With a deal looking imminent, it’s time for hockey fans and enthusiasts to gear up for the new season—but then again—haven’t we all been since last June? While there’s no longer the 2012 half of the ’12-’13 season, there is still enough time for a 48 game season and that’s plenty of time for Minnesota to prove to its fans and season ticket holders that the wait for the debut of Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Mikael Granlund has been well worth it. So, without further ado, here are five “Wild” 2013 predictions for Minnesota.
#1. Minnesota will make the playoffs. With a 48 game season crammed in a short amount of time, there will certainly be a playoff-like grind and urgency found in the game of all 30 NHL teams. However, with the added talent and depth, Minnesota is very likely to weather the storm.
#2. Minnesota’s top line of Parise-Koivu-Heatley will give goalies nightmares. These three forwards provide an interesting mix that will both terrorize and confuse goaltenders and opposing defenses. Parise is a very skilled left wing that can score gritty, greasy goals just as quickly and easily as he can a beautiful highlight-reel goal. Koivu is a very strong two-way playmaking machine of a center that isn’t afraid to make a big hit, feather a pass over to his wingers for a huge goal or score one himself. And Heatley—well—there aren’t many defenses able to contain the sharp-shooting sniper. One thing is for sure, Minnesota fans are sure to witness quite a few breakaways, two-on-ones and other odd-man situations with these three on the ice.
#3. Minnesota will have at least one—if not more—candidate(s) in serious consideration for the Calder trophy. Finnish sensation, and Minnesota 2nd line center, Mikael Granlund is the obvious choice; however, Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle or even Johan Larsson could just as easily steal the show.
The 2010 NHL Entry Draft was very good for Minnesota, a draft that saw the Wild take Granlund 9th overall, Zucker, Larsson and Brett Bulmer in the 2nd round and Swedish netminder Johan Gustafsson in the 6th round. To top it off, the very next draft Wild GM Chuck Fletcher swung a deal with San Jose that would see the Sharks’ 2010 1st rounder, Coyle, go to Minnesota. The 2010 draft may go down in history as the best draft Minnesota has ever seen and has so far proved to be a very real turning point in the direction of the franchise.
Since that draft, Granlund (FIN), Zucker (USA) and Larsson (SWE) have all three captained their teams at the Under-20 World Junior Hockey Championships and the latter, along with fellow Wild prospects Gustafsson and 2011 1st rounder Jonas Brodin, led Sweden to gold at the 2012 tournament. The list of accomplishments by these 2010 draft picks just goes on and on:
– SEL Rookie of the Year (Larsson)
– SEL Champions (Larsson)
– WCHA Rookie of the Year (Zucker)
– WCHA All-Rookie Team and 2nd All-Star Team (Zucker)
– SM-liiga Rookie of the Year (Granlund)
– SM-liiga “gentleman player” of the season (Granlund)
– SM-liiga Champions (Granlund)
– World Junior Ice Hockey Championship First Team All-Star (Granlund)
– Finnish Ice Hockey Player of the Year (Granlund)
– EJHL Rookie of the Year (Coyle)
– NCAA (Hockey East) All-Rookie Team (Coyle)
– NCAA (Hockey East) Rookie of the Year (Coyle)
– U20 WJC Top 3 Player on Team (Coyle)
– QMJHL Champions (Coyle)
– QMJHL Playoffs MVP (Coyle)
This is just a sample of their accomplishments. This year, all of these extremely talented young men are playing for the Wild’s top minor league affiliate, the Houston Aeros, in the American Hockey League. Granlund was on a terrific scoring pace early in the season and was sure to be one of the AHL’s top scorers until an injury in early November kept him out of the lineup for a good portion of the season. Johan Larsson was moved up to fill Granlund’s shoes on the top line between Zucker and Coyle and Larsson’s play certainly helped lessen the blow of losing Granlund. It also didn’t hurt that Coyle and Zucker are a great pair of linemates for any center to play with.
