Before the season, there was a fairly strong consensus among the staff here at Hockey Wilderness that the additions of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, along with the emergence of prospects like Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle, would lead the Wild to a sixth to eighth place finish in the West, and their first playoff berth since 1965. While things have not gone exactly according to plan, at the half way mark of the 2013 season, the Wild sit atop the Northwest and in third in the West.
What are the surprises? Let downs? Expectations for the second half? Let's take a look.
The dismal start to the career of the savior Mikael Granlund has to be the biggest surprise. This could, of course, be more a case of bloated expectations, but the organization touted this kid as the golden boy, ready to take us all to hockey heaven. Instead, he has floundered and there are questions about how to get him into games or if he should head to Houston to get the top minutes he should be playing.
One goal, five assists, and a -3 on the year, in addition to being a regular healthy scratch is not how the promised Calder candidate was supposed to kick off his hall of fame career. We can all wring our hands and pontificate on how he will likely follow the same development path as Mikko Koivu (which is still true), but the disappointment is palpable, and is the 800 pound gorilla in the otherwise fairly exciting Wild room.
Zach Parise and Ryan Suter have proven to be the players they were billed to be. Both are contributing, and both have made fans of nearly everyone in the State of hockey. Suter struggled for the first ten games, and both have been subject to very poorly researched posts on other sites, but both players are now kicking ass and not even bothering to take names. $196 million well spent so far, Mr. Leipold.
While Granlund has been a let down thus far, the rest of the prospect pool has really stepped up. Charlie Coyle has been a beast on the top line, and is only getting better by the day. His shift against the Canucks led directly to a goal by Parise, and it was abundantly clear why Chuck Fletcher called him the key to the Brent Burns trade.
Jonas Brodin is what Granlund was supposed to be. Brodin has become the talk of NHL circles that are paying attention, and deservedly so. He won't get Calder recognition, but he has shown he is going to be one of the best in the NHL. At just 19 years old, Brodin has cemented his role as Suter's defensive partner, and those two will look great skating along side each other for the next 13 years. I have answered questions from at least ten different sites wanting insight on the kid. He's good. Really, really good.
Jason Zucker, who shall hereby be referred to as JZ, has elements of Parise's game in his own. He is a puck hound, always near the puck, always going where the puck needs to be, creating chances, making space, timing passes perfectly, knowing what the next three moves are before anyone else does. And the speed... dear lord the speed. There is zero reason why the Aeros should ever expect to see JZ again. He's got 99 problems, but staying here ain't one.
Second Half Expectations
By now, we should all be clear on what this Wild team is. They can be frustrating at times, cause fans to pull their hair out, and even have some people calling for heads as they climbed to the top of the division. They are not the Pittsburgh Penguins or the Chicago Blackhawks. What they are is a team with an emerging identity and a team still finding where everyone fits.
Twenty-four games in, they are making it work one way or another, and are earning points on a regular basis. There are going to be good nights and bad, winning streaks and losing streaks, but in the end, they are going to be exactly who they are. A dump and chase team that still needs help on the blue line, and needs secondary scoring to win.
They also remain a six to eight kind of team, and unless the Canucks continue to fall apart (which is unlikely), the Wild will still make the playoffs, but likely not with home ice advantage.
You will see Coyle, Brodin, and Zucker continue to emerge as the future of this team, and Parise and Suter are going to continue to be superstars. Koivu will remain under-rated and below the radar, which is exactly where he plays best. Dany Heatley will very quietly stay near the top of the team in scoring, and the grinders will continue to plug away.
It is all very simple when you take a step back and look at the whole picture. The team isn't elite, yet, but they are good enough for where they are. It's going to be an exciting finish to the season, which is something that has not been the case for the Wild in a long time.
Sixth to eighth. It's where we were before the season started, and it is where we remain now. This is a playoff team;, but not yet a Stanley Cup contender. A couple more years under the belt of the kids, and the Hawks and Pens are going to want to check their rear view mirrors.
What are your thoughts, Wilderness? Biggest surprises good and bad. Expectations for the close out? Let's hear it.