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.
As you may have noticed, the Kool-Aid I’ve been drinking has been laced with something causing me to inexplicably go on and on about the very talented young guns in the mix for roster spots. If you’ve had any as well, I’ve got the antidote to bring you back to reality. Minnesota’s biggest strength is its youth, unfortunately, it’s also the biggest weakness.
Matt Cullen isn’t there anymore to talk Jason Zucker’s ear off if he’s struggling. Neither are Devin Setoguchi, Pierre-Marc Bouchard or Cal Clutterbuck. Those are four key players missing from last year, and the fact that most of those empty spots will be filled by youngsters quite frankly concerns me. In fact, Minnesota’s second power play unit looks to be extremely young no matter who makes the team. Whichever way it’s done, at least two of Zucker, Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle or Nino Niederreiter will be making the leap to the NHL at the start of the season, with likely just Dany Heatley as the only veteran member of the second line.
While the first line looks set, the blue line looks deep and the bottom-6 forward corps look tough, there is a glaring weakness on that second line. Is Granlund better adjusted to the NHL game this year? Is Zucker ready to make the leap fulltime? Can Nino make a fresh start with a great season? Can Coyle go from top line third wheel to “the man” on the second line? Minnesota is in desperate need of secondary scoring. The third line won’t provide much and Heatley can’t be the only one getting it done on line two. It’s going to have to come from the rookies.
After several quality drafts, Minnesota’s prospect pool is filled to the brim, and now it’s time for them to prove just how good they really can be. It’s not going to be pretty at first, and they’ll certainly struggle, but, if they’re going to earn fulltime roster spots as legitimate NHLers, they’re going to have to do so now.
Speaking of which, Wild GM Chuck Fletcher did make sure he brought in a veteran two-way puck mover in Keith Ballard to help ease the transition on defense. With 2008 second rounder Marco Scandella and 2012 7th overall pick Mathew Dumba looking to make an impact this season, the signing of Ballard and intriguing right-shot Jonathon Blum will help cover their backs as they fully adjust to the faster pace of the NHL.
Scandella will have much less of a struggle than Dumba, due to the fact he’s already played several games over the past few seasons and has developed great chemistry with Jared Spurgeon. Dumba, however, is no Jonas Brodin in the sense that he’ll definitely need a veteran presence watching his back. The young blue liner is a very dynamic player, considered by some to be perhaps the best defenseman available in the draft, but, as an offensive-minded blue liner with a booming shot and even bigger hits, he’ll need a guy like Ballard keeping him in check on what will likely be Minnesota’s third pairing. If the two can find a good balance, they’ll be fine.
Unfortunately, there’s one more weakness–goaltending. After years of being Minnesota’s biggest strength, there are serious questions in net. Re-signed for three more years to a much more affordable contract, Niklas Backstrom has become quite injury prone in recent seasons, including missing all of the 2012-13 playoffs before they even started. With the uncertainty surrounding Josh Harding and his multiple sclerosis, Backstrom may be counted on to play more games than he should have to in normal circumstances.
Can he do that without getting injured? Is this the year we finally see Swede Johan Gustafsson in the St. Paul net? Until either Backstrom and Harding prove they’re fine, or one or the other breaks down, Minnesota’s goaltending is in a holding pattern while Gustafsson and Darcy Kuemper ply their trade in Des Moines.
Minnesota’s youthful roster is both a blessing and a curse. The long-term may look bright, but the immediate future is still up in the air. It could be an interesting season, folks, buckle up.
Follow Dakota Case at Twitter.com/Dakota_case