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Wild Ready To Prove Themselves As Title Contender

by Staff Writer / Minnesota Wild

NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

The Minnesota Wild is coming off its first victory in a Stanley Cup Playoff series in 11 years. But to hear General Manager Chuck Fletcher tell it, his team's second-round loss to the Chicago Blackhawks might have been even more valuable than the opening-round victory against the Colorado Avalanche.

"After we lost to Chicago, and even for a week or two afterward, there wasn't any sense of euphoria," he said. "I think everyone believes we're a competitive team and we can compete with the best teams in the League.

"It was an accomplishment, but I like the mindset of our group. I think everyone recognizes how competitive [the NHL] is and how difficult it is to win. We lost a series to Chicago and that stung. That's great when there's that sense that we could have done more and could have done better. It was great to make the playoffs and great to win a round, but I think our group was striving for more than just getting in."

The Wild has gone from a team that missed the playoffs four seasons in a row to being knocked out in the first round by Chicago in 2013 to a second-round loss to the Blackhawks. Fletcher and Head Coach Mike Yeo are confident the Wild is ready to take the next step thanks to a solid core of veterans augmented by a group of young players ready to come into their own.

"We have a lot of quality veterans but you probably know what you're going to get from them," Fletcher said. "The exciting thing is the young players; how high can they go? What's their upside? We think they're all just starting to scratch the surface of their potential. And if we can help them get to where we believe they can get to, we'll be a very competitive team for the next few years."

Here's a breakdown for how the Wild plan to take the next step:

FORWARDS

The Wild never has been known as an offensive juggernaut, and last season was no exception as Minnesota was 24th with an average of 2.43 goals per game (excluding shootouts). That's why Fletcher wasted little time after free agency opened July 1 to sign forward Thomas Vanek, the kind of player the team has lacked since Marian Gaborik left as a free agent five years ago.

Vanek has averaged slightly more than 30 goals in his nine NHL seasons; he had 27 in 2013-14 while playing for the Buffalo Sabres, New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens.

Yeo said Vanek should be a perfect addition to a team that needs offense.

"We're a team that does a lot of things well in how we defend, our structure and our team game. We don't score goals easily," he said. "We have to find a way to create more offense, and I think that will give us the ability to win games different ways. Thomas doesn't need five or six scoring chances a game to score goals. On top of that he's an underrated playmaker and will help the guys around him create more offense and score more goals. If we can add a few more goals it's going to equal a few more wins for us."

Fletcher said Vanek, who starred at the University of Minnesota before turning pro, is just what the Wild need to get to the next level.

"The things he does are the things we have struggled with historically, namely scoring goals," he said. "We thought he was a very good fit on our team."

Vanek joins a veteran core up front that includes captain Mikko Koivu and forwards Zach Parise and Jason Pominville, as well as one of the NHL's best collections of young forwards. Center Mikael Granlund, 22, had 33 assists and 41 points in his first full NHL season. Charlie Coyle, who can play in the middle or on the wing, had 12 goals and 30 points. He's also 22, as is Nino Niederreiter, who scored 14 goals and had 36 points in his first full shot at an NHL job after arriving from the New York Islanders in a trade. Niederreiter also scored the overtime goal in Game 7 against Colorado that moved the Wild into the second round.

The Wild also got solid efforts from rookie forwards Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine, who meshed well with bottom-six forwards Matt Cooke and Kyle Brodziak. With Matt Moulson and Dany Heatley gone via free agency, there also are jobs to be won by young players like Jason Zucker and Brett Bulmer.

Yeo is excited by the possibilities his young players present.

"We believe the real potential for growth on our team is through our young players," he said. "As they get better our team will get better. We've got some great leaders driving the bus and making sure they're working to keep up, but at the same time there's a lot of promise."

DEFENSEMEN

No one in the NHL has played more hockey in the past two seasons than Ryan Suter. Few have played better.

Suter, who along with Parise signed a long-term contract with the Wild in July 2012, has led the NHL in ice time in each of the past two seasons. His average of 29:24 in 2013-14 was the most by any player in more than a decade. Suter had eight goals, 43 points and a plus-15 rating last season while playing in all situations, and appears likely to remain among the League's top defensemen for years to come.