Zucker leads the Aeros in scoring this season with 15 goals and 14 assists for 29 points in 28 games, including eight power play goals and one on the penalty kill. In 20 games, Granlund has eight goals and 12 assists for 20 points and has four power play goals. Coyle and Larsson have posted 19 and 18 points, respectively, in 32 games. All of these guys stand a good chance of making Minnesota’s opening night roster and Zucker, Granlund and Coyle could be very serious contenders for the NHL’s Rookie of the Year title.
#4. Josh Harding will (finally) take Minnesota’s net for his own. When he was drafted early in the 2nd round of the 2002 draft, Harding was practically anointed the Wild’s goaltender of the future. However, the time wasn’t right and both Manny Fernandez and Dwayne Roloson were playing quite well. Then, when a spot opened up during an injury…Niklas Backstrom swooped in and stole the spot right out from under the pads of Harding.
A few seasons later, the Wild make a General Manager change, Jacques Lemaire retires, and in comes Todd Richards. Backstrom has been good, but hasn’t thrived under the more aggressive, offensive-minded coaching styles of Richards and second year head coach Mike Yeo. Harding looked poised to steal the reigns from “Nik”, until an injury ended his 2010-2011 season before it even started. Instead of bringing in top goalie prospect Anton Khudobin to be the Wild’s backup, Fletcher chose to sign a proven veteran in Jose Theodore. Theodore came in and put up some very respectable numbers as a backup but Harding was ultimately the one Fletcher chose to re-sign the next July.
Josh came back with a vengeance during the ’11-’12 season, posting a very respectable 13-12-4 record with two shutouts, a 2.62 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage. The Wild brass felt so comfortable with his play that they re-signed him to a three-year contract. With Backstrom’s $6 million a year contract ending after this season, it looked like the net was Harding’s to lose. And then the other shoe dropped—Josh Harding was diagnosed with MS.
Josh has made it very clear that his goal—to be Minnesota’s top goaltender—hasn’t changed, nor will it or should it. Minnesota will stick with Harding for a number of reasons: he’s younger than Backstrom, he’s cheaper than Backstrom, he’s very talented and deserves to be a #1 goaltender in the NHL and, if he doesn’t work out, there are three other great young goalies in Matthew Hackett, Darcy Kuemper and Gustafsson chomping on the bit to take his place. Don’t be surprised to see Harding get at least 50% of the starts in Minnesota’s shortened season until Backstrom is either traded at the deadline, at the draft or signs somewhere else in free agency.
#5. Jared Spurgeon will finally be recognized as the legitimate NHL defenseman he really is. In 70 games last season, the under-sized defenseman led Minnesota’s defensive corps in scoring with three goals and 20 assists for 23 points, a -4 rating, six PMs, two power play goals, 12 power play points, 36 hits, 95 blocked shots and an average of 21:35 in time on ice per game. Not too bad for a 5’9” 185 lb. 22-year old defender. Last season, his partner on the blue line fluctuated between Marek Zidlicky, Kurtis Foster, Marco Scandella and Tom Gilbert. This year, his partner is NHL All-Star defenseman and 2003 7th overall draft pick Ryan Suter.
Minnesota’s goaltending is set, their forward lines are heavily re-enforced with elite talent, young blood and bottom-six depth and grit. It’s time for Minnesota’s defensemen to stop skating backwards and, instead, keep moving the puck forward. Gilbert, Scandella, Prosser, Falk and Stoner will do a great shutdown job on the bottom two pairs, but it is finally Spurgeon’s time to display his talents on the top pairing with an elite defensive partner and a deadly group of forwards to dish the puck to. Wild fans can be sure Spurgeon has the drive and determination to succeed in the role he has been given.
Call this hockey writer crazy, but these have been my five Wild predictions for Minnesota’s 2013. I think all Wild fans join me in hoping they come true.