There are stirrings in the wilderness. Russo has come out of hibernation. The State Fair (and new white jerseys) are around the corner. And with this renewed vitality is going to come increasing traffic regarding what the Wild's forward lines are going to be for the upcoming season. And why not? It's fun.
And this year, I expect the line discussions to come from many angles and be quite lively. This is because it seems to me that there are many more key uncertainties surrounding the Wild forwards heading into 2013-14 than there was last year. Amazingly, there is probably more uncertainty around Mikael Granlund and what he might bring to the NHL ice than there was at this time approaching his first North American professional campaign. And what about Nino Niederreiter? Is the key to unlock his hockey potential going to miraculously materialize in the crisp Minnesota air? Or are we going to find that he was simply overrated or missing the right attitude to be an NHL success? Is Jason Zucker's game going to round out enough to impress the Wild staff to use him for a high ice-time non-protected role? Is Eric Haula's improvement curve going to continue it's marked upward trajectory such that he's ready to leap directly into the NHL storm? Is a healthy Dany Heatley going to be able to check the slide of his production curve? Is Kyle Brodziak going to have a bounce-back year? Or was the 2011-1012 campaign an anomaly that got him severely overpaid? Where do Jason Pominville and Matt Cooke fit into the lineup? Who will be the four Wild centers? And, most importantly, will Zenon Kenopka actually spend any time on an NHL ice surface while a game clock is running?
The questions are many, which should keep the discussions interesting. I would hope that anyone who portends to have definitive answers to more than two to give some indication of how they come by their unnatural wisdom. :-) I certainly don't have many.
For me, their are basically two knowns heading into the season. 1) Koivu and Parise will be together on the same line; and, 2) Brodziak will be the center getting the second-most even-strength ice time. Regarding the latter, even with as poorly as Brodz played last year, and as well as Cullen played, Brodziak had over 20% more 5-on-5 ice time than Cullen last year. This could be because Coach Mike Yeo simply mismanaged his lines. Although, I am more inclined to believe that is was because Yeo properly managed Cullen's ice time to keep his performance level up at his age, as well as the roles of the subject lines. Regardless, keeping last year's usage in mind, it's hard to imagine that either 1) Granlund's overall play will improve enough; 2) Coyle, who last played center over a season and a half ago as a sophomore in college, will really be ready to step in as a true 2nd line NHL center; or, 3) that Haula will be ready to do the same, to the point where any of them will be surpassing Brodziak in even-strength minutes. There is no denying Brodziak's determination; and there appears to be a healthy dose of pride mixed in. I expect a strong bounce-back year from Brodz.
Staying on the center track, who will be the other two Wild centers come October 3? At least one will likely come from the trio of Granlund, Coyle and Haula. I still have a hard time seeing Coyle's optimum long-term value to the Wild being at center. Therefore, I gotta think that Coyle at center is really the emergency back-up plan. Granlund has to be the preferred solution. But, who knows? There just doesn't seem much point to analyze it beyond that. Ditto for Haula. I just hate it when the emergency back-up plan's chances of having to be implemented are this high.
As for the fourth center slot, because of where I see Coyle optimally fitting in long-term, I don't see him as an option here. As can be inferred from my second paragraph, I hope to hell that it is not Konopka. But what is left? Well, there is the second of Granlund/Haula, Jake Dowell, and (perhaps as a stretch) Torrey Mitchell. Which leaves the arrow back pointing at ZK. Pardon me while I try to go find a soft wall to bang my head against repeatedly. (Maybe it is worth slowing Coyle's development at wing slightly to have him play center for a year!) Again, who knows?
On to wing. Coyle's slotting with Koivu and Parise resulted in a very solid line for the Wild last year. But, it was hardly the spectacular line most of us Wild faithful were hoping for out of Koivu and Parise. (Maybe the expectations were/are too high.) My own thoughts on this line are trending towards Coyle not complementing Parise sufficiently. I have started to come around to the idea that Parise's game would be best served by having a wingmate who is a constant source of pressure on the defense. Hello Jason Zucker! (Yes, this is a bit of a reversal for me.) The question still remains, however, is the rest of his game up to the kind of minutes that this role entails? Nino also appears to have the potential to fill the "put the pressure on the defense" role -- also with the same huge question. What about Pominville? Here again, I think he or Coyle are the fallback if neither of the preferred options work. The answer? I have no clue. I have to resign myself to wait and see.
Speaking of Pominville, I still haven't changed my mind on where I see him slotted -- directly next to Brodziak (if not up with Koivu and Parise). I think his overall game is going to be too important to Yeo to limit his minutes by putting him on one of the other lines. Simple as that. As for Heatley, I think he slots in on the right side of whichever of Granlund/Haula/Coyle is centering the third/second (depending upon definition) line. Russo's reporting seemed to indicate that the Wild were pretty set on getting Heater back to the right side. And, I just think this is the line by default.
Regarding the other slots: the possible combinations are numerous, and the uncertainties just as numerous. Feel free to dust off your parent's Ouija board.