"Every move he makes, every pass he makes has a purpose," Fletcher said. "He's very economical in motion. I think if he were a very physical player or leading the attack all the time it might be difficult to play that type of style. But the way Ryan plays, his style of play allows him to play half the game quite easily."

Suter's excellence and ability to devour ice time has helped the Wild bring along some of their young defensemen. Jonas Brodin, 21, has spent most of his two NHL seasons as Suter's partner, and Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon have formed a solid second pair.

Christian Folin, a 23-year-old who got into one late-season game after signing as an undrafted free agent following two seasons at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, could be in line for a regular spot, as could veteran Keith Ballard and 2012 first-round pick (No. 7) Matt Dumba, who played 13 games for the Wild last season before being returned to his junior team.

Dumba is No. 32 on the NHL.com Top 60 prospect ranking; Folin is No. 54.

Fletcher said Dumba has all the tools to be a star but the Wild won't rush him to the NHL.

"He's a right-shot defenseman who can really skate," Fletcher said. "He's a great passer; his outlet passes are tremendous. He sees the ice well. He competes and has a physical element to his game. Like all young defensemen his biggest challenge is gaining the confidence defensively and learning to make the right reads at the NHL level.

"For us to keep him he's going to have to be one of our top-six defensemen. If that doesn't happen for him, we'll have no hesitation in sending him to Iowa [of the American Hockey League] and letting him have a big role there and allowing him to grow and learn the game."

GOALIES

The Wild's goaltending situation last season resembled a game of musical chairs. The same could be true in 2014-15.

Fletcher and Yeo were expecting a three-way battle for two spots, but Josh Harding broke his right foot just before camp and is out indefinitely. Harding (complications from multiple sclerosis) and Niklas Backstrom (abdominal surgery) were expected to be healthy after missing the second half of last season.

When Harding got hurt the Wild invited Ilya Bryzgalov to come to camp on a tryout and re-signed Darcy Kuemper to a two-year, one-way contract after a summer of contentious negotiations. Those two were the Wild's goaltending combination during the playoffs, with Bryzgalov ending as the starter against Chicago after Kuemper sustained a concussion in Game 7 of the first round against Colorado.

Yeo had envisioned a three-way competition among Harding, Backstrom and Kuemper. With Harding out, Backstrom and Kuemper appear to have the inside track to the two roster spots, with Bryzgalov as insurance.

But that could change depending on how things shake out in training camp.

"I want to make sure whoever we have in the net for Game 1, that we give him a good opportunity to be ready for that game, make sure that we give them enough games to feel that way," Yeo said during the early stages of training camp. "But also with that, we've got to make sure that we're using those games to determine and figure out who the right guy is for that."

SUMMER MOVES

ADDITIONS: LW Thomas Vanek (free agent, Canadiens); C Cody Almond (free agent, Switzerland); RW Joel Rechlicz (free agent, Capitals); C Jordan Schroeder (free agent, Canucks); LW Brett Sutter (free agent, Hurricanes); D Stu Bickel (free agent, Rangers); D Justin Falk (free agent, Rangers)

SUBTRACTIONS: LW Matt Moulson (free agent, Sabres); LW Dany Heatley (free agent, Ducks); C Zenon Konopka (free agent); C Cody McCormick (free agent, Sabres); LW Mike Rupp (free agent); D Clayton Stoner (free agent, Ducks)

PROMOTION CANDIDATES: D Matt Dumba, RW Brett Bulmer, D Gustav Olofsson

Projected lineup:

Forwards

Zach PariseMikael GranlundJason Pominville

Thomas VanekMikko KoivuCharlie Coyle

Matt CookeErik HaulaNino Niederreiter

Jason ZuckerKyle BrodziakJustin Fontaine

Extras: Cody Almond, Stephane Veilleux, Jordan Schroeder

Defensemen

Ryan SuterJonas Brodin

Marco ScandellaJared Spurgeon

Keith BallardChristian Folin

Extras: Jonathon Blum, Matt Dumba, Justin Falk

Goalies:

Niklas Backstrom

Darcy Kuemper

Extra: Ilya Bryzgalov

Author: John Kreiser | NHL.com Managing Editor

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