Though the calendar — and the temperature — remain firmly planted in summer, this week feels like December to Bruce Boudreau. “It’s like those days just before Christmas,’’ the Wild coach said, as he gleefully awaited the start of training camp. “You just can’t wait for it to get here.’’
About 50 players will report Thursday for physicals and meetings at Xcel Energy Center, followed by their first practices Friday. Boudreau said nearly all of them arrived early. After the Wild set franchise records for victories (49) and points (106) last season, Boudreau’s first year in St. Paul hit an abrupt and disappointing end with a first-round playoff loss to St. Louis, leaving players and coaches eager for a fresh start.
Most of the Wild’s core remains intact, including its top six scorers, top four defensemen and goaltender Devan Dubnyk. The team also improved its depth with offseason roster moves and expects some intriguing youngsters to challenge for spots. Earlier this week, Boudreau discussed some of the questions he hopes will be answered before the season begins on Oct. 5 in Detroit.
Q: Once you got past the letdown of the early playoff exit and assessed the full season, how pleased were you with the team’s body of work and what does that give you to build on this year?
A: The positives really outweighed the negatives. It was a really fun group to coach, which is why I’m so excited to be back. They’re all in pretty good shape right now. Everybody’s come in early. That shows me a level of excitement, that they’re ready to play.
Q: When you sat down with [General Manager] Chuck [Fletcher] for postseason meetings last spring, what areas did the two of you identify that needed to improve during the offseason?
A: Our backup goaltending. Whether it was just me — because in previous years, [Darcy Kuemper] was very good for this team — but I just didn’t have enough confidence in March and April to play him. So I thought we needed to upgrade there. And when we brought Alex [Stalock] in, even in the short term, he showed the energy and life that I think he would be really successful with us this year. Of course, he hasn’t got the job given to him. He’s got to beat [Niklas] Svedberg.
The other thing that Chuck and I talked about is shoring up the fourth line. We thought that was really important. I think [Matt Cullen] does that. He gives us the ability to throw somebody out there, and if there’s a faceoff or an icing and the other team puts its first line on, I’m feeling comfortable that he’s on the ice, and the people we have with him — whoever they may be — it’s more of an NHL fourth line. In the past, that was my biggest fear. They might end up being great players, [Tyler] Graovac and [Jordan] Schroeder, but sometimes, I thought they were overwhelmed when all of a sudden [Sidney] Crosby jumps over the boards. Matt has played against every other top line in the world. So that makes me feel better.
Q: You had some roster churn during the offseason, but your main core is intact. What are your thoughts on the group you’re bringing back?
A: I think our core is really good. I think our leadership is really good, as good as I’ve been around. It’s all a learning experience. It took time for Mikko [Koivu] and Zach [Parise] and Eric [Staal] and [Ryan Suter] to understand what I was all about. But in the end, we were all on the same page and looking forward to positive things for this year.
Q: You were able to keep Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin, like you wanted. What kind of progress do you want to see from them this season?
A: For three games last year in the middle of the year, we put Dumba with Suter and Brodin with [Jared] Spurgeon. I think we’re going to start camp off with that group. It gives us a lot of bonus stuff when we do that. When Spurgeon was out earlier in the year, Matt played with [Suter], and he was playing the kind of minutes [Suter] played, and he excelled. In training camp, if we give them the opportunities, 2½ weeks or three weeks of no-pressure playing together, I think it will be a big jump. And if we don’t think it works as well as it should, then it’s pretty easy to go back.
I always believe you need to play at least 300 games on defense in the NHL to be a defenseman. It’s a tough position to get to know. And [Brodin] is just past that. [Dumba] is still learning. I think he got better last year than he was the year before, and I think he’s going to be better this year than he was last year. So you add all of those things up, and you hope to see a better level for those guys.
Q: With two spots on defense up for grabs, some of your top candidates are Kyle Quincey, a guy with a lot of experience, and two talented young guys in Mike Reilly and Gustav Olofsson. Do you feel any hesitation about playing two young guys on that third pair, or do you have to have an experienced player to anchor it?
A: When you sign a guy like Kyle, you’re signing a veteran to maybe play with one of the younger kids. He’s got that fifth spot right now. In the end, it’s all what you do on the ice. And [Ryan] Murphy, who’s been up and down in Carolina but is a highly sought-after first-round pick. They will all be given opportunities to play. That’s what we like, when you talk about depth and friendly competition.
Q: What do Reilly and Olofsson need to show you in camp to convince you they’re ready to be everyday defensemen in the NHL?
A: We need guys that feel comfortable, like, ‘Hey, put me out there.’ Not ‘Oh, my God, don’t put me out there.’ We want guys to take that step, and a guy like Murphy to do the same thing, take that step. We want them to make the decisions really tough on us.
Q: What did the younger guys vying for roster spots — guys like [Joel] Eriksson Ek, Olofsson, Reilly — do over the summer to prepare for camp, and how do they look?
A: Reilly looks a lot stronger now, and he looks bigger than what I’ve seen in the past. Eriksson Ek has put on 10-12 pounds of muscle, and he looks faster, bigger, stronger. Olofsson has put on 10 pounds of muscle. The previous two summers, he wasn’t able to train because of injuries. This year, he had the whole summer, and he trained, and he’s almost 200 pounds now to fit into that 6-foot-3 frame.
