The Wild will be looking to make significant strides this year towards an eventual hoisting of the Cup. I am thinking that most of us fans want to see them at least finish in the top three in the
Norris, er... Central, division and get into the 2nd round of the playoffs. But what will be the keys to the Wild getting there? In this post, I am going to suggest 5 (well, 7 if you include hedges) pivotal players to a successful season.
5) Keith Ballard (although this could also apply to Marco Scandella): The addition of Ryan Suter meant marked improvement on the offensive side from the blue line - even with the down year from Tom Gilbert. But, to move to the next level, the Wild will need even more blue line production. Jonas Brodin's offensive numbers will likely improve (heck, they better), but being a point machine is not exactly his game. Jared Spurgeon's production is not likely to be radically improved. So, (barring Matt Dumba making the team) that leaves Ballard and Scandella. I am picking Ballard here because I think that a bounce back to production closer to his pre-Vancouver years would be an incredible boon for Minnesota. Wild success line for Ballard (or Scandella): 20 points.
4) Nino Niederreiter (or could be Jason Zucker): Yes, additional scoring is an obvious theme. Looking at the "lock" forwards for the Wild, one sees a lot of generally well rounded players, but no true snipers. Heatley is past his prime sniping days, in my eyes. He is still quite effective if the puck is coming at him more or less from the front, or if he has time to settle the puck on his blade; but he seems to have lost most of his knack for one-timing pucks coming more from the side. He tends to have poor success getting shots near the goal in those instances. Parise is more of a super, all-star pest player than a sniper. An effective sniper who is able to put pressure on the defense from almost anywhere in the offensive zone above the goal line could give a big lift to the Wild scoring. Especially if that sniper could hold their own opposite Parise, creating opportunities for Zach to do his pest thing to the tune of 30+ goals. I'm going with Nino here for two reasons. First, he is less of a known quantity than Zucker; and second, his potential top end is higher. Wild success line for Niederreiter (or Zucker): 22 goals.
3) Mikael Granlund: Ah, getting around to that second (or first?) line center spot. Not much new to add here. Granlund [still] comes advertised as an elite playmaker - something the Wild doesn't otherwise have. (My take is that Koivu doesn't quite make the elite level.) If Granlund's game has progressed to the point where the Wild can put him on the ice enough to take advantage of his playmaking abilities, that can only be a huge boost to the secondary scoring. Wild success line for Granlund: 51 points.
2) Kyle Brodziak: Continuing down the middle of the ice and what it means for secondary scoring. Two years ago, in that clusterf*%# of a jumbled line season, Brodz gave us a good look at what he is capable of offensively. Last year, not so much. Kyle is likely to have more scoring talent next to him this year. And, he's almost sure to enter the season in better physical shape. I'm looking for a big bounce-back year from Brodziak offensively. The Hawks last year were like the poster example for what 3rd-line scoring can mean for a team. A productive third line centered by Brodz would go a long ways towards the Wild fulfilling the fans wants. Wild success line for Brodziak: 45 points.
1) Josh Harding: We all pretty much know what we are going to get from Niklas Backstrom when healthy: a solid, but not spectacular #1 goalie. The key with Backs seems to be keeping him healthy and not worn down. Enter Josh Harding. We also know what we will get from a healthy Josh Harding: a solid, but not spectacular, nearly #1 goalie. Having Josh available for the entire season and providing quality respites for Backstrom seems like a pretty good recipe for success to me. Wild success line for Harding: 35 games started.
My prediction is that if 3 or more of the above players can reach their Wild success lines, then the Wild will finish third or better in their division, and find themselves playing in the second playoff round come next spring.