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2016-17 Preview: Forwards

Staal, Stewart join group with plenty of familiar faces

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers / Wild.com

Wild.com takes a look at the forwards who will begin the 2016-17 season with Minnesota:

Left Wings

Zach Parise

Mikael Granlund

Nino Niederreiter  

Jason Zucker

Analysis: Minnesota's deepest position up front; the Wild have four players capable of scoring goals. 

Parise scored 25 goals in 70 games last season and has scored at least that many in each of the past eight full seasons he's played. After spending the offseason rehabbing a back injury sustained late in the regular season last spring, one that prevented him from playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Parise appears 100 percent healthy after playing in the World Cup of Hockey and scoring one goal in two preseason games.

Granlund has spent most of his NHL career at center but moved to the wing late last year with encouraging results. His smaller frame could be more effective on the wing, where his defensive responsibilities are lessened. He's also had great chemistry with countryman Mikko Koivu, both last season and in past years while playing for Finland in the Olympics. Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said as recently as late last week that he liked those two together.

Niederreiter has flipped between left and right wings in his time in Minnesota, but found a home on the left side of Erik Haula over the second half of last season. His goal total dropped from 24 two years ago to 20 last season, but he scored a career high 43 points and his possession stats were very good. Niederreiter could be poised for a breakout season in 2016-17.

Zucker, perhaps the Wild's fastest player, played in a career high 71 games last season and is a year removed from being one of the league's most efficient goal scorers. It's possible Zucker (or Niederreiter, for that matter) could move to the right side in a pinch in order to play more minutes. 

Centers

Eric Staal

Mikko Koivu

Erik Haula

Joel Eriksson Ek

Zac Dalpe

Analysis: With Staal and Koivu anchoring the top two lines, Minnesota will have plenty of size and experience down the middle.

The addition of Staal allows Granlund to move to wing full time, where he looked more natural late last season. He also provides the Wild with the most proven offensive pivot in franchise history. Things went south for Staal in Carolina in recent years, but he wasn't helped by a young roster that didn't have much talent around him. His 13 goals between the Hurricanes and Rangers were his fewest since his rookie season more than a decade ago, but he's only a year removed from a 23-goal campaign in 2014-15. He will start the season next to Parise and Charlie Coyle, his most skilled battery in several seasons. The trio has looked fantastic in two preseason games, and Staal has received glowing reviews from teammates and coaches in camp.

Koivu experienced a bit of a career renaissance in 2015-16, scoring 17 goals and 56 points. Both totals were his most in a season since he scored 17 goals and 62 points in 2010-11. More than that, Koivu had one of the best seasons of his career in the face-off circle, winning more than 56 percent of his draws -- among the best marks in the NHL. He's also a responsible two-way forward who can kill penalties and excels in the shootout.

Haula, last season's breakout player, overcame a slow start to post career highs in almost every offensive category, including goals (14), assists (20), points (34) and plus/minus (plus-21). He also skated in 76 games, the most in his three NHL seasons. After winning 46 percent of his faceoffs during his first 118 games, Haula bumped that number up significantly last season, winning 53.27 percent in 2015-16. If Haula can remain effective in the circle and get off to a better start, there is room for his offensive production to increase even more this season.

Eriksson Ek followed up a fantastic development camp in July with a training camp in which he got stronger every day. An explosive skater, Eriksson Ek is a smart two-way forward who has the skills to be a big-time player in the offensive end. But at age 19, the question remains whether Eriksson Ek's first taste of the NHL will last longer than nine games, thus not burning a year of his contract. How he shows himself over the first month could determine his fate. Regardless of what transpires in 2016-17, Eriksson Ek has an extremely bright future in Minnesota.

Dalpe was one of several players battling for a roster spot throughout camp and another player who seemed to get better by the day. Coaches like his size and his ability to play both center and wing, something that could keep him around after he cleared waivers on Monday. Dalpe, who lost all but 10 games to injury last season, has played in 119 contests with four different NHL teams over six seasons, but has scored enough in the American Hockey League to make him an intriguing piece if he can get through a season healthy. 

Right Wings

Charlie Coyle

Jason Pominville

Chris Stewart

Teemu Pulkkinen

Analysis: There is a nice blend of size and skill, youth and experience and veterans and upside in this group.

Coyle has yo-yo'd between the wing and center in his career but is expected to land on the wing full-time this season. He's seemingly been around forever, but Coyle is still just 24 years old and is coming off his best season as a pro. Last year marked his first 20-goal campaign and his first 40-point season. His was a plus player for the third time and played in all 82 games for a second straight season. The only thing missing from his game has been consistency, an aspect of his game Coyle has said he hopes to build on. With Boudreau's history tutoring players of Coyle's ilk, combined with him starting the year alongside proven NHLers Parise and Staal, big things could be afoot this season.

Another victim of a bad start, Pominville scored a career-low 11 goals during the regular season. The good news: He was one of the Wild's most effective players down the stretch and was arguably their best player in the playoffs, scoring four goals and seven points in the six-game series against Dallas. Pominville is expected to start the season on the right side of Granlund and Koivu, two players with whom he has played plenty during his time in Minnesota. He could also end up back with Niederreiter and Haula, which was one of the most explosive lines in the NHL late in the season last year.

Stewart returns for his second stint with the Wild after signing July 1 with Minnesota. He scored three goals and 11 points and was a plus-four in 20 games with the Wild in 2014-15 after being acquired from Buffalo at the trade deadline. He played for Boudreau in Anaheim last season, tallying eight goals and 20 points in 56 games. Boudreau was one of the driving forces behind the Wild re-signing Stewart, as the coach loves his size and his ability to move up and down the lineup. 

Claimed off waivers by the Wild on Tuesday from Detroit, Pulkkinen has high offensive upside, as evidenced by the 65 goals he scored over two seasons in the American Hockey League from 2013-15. His 34 goals in 2014-15 led the AHL, despite the fact he played in just 46 games. Pulkkinen battled a shoulder injury for a bulk of last season, one of the reasons why the Red Wings tried to slip him through waivers. Still just 24 years old with plenty of speed and an explosive shot, there is plenty of intrigue in what Pulkkinen can develop into.

Coach's Corner: "I love our top nine. I think we've got a really good top nine. They're fast, they're not overly small. We've got two big centers in Staal and Koivu. Charlie Coyle is a big man, Chris Stewart is a big guy. These guys play hard and make it difficult for other teams to play against them. Zach isn't as big, but he's of the same ilk. Niederreiter is a big player. You add those things, and they can all skate, and when you can all skate and all play big, you're a difficult team to play against." -- Wild coach Bruce Boudreau on his forwards

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