The long wait–for training camp, that is–is finally over. Today, training camps open up across North America as NHL franchises start fitness testing and physicals before finally hosting first practices and scrimmages.
Thankfully, Minnesota will have a 20-day training camp this season, in addition to the 53-game camp held earlier this year. Zach Parise should be well adjusted to Mikko Koivu, and will have more time to develop chemistry with any of Jason Pominville, Charlie Coyle or Dany Heatley. It almost goes without question that Ryan Suter will kick off camp with Jonas Brodin on a top pairing that was undoubtedly one of the very best defensive pairings in the league last season, collecting a Norris finalist nomination and All-Rookie Team honors. Not too shabby for a veteran defenseman jumping into a brand new system with a shortened training camp and a rookie.
The bottom-6 forward group looks to be a fun competition to watch in camp, as Jake Dowell, David Steckel, Stephane Veilleux and Justin Fontaine fight for the lone spot up for grabs in a group already featuring Torrey Mitchell, Kyle Brodziak, Matt Cooke, Zenon Konopka and Mike Rupp. As intriguing as Fontaine is, and as much as I love Veilleux’s tenacity, there’s just something about Steckel’s face-off abilities and imposing 6’6″ 215-pound frame that I find just plain exciting to have down the middle of the lineup. This rugged and experienced bottom-6 will help compensate for what looks to be an extremely young second line.
With Parise, Koivu and one of Pominville, Coyle or Heatley (likely Pominville) locked into the first line, the second line looks to feature the two odd men out and either Jason Zucker, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter or even 2009 7th rounder Erik Haula. Without Matt Cullen, Granlund, Coyle, Brodziak and Haula will be looked at as potential second line pivots, and will be paired with wingers that will best maximize the line’s scoring potential.
After an impressive showing last season, it’s hard to think Coyle and Zucker not making the team. But you can bet Granlund has been working his butt off after the disappointment of last season, and early reports indicate he’s looking very, very good this year. Niederreiter is also looking for a fresh start after a bad experience with the Isles. He’ll make a serious push for second line left wing, and Wild GM Chuck Fletcher is certainly welcoming it after trading RFA forward Cal Clutterbuck and a third round pick for the high-ceiling power forward in June.
Coyle, Zucker, Granlund, Niederreiter, Fontaine and Haula aren’t the only young forwards in consideration, however. Fellow top prospects Zack Phillips, Raphael Bussieres, Brett Bulmer and Tyler Graovac will look to make a serious push for a roster spot, as well. With only so many spots open in Minnesota’s lineup, my gut tells me only Zucker, Coyle and either Granlund or Niederreiter will claim a roster spot out of camp. There is room for a healthy scratch or two, but what’s the point in having a talented young player sit in the press box game after game when they can go down to Iowa and get top minutes?
On the blue line–well–let’s just say it looks considerably different than last season. The top pairing of Suter and Brodin is still intact, Jared Spurgeon is still there, but Tom Gilbert, Justin Falk and Brett Clark are all gone. Knowing this, Fletcher signed Minnesota native Keith Ballard to a two-year deal, and also signed former Nashville 2007 first rounder Jonathon Blum to a one-year deal. In addition, 2008 second rounder Marco Scandella and 2012 7th overall pick Mathew Dumba are expected to make a serious push for a roster spot, as well. Then there is Clayton Stoner and Elk River, Minnesota native Nate Prosser.
Scandella really stepped up in the playoffs this year, and comes into camp fully intending to make the roster. A big, mobile left-shot defensemen, Marco has had good chemistry with No. 3 defenseman Jared Spurgeon in the past, and will likely look to pick up right where they left off. This leaves Ballard, Blum, Dumba, Stoner and Prosser fighting for Nos. 5, 6 and 7.
As much as I like Dumba’s game, there’s no reason why he can’t go back to Red Deer and dominate the WHL for one more season. It’s very unlikely he can step in with a game as mature as Brodin’s was last year, and there’s just no need to rush him period. Ballard isn’t going to be out of a spot, there was a good reason Minnesota signed such a young talent in Blum, and Stoner’s grit and physicality is needed all the more with the absence of Falk.
Things haven’t changed much in net for Minnesota. Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding are still the men in goal, but Backstrom is injury prone and another year older, and there is much uncertainty surrounding Harding’s multiple sclerosis. Behind them, Darcy Kuemper and Johan Gustafsson form a formidable tandem in Des Moines as the backbone for the Iowa Wild in their inaugural season. However, Minnesota’s goaltending is in a holding pattern until either Backstrom proves he’s still worthy of being a No. 1 goalie in the NHL, Harding proves he’s got a handle on his MS or one of Kuemper or Gustafsson step up to claim the crown as future franchise No. 1 netminder.
In short, this is going to be a very interesting training camp and season for Minnesota. It’ll be exciting (and nerve-racking) to see how the Wild’s young guns perform in their sophomore seasons, and it’ll be equally exciting to see how Parise, Suter and Pominville do with a full training camp, preseason and 82-game regular season. Minnesota is poised to be an impact team this year; can they live up to the hype?
Get excited, folks–the first preseason game begins Tuesday, September 17th. The puck drops at the “X” against the Columbus Blue Jackets starting at 7pm.