The season hasn’t started yet but already the season previews are flying all over the televisions and mainstream media. So we thought we’d compile a list of the top 5 key things that have to happen for the Minnesota Wild to win the Northwest division. Sure the Vancouver Canucks are the favorites to win the division, but in a shortened season, anything is possible. If a team goes on a 5 or 6 game losing streak, their chances of a divisional crown could be in jeopardy.
In the coming days we’ll preview the other four divisional foes, but for now we’ll focus on what the Wild can control to help them get one of the top three seeds in the West.
1. Strong start – this is a no-brainer and probably the most commonly used phrase with every club but it truly is the most important element to the Wild winning the division. Yesterday we looked at how many games the Wild would need to win to get into the playoffs. The number we came up with was 23 along with some overtime losses. To win the division it’s probably going to take 30 wins+ meaning there is no time to stumble, especially out of the gate.
2. Power play production – not many clubs that have a poor powerplay make the playoffs, let alone threaten for a division title. Last year is the perfect reminder of that. The Wild had the fourth worst power play in the league at a measly 15.1% and they missed the playoffs. Of the bottom ten ranked teams last season, only four of them made the playoffs.
The addition of Ryan Suter on the back end of the first unit will certainly help and having a line of Dany Heatley, Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise up front will have plenty of fire power. But they need to be able to capitalize early and often with the man advantage. Games can be won or lost by the power play and with every game having two crucial points up for grabs, the Wild need their power play to be clicking right from the start.
3. Dany Heatley, Pierre-Marc Bouchard & Devin Setoguchi – three players with star capabilities and all three need huge, bounce back years. Bouchard was recently given medical clearance to return to the game and will be at Wild camp when it opens on Sunday. He could be the missing the piece for the Wild and when healthy gives them a bonified, number two all-star centerman.
Heatley is coming off one of his worst seasons as a professional despite still leading the Wild in goals and points. The Wild need him to return to his dominating ways in the offensive zone and see him crack the 30-goal plateau. Having Parise on his line will bring more scoring chances which will then be up to the former 50-goal man to deliver the goods.
Setoguchi likely has more pressure to have a better year than Heatley as the former Shark forward had 19 goals and just 36 points while playing in 69 games last season. His best season in San Jose was in 2008-09 when he scored 31 goals and 65 points. As a second line winger he doesn’t need to score 30 goals this season, but he needs to be more productive in setting them up. A 20-goal season is acceptable from Setoguchi but 36 points is not. He has the raw ability to easily produce 20-goals and 30 assists. Given the youth in the Wild organization, Setoguchi could be changing zip codes in the not so distant future if he can’t produce to the level Minnesota needs of him.
4. Goaltending – last season the Minnesota Wild had the 13th best goals against with a combined 2.65 average. They need that same consistency again this year from the combination of Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding. There will be plenty of question marks surrounding Harding as he begins his hockey career with the new challenge of dealing with MS.
Bakstrom is in the last year of his contract and if we’ve learnt anything from history it’s that players typically play above average when playing for a contract the following year.
Providing Harding can consistently perform to the level Wild fans have come to know, the Wild could have one of the best one-two tandems in the league. This could also give them some leverage at the trade deadline to deal Bakstrom if Harding proves he can carry the load.
5. Trade deadline – it might sound silly that we have this listed as the fifth element to the Wild’s success in winning the division. You could argue that the success of Parise and Suter is more important but keep in mind that as it stands right now the Wild are in need of shoring up their blue line and the trade deadline may be the perfect opportunity to bring in that missing piece. It’s the time of year when the pretenders dump their high salaries and soon to be free agents to teams looking for rental players that could be the difference between a first-round exit and a lengthy playoff run. The Wild are poised to be in the position and will likely need to move some of their youthful prospects to land a top four defenceman at the deadline. Plus Parise and Suter have been so consistent in their careers it’s hard to argue they won’t continue that trend here in Minnesota.
Disagree with some of the above points? Give us your thoughts on the top five keys to the Wild winning the Northwest division. We welcome your comments.