's first season with the Wild. 

Jared Spurgeon missed 21 games. 

Jonas Brodin missed eight.

And despite all that, the Wild cracked the century mark in points with 101 and finished third in a bruising Central Division. 

But like the sign that hangs just inside the player's entrance at the sparkling new TRIA Rink at Treasure Island Center says: Good isn't good enough. 

Although the club didn't make a splashy trade designed on shaking up the roster, it did add some veteran leadership it believes will make a big difference. It did make a change on its coaching staff. And it did hire a new general manager, as Paul Fenton takes over after two decades helping David Poile build the Nashville Predators into one of the NHL's model franchises.

Combine that with what it hopes are healthy seasons from a core on one of just three teams to reach the postseason in each of the past six seasons (Pittsburgh and Anaheim), and the Wild hopes it's ready to take the next step as a franchise and compete for a Stanley Cup championship.

"It's not our job to worry about or consider external expectations," Parise said. "But at the same time, I think we should all have a little heightened awareness. It's been pretty disappointing the way we've finished the last two seasons. We're not oblivious to that. We know we have to make something happen."

For the Wild, that begins with Parise and Suter.

For the first time in several seasons, Parise had a relatively normal summer. There was no serious injury to rehab from. There was no World Cup of Hockey. There are no Olympics to prepare for. 

Parise took it easy for the first few weeks of the offseason, letting a fractured sternum repair itself. But after that, he jumped back into a normal routine -- one that, because of his back injury, he wasn't able to partake in the past few years.

It took Parise about 20 games to round back into form after last year's microdiscectomy operation, but once he did, he was nothing short of outstanding. Parise scored 12 goals over the final 18 games of the regular season, then scored one in each of the Wild's first three playoff contests before sustaining the season-ending sternum injury at the tail end of Game 3.

"It was probably the first time in the last three years that I wasn't rehabbing all summer, and that allowed me to really work on things and do different things on the ice rather than just trying to get myself to play," Parise said. "It was just more, mentally, a refreshing and exciting summer from that standpoint."

Suter's injury looked innocent enough in real time, but as details emerged about the fractured ankle, questions arose about his future. 

But there he was on the opening day of training camp, going through a relatively normal first couple weeks on the ice, and even getting into a preseason game.

What looked like it could be a potentially career-threatening injury has simply galvanized an already motivated player.


[Explore tickets to upcoming home games, including Oct. 11 vs. Chicago]
 

"It was a grind. It was a long summer," Suter said. "Every day I woke up and had to deal with it. I feel good and I'm happy to be back."

But the Wild's 2017-18 season was about more than just injured players. 

Jason Zucker and Matt Dumba had breakout campaigns, then signed long-term contract extensions with the Wild over the summer.

Eric Staal turned back the clock and tied the franchise record by scoring 42 goals.

Nick Seeler established himself as a big part of the future, as did Jordan Greenway. 

Up and down the lineup, the Wild is a deeper and more experienced team. It's also playing with a chip on its shoulder, tired of being referred to as a team on the downward slide. 

The players inside the Wild dressing room don't put too much stock into preseason prognostications. But they are aware of them, and they are prepared to prove them wrong.


Forwards

The Wild boasts a deep group up front that has a nice mix of veterans and young players with upside.

Staal, Zucker and Granlund have been together for virtually all of training camp and are likely to start the regular season together as line. First put together by Boudreau in February, the group burst onto the scene with a handful of big games before fizzling out. 

"We got put together at a pretty heavy point in the year, so we didn't have much time to practice," Zucker said. "We had a lot of success our first few games and then we dropped off for a couple games because we didn't get to practice much together."

Zucker tallied a career-best 33-goal season and Granlund likely would have reached or surpassed 70 points had he not missed five games. 

In two years with the Wild, Staal has combined for 70 goals and 71 points while not missing a single game.

"During the year, when I ended up with the two of them, we ended up with some really good chemistry and had some really good games," Staal said. "Hopefully we can get to that early here."

On the second line, the Wild is hoping Parise can pick up where he left off at the end of the season. His two-goal preseason was a good sign.

Niederreiter and Mikko Koivu should be his linemates, with both players in search of an offensive rebound. Koivu was his typical shutdown defensive self, but saw a drop in points from 58 to 45. 

Niederreiter was hurt in the third game of the season and was never the same, battling leg injuries virtually all season. The 26-year-old winger, trending towards 30 goals for the first time, finished with 18 in 63 games, but the hope is, now that's he's back fully healthy, 30 is an attainable goal. 

The Wild boasts a giant third line that also has the ability to create some offense.

The group is led by Charlie Coyle, who like Niederreiter, sustained an injury in game three of the regular season and never seemed fully healthy after that. Coyle had both of his wrists operated on during the offseason, but hasn't missed a beat during camp and is ready to put a tough season behind him.

"That was kind of rare for me to not have a healthy year and play in every game," Coyle said. "But it's hockey. It's a grind and it happens from time to time. It's all about how you bounce back from it."

Coyle put together a 56-point season two years ago before missing 16 games last year and seeing that number drop to 37. 

