If you’ve been paying attention to Gone Puck Wild lately, and shame on you if you haven’t, then you know school has begun as Wild fans brush up on their knowledge of the new teams within Minnesota’s division. This week, we’ve saved the best for last, as that team just so happens to be your very own Minnesota Wild. Going through Sunday, we’ll break down the Wild’s major additions and subtractions, strengths and weaknesses, prospect pool, 2013 draft class and team outlook as we get you caught up on what you need to know before the puck officially drops on the regular season.
I’m just going to be blunt. Last night, we saw just how good some of these high-ceiling youngsters can be. Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter had several great chances last night and were constant threats in the offensive zone. The trio would finally connect on a power play marker after Granlund centered a beautiful feed out front from behind the net to Coyle, who fired a quick wrister on net while Niederreiter collected the rebound and roofed it past the sprawling goalie with a pretty backhand. Poetry, sheer poetry. However, Minnesota is in serious trouble if the three young men are to be relied on as a top line now. Fortunately, that’s not the case.
While all three young guns could find themselves on the Wild’s second line at some point this season, Minnesota’s top line is all but set in stone as NHL All-Star left winger and former New Jersey Devils captain Zach Parise, Wild captain Mikko Koivu at center and former Buffalo Sabres captain Jason Pominville on right wing. “The Captain Line”, I love it, and I’m not alone in my sentiments. Even without former top-9 forwards Matt Cullen, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Devin Setoguchi and Cal Clutterbuck, this roster still has the potential to be the best in Wild history.
Parise, Koivu and Pominville have a full camp to click and adjust to one another and they’re already showing signs of what could be one of the best top lines in the West this season. Two-time 50-goal scorer Dany Heatley has come to camp in great shape, looking faster and more physical. What’s more, he’s playing in a contract season and has the potential to score 30+, especially if skating on the wing of an elite playmaker like Granlund. The young guns have another season of development under their belt and have come into camp bigger, faster, stronger (we can rebuild him! Six Million Dollar Man, anyone? Anyone? Meh, I digress) and unwilling to lose a roster spot.
In addition, the bottom-6 forward corps finally seems to have found their identity with the acquisition of top NHL agitator Matt Cooke. Skating alongside Kyle Brodziak and Torrey Mitchell, Cooke gives the Wild a very solid third line that can play in all situations against all other lines. Whether it’s killing penalties, laying checks, getting under the opposition’s skin or even scoring a clutch goal or two, Cooke can do it all, and he’ll have to.
On defense, the mixture of All-Stars and young guns is all the more evident as the top pairing contains both. Norris finalist Ryan Suter and All-Rookie defenseman Jonas Brodin comprise what could be one of the top-3 best defensive pairings in the league today, and they only look to get better with more seasoning. Behind them are NHL veteran blue liners Keith Ballard and Jared Spurgeon (I know, it’s still hard for me to think of him as a veteran), but Ballard will likely be playing on the third pairing as 2008 second round pick Marco Scandella looks to claim a top-4 spot for his own.
Scandella is one of three high-ceiling young defensemen fighting for a roster spot, the others being Predators 2007 first rounder Jonathon Blum and 2012 7th overall pick Mathew Dumba. The fact that “Pizza” (if you’re visiting us from Hockey Wilderness) is a big 6’3″ 210-pound mobile left-shot and already has great chemistry with Spurgeon, makes him stand out above the rest as the likeliest candidate for No. 4 defenseman on the roster. Well, that, and the fact that Spurgeon is the team’s undisputable No. 3 defenseman and will not come off that second pairing for a long, long time.
After lacking talented right-shot defensemen for so long, Minnesota suddenly finds themselves filled to the brim with them, and with only two spots to fill. With two lefties on the top pairing, that leaves Spurgeon on the second pairing, and Blum, Dumba and Elk River, Minnesota native Nate Prosser fighting for the right side on the bottom pairing. At this point, I don’t see how Blum gets sent down before Prosser, considering his one-year contract highly suggests he prove himself worthy of being an NHL defenseman sooner than later.
As for Dumba, it’s St. Paul or Red Deer, and I can’t help but think the dynamic young blue liner would prefer the former over the latter. However, Minnesota should be cautious with him. If his play is deserving of the NHL, he shouldn’t have to worry about making the team. But there’s no harm in sending him back to the Rebels to dominate the WHL for one more season.
There’s no question Minnesota’s greatest assets right now are their high-ceiling young guns and elite veteran leadership. However, it doesn’t hurt to ease these supremely talented NHL stars-of-tomorrow into the waters of the league. Going into last season, who would’ve thought it would be Granlund that sank and Brodin that swam? Granted, Brodin’s transition to the NHL was an anomaly, but that’s exactly why Dumba’s situation should be handled delicately. Enough of the cards have been played for the team to succeed; Wild GM Chuck Fletcher should wait to reveal the rest of his hand until the proper time. But what a hand it’s going to be.