Q: There has been so much discussion in recent seasons about reducing Suter’s minutes. His average was down a bit last year [to 26 minutes, 55 seconds per game], but he was still third in the league in ice time. How much time would you like him to get this year?
A: He played 26 minutes a game last year, which is pretty normal for a No. 1 defenseman. He can play those minutes. Before I came over here, I was worried about it. But he was up at 28, 29 [minutes]. He’s going to still be put in every situation needed, and we’re going to play Ryan as much as we can to help us win games. At the same time, there might be games where if you’re winning 6-0 or you’re losing 6-0 that you don’t play him as much. But he’s our go-to guy. He led the league in plus-minus. To me, that tells me, you’re playing those kind of minutes, that means something good is going to happen when you’re on the ice. I think putting him with Matt [Dumba] puts him in a little more of an offensive role. He got the most goals he’s ever scored last year, at nine. But I think even at his age, he’s still capable of more. And defensemen, a lot more than forwards, can play into their late 30s. I think Ryan is a guy who can play as long as he wants. Last year, it was unknown. This year, I have no qualms about playing him as much as I need to play him.
Q: So many of your core players — Parise, Koivu, Suter, Staal — are in their 30s now. Does the age of that group concern you at all, and are there things you can do as a coach to keep them fresh?
A: The forwards, you can limit minutes a little bit more. When you look at Zach, Staal, Mikko, their minutes [last season] came down by about a minute each. Unfortunately for Zach, his injuries kept him from being Zach. But Mikko’s points went up. Staal’s points went up. Not that we’re going to reduce them more, but we’ve got better balance. Last year, we went into camp with 10 forwards, hoping two guys would make the team. And I was upset because we didn’t have those two guys who pushed. This year, I think we’re going into camp with 12, 13 potential forwards. The depth is much greater.
Q: What are you expecting from Parise this season, after a couple of rough years when he was dealing with injuries and saw his point production go down?
A: When people talk about production declining, I think that goes hand-in-hand with being hurt. And if you look at last year, every time he started to get going, something negative would happen to his body. If Zach is healthy, I don’t think anybody in this state should worry about Zach not getting 25 to 30 goals and being the energetic team leader that he is. And if that’s the case, and the rest of the guys do what I think they’re capable of, I think we should have a pretty good offensive group.
Q: How do you see Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis fitting into the lineup?
A: Ennis has had two years of injuries, but he was a really dynamic player before that. His story reminds me a lot of Staal’s. Eric had two bad years, then you just play him a little differently and give him a little more confidence. Marcus was born and raised in Buffalo, and sometimes, it’s a little harder to play in your hometown. I think he’s got the capabilities of scoring more goals and being a physical player. Our team doesn’t look too small when you’ve got a Foligno and [Chris] Stewart and [Nino] Niederreiter and Staal and Ek and [Charlie] Coyle up front. There are six that are over 210 pounds up front that can all skate. What they sometimes perceive as a small Minnesota team is not going to be as small any more.
Q: You have a lot of skill on the roster, but a frequent criticism of this team is that it isn’t tough enough. Will it be tougher this season?
A: I know in years past, we had maybe one guy. Now, Stewie has a partner in Foligno. That makes it a little easier. Our team toughness, I don’t think we got run out of a building ever last year. So I’m not worried about our toughness.
Q: Is Eriksson Ek ready to take on the third-line center role?
A: We’re hoping. I really liked what he did last year. He’s very responsible for a young guy. I liken his development a little bit to Rickard Rakell’s in Anaheim. The first year, he played nine games and didn’t play much. The next year he was an up and down rookie. Then the third year, all of a sudden, he blossomed. I look at [Eriksson Ek] being maybe not as flashy as Rakell, but at the same time, the world championships and everything has established him as a guy that can play.
Q: What line combinations will you start with as camp begins?
A: We’ve got some combinations in our head right now, but we’ve got 12 forwards, and they’re all interchangeable. Whoever is playing the best, it’s my job to find that out in that certain moment and to play them accordingly. Sometimes, Mikko and [Mikael Granlund] and [Jason] Zucker are on top of the world, and they’re going to play more minutes than anybody else. But the next game, it might be Staal, Parise and Niederreiter, where every time they’ve got the puck there’s something happening, and they’re going to play more. And the same thing could be with Coyle, Foligno, Ek. Cullen, Ennis and Stewart are capable of playing against anybody. I think we match up well against most teams.
Q: How much of a chance does Luke Kunin have of making the roster?
A: It wouldn’t be a surprise to me if he’s pushing other people for jobs right off the bat. His work ethic is really great, and that’s something no team can get enough of. When you think of the world juniors, and [the U.S.] won the championship, Luke wasn’t the highest scorer or the most profiled. But he was the captain of that team. When you have leaders like that, even if they do get sent to the minors for a little bit, they’re going to the minors with one thing in mind: to get back to the NHL. So you don’t see him being a guy that’s going to be denied.
Q: What did you learn last season about how much of a workload you want to place on Devan Dubnyk, and how might you share the load in goal this season?
A: I don’t know if there’s a number. I think in March, he thought he had to win every game. So the stress level was more than the physical fatigue. If he’s got a partner that he has faith in, I think he could get away with playing 65 games. In a perfect world, you’d love to see him play 60. But stuff happens. I think as long as he can stay mentally fresh, he can play a lot of games.