"I feel good. I had a good summer to sort of refresh, get stronger, work some kinks out. So I feel really good right now," Coyle said. "I just take [last year] as a positive. You learn from those experiences and going through rough times or injuries or whatever it is.

"It was nice to have the summer to hit reset, come back stronger and come in a good place physically and mentally and just start fresh."

Coyle is joined by Joel Eriksson Ek and Jordan Greenway on a line that averages well over six feet tall and over 200 pounds per man. All three can play center and are virtually interchangeable.

Eriksson Ek reminds many of Koivu, and if he can have a similar jump in production as the Wild's captain did between his first full season in the NHL and his second, Minnesota will be in good shape. 

Greenway, at 6-foot-5, is the net front presence the Wild has been craving for years.

"They just work so hard and they're all very big and strong guys," Boudreau said. "Once they get on you, they're like a dog on a bone."

Foligno was very good over the final six weeks of last season, carving out an important fourth-line role. He hopes to build on it early.

Newcomers Eric Fehr, Matt Hendricks and J.T. Brown will be in a constant battle for the remaining two spots on the line, with Fehr the likeliest to draw an every-night role. 

Both Fehr and Hendricks have drawn rave reviews from teammates for their professionalism and their ability to bring together a dressing room. 

"It's good to freshen things up a little bit," Dumba said. "We're very, very fortunate that we've got a handful of guys like that."

Among those expected to begin the season in Iowa who could push the NHL group include Kunin, coming off a torn ACL, Matt Read, who had a terrific camp, as well as Kyle Rau, Justin Kloos, Sam Anas and Mike Liambas.


Defensemen

On the blue line, the Wild's offseason was made complete when it became clear that Suter would return and be in the lineup on opening night. 

With him in, Minnesota's defensive core becomes one of the NHL's best.

Spurgeon or Dumba will join him on the first pairing, providing the Wild with an outstanding option either way.

Spurgeon continues to be one of the very best blueliners in the League despite rarely being recognized outside his own dressing room. He finished one point off a career high in points last season despite missing more than 20 games because of injuries.

Dumba played in all 82 games for the first time and cracked the 50-point plateau, earning himself a five-year contract extension. Still just 24 years old, the hope is that Dumba pushes for 60 points this season. 

Whichever of those two don't play with Suter will skate with Jonas Brodin on Minnesota's second pairing. 

Brodin likely won't be an offensive force, but he's steady as they come in the defensive end and his plus-23 last season was a career best. 

Seeler, who retains his rookie eligibility this season, was a revelation for the Wild in 22 games a year ago, tallying just four points but providing the club with a needed defensive presence, and more importantly, a willing combatant in the dirty areas in front of their own net. 

Seeler was a plus-10 during the regular season, then had two assists and was a plus-1 in five playoff contests.

"I have more confidence and I feel better than I did last year," Seeler said. "[I am] just trying to build off the end of the year last year. I wasn't sure what to expect coming up, but it was a good transition."

On the right side of that pairing will be Greg Pateryn, the Wild's most expensive offseason addition after signing a three-year, $6.75 million contract.

Like Seeler, Pateryn brings size and a surliness in the defensive end that has Boudreau excited about his options on the back end.

"To me, it's of paramount importance," Boudreau said of having a third pairing he can count on. "I think it's something that we've missed here in this organization for a number of years, where people aren't going to stand in front of our net and take liberties.

Like its forward group, the Wild could have some additional depth on its back end. Nate Prosser, Ryan Murphy and Gustav Olofsson are among the blueliners that will be the first ones counted on should injuries befall the group.

"[I'm not] worried when any of the three [pairings] are out there," Boudreau said. "All three pairs can kill penalties. All three pairs can take defensive zone faceoffs. I think if that continues, then you don't have to kill Ryan being both the offensive guy and the defensive guy."


Goaltenders

Devan Dubnyk begins his fourth full season with the Wild, ranking among the NHL's best since arriving in a mid-season trade from the Arizona Coyotes in 2015.

Over the past three seasons, Dubnyk ranks third in the NHL in wins (107), second in minutes played (11,069), and fifth in both save percentage and goals against average among goaltenders with at least 6,000 minutes played (.920, 2.36).

Behind him, Alex Stalock apparently staved off a training camp battle from Andrew Hammond and will begin his second full season with his hometown team. The South St. Paul native started 23 games last year, playing in 28 overall, and posting a 10-10-4 record with a 2.85 goals against and a .910 save percentage.

Hammond is expected to get a bulk of the work in Iowa and is certainly a capable NHLer should injuries occur. Hammond himself is fully healthy after battling hip injuries the past couple of seasons. 

"Every team needs three," Stalock said. "Marty [Brodeur] used to play 70 games a year, but nobody does that anymore. Guys are playing 60, guys get injured.

"Anytime you have somebody pushing you from behind, I think it makes you play your best. You have to be at your best every day, every practice. I think it'll be good; I think it'll be good for me, good for Duby and good for Andrew."

Video: Changing seasons: Part 1

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