The question has been asked incessantly for a month: How does the Wild take the next step this season?
The simple, and funny, answer of course is, “Beat the Chicago Blackhawks for a change.” But before the Wild can exorcise those demons, it first must get to the postseason for a fourth consecutive year.
That is no easy task in the merciless Western Conference. Just ask last season’s Los Angeles Kings, who went from champs to chumps in a year.
How does the Wild take that step? Besides avoiding the mumps and the norovirus and maybe scoring a power-play goal during the first month of the season, the Wild needs stable goaltending, its younger players to reach new heights, its veterans to improve and an ability to limit the lows.
The Wild has history of going from best team in the league, to worst team in the league, to best team in the league, and that can be in a single month.
Wouldn’t it be nice if the Wild wasn’t scratching and clawing in March to get back into the playoff race? As exhilarating as the roller coaster ride and miracle second halves have been to witness the past two seasons, wouldn’t it be good for everyone’s health if the Wild didn’t face three months’ worth of must-win games?
Maybe then the Wild’s best players wouldn’t look so physically and mentally drained if they so happen to cross paths with the Blackhawks again, which is entirely possible.
So here are the keys to avoiding a season of #FireYeo, #StripTheC, #TradeVanek and “PUT SCANDELLA ON THE POWER PLAY!!!”
1. Veteran improvement
Perhaps the lone veteran bright spot last season was Zach Parise, who ranked 10th in the NHL with 33 goals despite playing through the illness and death of his father.
Jason Pominville (18 goals), Mikko Koivu (48 points) and Thomas Vanek (21 goals) had arguably their worst production.
Pominville and Koivu looked better in training camp. Pominville was flying early, and coach Mike Yeo said this was the best training camp Koivu had under him. The jury’s still out on Vanek, whose abdominal region was surgically repaired.
Defenseman Ryan Suter is the other big question. The Wild plans to decrease the ice time of the NHL’s time-on-ice leader for three years running to 24 to 26 minutes per game. The hope is Suter will be fresher later in games, in the playoffs and on the power play.
2. New heights from the young guys
The young guys all have experience, so we probably should stop calling them the kids.
Jason Zucker and Nino Niederreiter each surpassed 20 goals in a season for the first time, start this year on Mikko Koivu’s wings and should get significant power-play time.
Defensemen Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin all had strong seasons, and Matt Dumba looks as if he can be one of the most dynamic blue-liners in Wild history. That leaves Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Erik Haula. Playing between Zach Parise and Pominville, Granlund shouldn’t score only eight goals and 40 points again. Coyle has all the tools but has lacked consistency. He was a beast this preseason, but we’ve seen that before. And Haula needs to figure out a way to rebound from a sophomore slump and challenge Tyler Graovac for ice time.
3. The Power Play
The power play ranked 27th in the NHL last season and didn’t score in October.
Parise and Suter wanted to change the setup to put the cast in more threatening positions. Suter had one goal, 10 assists and 40 shots despite playing a team-high 294 power-play minutes last season. Granlund has been placed on the No. 1 unit to quarterback things from the left wall. This puts Suter in a better position to take one-timers or set up Parise, who has gone from the net to the right circle. Pominville is the net-front guy and Koivu is in the slot.
The second unit has Dumba and Spurgeon up top, Niederreiter and Zucker on the sides and Vanek as the net-front guy.
It’ll be up to Yeo to not always defer to the No. 1 unit; in the preseason, the coach obliged.
4. Devan Dubnyk
It’s bizarre to get through an entire Wild training camp without goalie health or erratic performance being the chief topic. In fact, all three goalies played well.
But Devan Dubnyk is the one armed with a six-year deal thanks to a rock-solid second half that earned him a Vezina Trophy nomination, Masterton Trophy win and a $26 million contract.
Now, to expect Dubnyk to post a 1.78 goals-against average and .936 save percentage again isn’t fair, nor is asking him to start 38 games in a row again. Darcy Kuemper will have to spell him.
But if the Wild plays its normal stingy style and protects Dubnyk, it’ll be up to the veteran to prove last season was no fluke. And, it’s hard to believe it was. This is a guy who started virtually every game down the stretch in those most pressure-packed of circumstances.
The Wild will need the smart, fundamentally-sound, big goalie to stand tall again.
5. Limit those lows
Yeo, the fifth-longest-tenured coach in the NHL as he enters his fifth season, joked in late August that “it sure would be nice to just have a good ol’, boring, 110- or 120-point season.”
But Yeo knows it’s impossible for everything to be smooth sailing when you’re in the Western Conference, and especially the Central Division. So it’ll be up to the Wild to stop losing streaks quickly.
In each of the past two seasons, it took crazy second-half streaks to save the Wild’s hide. Now, the Wild has a knack for impressively getting out of these precarious positions, but it can’t afford to once again put itself in a spot where there is no room for error.
Yeo feels the Wild has the experience now to know what to expect and avoid such situations.
“We’ll do the same thing we’ve always done: Try to get better,” Yeo said before camp. “We’re a contender. I don’t think anybody around the league would be willing to write us off right now. But we have to ready for the hard parts. And, there will be hard parts.”