As we get closer and closer to the start of the 2013 NHL season, experts have the Wild pencilled in anywhere from Stanley Cup Champions (really Melrose?) and 12th in the West. Many have a "wait and see" attitude about the new look Wild, but in my opinion, it really comes down to a few things.
These are my six biggest questions that will determine the 2013 season for the Minnesota Wild.
1. Will the Wild finally have their first point per game player since Marian Gaborik?
The Wild have only two players who have ever performed at a point per game scoring clip, but in order to reach the playoffs, they need at least one player on whom they can rely night in and night out to get the puck in the net.
Zach Parise has only been a point per game guy twice in his career (94 in 08-09 and 82 in 09-10), but he's the most likely candidate to lead the Wild in scoring to the tune of 48 points in this shortened season.
Dany Heatley has been a point per game guy four times in his career (last in 09-10), but has seen a precipitous fall in production since the 09-10 season. It's unlikely that he'll find that kind of scoring touch again, but partnering him with Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise gives him the best potential since he was on a line with Daniel Alfredsson in Ottawa.
2. How will Josh Harding's MS affect his season and/or career?
Lost in the lockout was the story of Josh Harding's Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis. Harding has always been the kind of player who seems to play brilliantly for a stretch, then fall victim to injury at the most inopportune time. Being an auto-immune disease, MS tends to make it difficult for the body to recover from injury, and episodes tend to flare up as a result of stress and strain on the body. Being a goaltender, strain is almost impossible to avoid, and cognitive impairment, dizziness or numbness (the typical symptoms of an onset of relapsing, remitting MS) would wreak havoc on anyone, let alone an NHL goalie. The schedule of splitting 48 games in 99 days will require time to be split between Niklas Backstrom and Harding to ensure that the goaltending position isn't a liability. While Harding has a positive outlook on his career, this will be something to watch closely during the season.
3. Can the Wild stay healthy and avoid putting 42 different players on the ice this season?
The truncated timeframe (48 games in 99 days) will make it difficult to keep the level of energy high and avoiding the nagging injuries (see: strained groin and/or high ankle sprain) that seem to crop up frequently in the NHL, but the Wild staff and reporters covering the team have mentioned over and over that the guys look to be in great shape, but they'll need to make sure they are taking care of themselves and making the most of their time off and in the training room.
4. Can Ryan Suter lead a suspect blue line, without Shea Weber?
The blue line is young, shallow and needs a leader. Suter is a 30:00 TOI guy, which the Wild haven't seen since Brent Burns was dealt in the off-season. Suter is an all-star, a leader on and off the ice and the kind of puck-moving, rock solid defenseman any team desperately needs, especially one that hasn't had a real game changer to lead the break and provide the team with a sense of stability. Jared Spurgeon, Clayton Stoner, Justin Falk, Marco Scandella, Tyler Cumaand Nate Prosser are all inexperienced. Sure, they've all shown flashes of excellent play and maturity, but this is a thin blue line and those guys have also shown they can be ridiculously bone-headed at times. Even if/when Jonas Brodin is ready to play the team will still rely on Suter to be an all-star caliber defenseman who is not able to rely on a Norris winning partner.
5. Will Pierre-Marc Bouchard return to form?
Post-concussion syndrome affects everyone differently, and Bouchard has had setback after setback in his recovery. He, his doctors and the Wild coaching staff have come to the conclusion that he is ready to go and back to game form. Michael Russo has stated that Bouchard is in the best shape of his life, which indicates that he has been able to train without experiencing symptoms. During training camp and in the scrimmages, we have seen stretches in which it appears Bouchard is back to his old self; dangling, carrying the puck, seeing the play develop and making crisp passes to players in scoring position. This all bodes well for his future and the results the Wild will expect on the ice. But until he takes the first few big hits into the boards and rebounds from getting drilled or doesn't shy away from contact, we can't be certain of whether or not he's really ready to go.
6. Are Mikael Granlund and "the kids" ready for prime time?
With Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Zack Phillips, Jason Zucker and Johan Larsson, the future is incredibly bright for the Wild and their fans. But this isn't the season we expect a deep run in the playoffs lead by the next generation. It is, however, the season in which Granlund is expected to be on the Calder short-list and the prospects are expected to fill in when injury strikes and be ready to face NHL opposition. The future looks good, but this season could see some growing pains from the kids.
So Wilderness, what is your take on the big six questions? Anything else you are looking to see from this team? Let's hear it.