This 2014-15 NHL season preview features the Minnesota Wild.
What was Stanley Cup worthy in 2013-14?
Ever since Minnesota came into the NHL as an expansion team in 2000-01, defense has been a strength. Last season was no exception, as the Wild finished 7th and 5th respectively in goals against (2.42) and shots allowed (27.7) per game.
That defense was once again led by Ryan Suter, who played a league and career-high 29:24 per game, over 2 minutes per game more than anyone else in the NHL. Despite facing top competition every night, he still put up a +15 rating and 43 points on his way to finishing 4th in Norris Trophy voting.
Thanks to a combination of injury and inconsistency, the Wild used 5 goaltenders last season, none playing more than 29 games. Josh Harding was absolutely on another level before succumbing to the effects of Multiple Sclerosis in January. Until then, he posted a record of 18-7-3 with a .933 save percentage and an incredible 1.65 goals-against-average.
Leading the offense once again was Zach Parise. Although he played in just 67 games, he finished second on the team in goals (29) and points (56), while leading the team in the playoffs with 14 points in 13 games. He also scored 14 of the Wild’s 45 powerplay goals.
After scoring just 3 points in 64 games with the Islanders, former 5th overall pick Nino Niederreiter finally found a home in Minnesota and it led to a productive season. He put up 36 points in just over 14 minutes per game of ice-time, and added 6 points in 13 playoff games, which included the series-clinching overtime goal against the Colorado Avalanche in round 1.
Another young player who seemed to grow up right before our eyes last year was Mikael Granlund. After a somewhat difficult rookie season which saw him post just 8 points in 27 games, Granlund was given an opportunity due to an injury to Mikko Koivu to center the Wild’s top line. He responded with 41 points in just 63 games, adding 7 points in 13 playoff games.
What was draft lottery worthy in 2013-14?
For a team that gives up so little defensively, it’s hard to understand how they finished 27th in the NHL on the penalty kill with just a 78.8% success rate.
They also had a hard time generating chances, as only the Buffalo Sabres finished with fewer shots on goal per game. Minnesota averaged just 26.6 shots, a very low number considering the skill they have up front.
The Wild tried to address their offensive needs at the trade deadline, acquiring Matt Moulson from the Buffalo Sabres. While his 13 points in 20 games during the regular season weren’t terrible, he was absolutely invisible come playoff time, managing just 3 points in 10 games.
Another player who was counted on to provide more offense that he did was Dany Heatley. The former 50-goal scorer managed just 12 goals in 76 games and 110 shots. Those numbers average out to 0.16 goals-per-hgame and a paltry 1.45 shots per game, the lowest averages of his career. To make matters worse, his playoff run was even worse: 1 goal and 9 shots in 11 games. By the time the Wild were eliminated, Heatley had been relegated to the 4th line, averaging less than 10 minutes per game over his last 3 games.
So what did they do to get better?
Perhaps the worst kept secret in hockey going into the summer was the future destination of Thomas Vanek. His relationship and on-ice chemistry with Jason Pominville from their days in Buffalo all but assured the left winger would suit up for the Wild next season. Minnesota finalized a contract with Vanek shortly after free agency opened.
He brings good puck protection skills and 254 career goals in 598 games to Minnesota, which should help improve their offensive production quite a bit.
The caveat here is that many have questioned his commitment level following a disappointing playoff performance with the Canadiens last season, which saw him post 5 goals and 10 points in 17 games, despite getting top line minutes.
Player to watch
There was a lot of hype surrounding 21 year-old centre Mikael Granlund before he came to the NHL, and last season we caught a glimpse of why. He’s an elite level talent who isn’t afraid to go to the dirty areas to score.
He’ll have more to work with this season as well even with Koivu healthy, as the Wild are deeper and more talented up front than a year ago.
But if they can get someone to step up between the pipes, they’re as legitimate a Stanley Cup contender as anyone.
They will make the playoffs if…
They can get solid, consistent goaltending from someone.
They will miss the playoffs if…
Ryan Suter burns himself out. He’s been playing between 28-31 minutes per game since he arrived in Minnesota, and all of those minutes are against top-level competition. While he’s been mostly very effective, it would serve the Wild well to try to take some pressure off him.
What should we expect this season?
The Wild have many of the pieces needed for a deep playoff run, but it seems there’s just something missing.
In goal is probably the only question mark. Josh Harding is very good, but as with anyone battling MS, you just cannot count on him to give you a full season of top-level play. Niklas Backstrom is certainly capable, but he’s had trouble staying healthy lately.
The Wild will be a tough out regardless of who’s in goal. But if they can get someone to step up between the pipes, they’re as legitimate a Stanley Cup contender as anyone.
45-28-9 99 points, 3rd in the Central Division, 7th in the Western Conference