Wild training camp opens Thursday when players hit the ice for the first time to signal the start of what should be an interesting season. Three days after that, because the NHL is awesome and has figured out you don’t need to skate around for three weeks to get ready, Minnesota plays at Winnipeg in its first preseason tuneup. The regular season opens Oct. 5 in Detroit, with five of the first six games games (spanning 17 days) on the road.
That should give the Wild coach Bruce Boudreau and others a chance to evaluate this year’s roster. Coming off a season in which the Wild registered a franchise-best 106 points, and following an offseason that didn’t produce too much roster drama, the assumption might be that there aren’t a lot of questions heading into this year.
But that’s not exactly true. While there is certainly some stability within the core of the roster and this season feels more settled than last year did at this time, there are still plenty of things to sort out. Here, then, are five big questions facing the Wild as training camp approaches next week:
1) What can we expect from the Wild’s aging veterans? The Wild went into last season leaning heavily on five veterans in particular: Zach Parise (who was coming off a back injury), Jason Pominville, Mikko Koivu, Eric Staal and Ryan Suter.
Parise, who had averaged 29 goals the previous three seasons, dipped to 19. Pominville, who was traded this offseason, scored just 13. The other three players, though, produced at a level either at or above expectations. Staal had a team-high 28 goals in his first season here, Koivu had 58 points and was a strong two-way player and Suter was an All-Star defenseman while logging the most minutes on the team.
The temptation might be to pencil in similar performances from those last three guys while hoping for more from Parise, but that might not be wise.
Forwards are expected to start a sharp decline at age 32, per a study a couple years back in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports. Parise turned 33 in July. Staal is 32 now and turns 33 in a couple of months. Koivu is 34. If they start to show their ages, the Wild could be in trouble.
The good news is that forwards start to ascend toward their prime starting at age 24 per that same study. Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter are that exact age, while Jason Zucker is 25. They all produced last year and could do more this year to offset any declines from their older peers.
Still, if the Wild is going to do more than tread water, it will likely need big-time production again from those veterans.
2) How much can the Wild depend on young forward Joel Eriksson Ek? Indications are that the good-sized 20-year-old will get every chance to prove he belongs as a third line center, a bet that seems reasonable after his promising 15-game debut last season.
A strong camp from Eriksson Ek would likely help some dominoes fall into place. If he can center the third line, Coyle would likely be a strong wing on that line. Fresh-faced 40-year-old Matt Cullen — who has won 53.9 percent of his career faceoffs — could play on the fourth line but move up to take draws in late-game situations (Eriksson Ek was just 41 percent on draws in his limited action last year). Forwards Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis, acquired in the deal with Buffalo in which defenseman Marco Scandella and Pominville departed, would provide quality depth.
Bottom line: The Wild’s forward depth looks a lot better if coaches can count on Eriksson Ek. It will be interesting to see how he looks early on.
3 Speaking of Scandella … it’s fair to wonder how his departure will impact the Wild’s defensive depth. He was steady in logging just over 18 minutes per game last year, fifth among Wild defensemen. If anything, the trade shines a light on the importance of the continued development of Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba (players who were also mentioned in trade rumors but wound up staying) as well as youngster Gustav Olofsson. Minnesota needs its second and third defensive pair to be solid for a number of reasons, including avoiding overburdening Suter.
4 Can Boudreau trust new backup goalie Alex Stalock? Boudreau leaned heavily last season on starter Devan Dubnyk, and he ended up finishing fourth in the NHL in minutes played. It’s too easy to say all that work caused Dubnyk to wear down, but he had a .936 save percentage in 38 games before the All-Star break and a .904 mark in 27 games after appearing in that game.
He carried such a heavy load in part because he was so good early, but it also became clear that primary backup Darcy Kuemper did not have the trust of Boudreau. Kuemper made 17 starts with a .902 save percentage and 3.13 goals against average. He delivered “quality starts” — defined as starts with a save percentage above league average, or above 88.5 percent if facing fewer than 20 shots — just five of those 17 times.
Dubnyk posted a strong .925 save percentage and 1.86 goals against average in the five-game playoff loss to St. Louis, so it’s hardly as though he was anything close to a main culprit in that disappointment. But keeping him fresher would be a nice idea. Stalock, who was good in two starts for the Wild last season but has just 46 career starts, will have a big influence on that.
5. All of these detailed questions lead to one big final question: Can the Wild not only sustain a place as one of the better teams in the Western Conference but also have that translate into playoff success?
Wild fans are painfully familiar with this line: Minnesota has reached the playoffs five years in a row but has never made it further than the second round in any of those five years. Last year felt like it could be different, but it ended with familiar — or even particularly painful — disappointment after such a strong regular season.
The NHL season is an 82-game grind, and the Wild will have to work just to get back in position to get in the playoffs for a sixth consecutive season. If that task is accomplished, it will still be fair to wonder if this group — particularly offensively — has what it takes to go on a deep playoff run.
We’ll start to unpack answers to the first four questions soon. The last one? Get back to me in April.