The preseason is almost over and we're a few days away from a FULL season of real hockey. There have been projections flying around, as usual, but something struck me as odd: A lot of people believe the Wild got worse in the offseason. One source even predicted the Wild will finish as low as 29th in league this season, which is ridiculous. Of course, Barry Melrose predicting the Wild would win the Cup last season was equally insane.
I can live with people believing the Wild will miss the playoffs. It could happen. They came pretty damn close to missing them last season, the divisions have been switched around, and other teams have improved. This doesn't mean that the Wild became worse as a team, it just means the hill took a spike upwards. No more feasting on the Oilers and the Flames (The Avalanche are still there though). Instead, hello Blackhawks, Blues and Stars.
People are quick to point out the departures of Matt Cullen, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Cal Clutterbuck and Devin Setoguchi, but ignore the arrivals of Jason Pominville and Matt Cooke, the development of Charlie Coyle into a clear-cut top-6 player, the improved defensive depth provided by the likes of Mathew Dumba, Keith Ballard and Jonathon Blum and the growth of the many bright, young players in the system.
Here is what the lines looked like for most of the middle and end of last season:
Zach Parise - Mikko Koivu - Charlie Coyle
Jason Zucker - Matt Cullen - Devin Setoguchi
Dany Heatley - Kyle Brodziak - Pierre-Marc Bouchard
Torrey Mitchell - Zenon Konopka - Cal Clutterbuck
Extra: Mike Rupp, Mikael Granlund
Ryan Suter - Jonas Brodin
Clayton Stoner - Jared Spurgeon
Tom Gilbert - Justin Falk
Extras: Nate Prosser, Brett Clark
Here is what the lines are shaping up to look like this season or on opening night at the very least:
Zach Parise - Mikko Koivu - Jason Pominville
Dany Heatley - Charlie Coyle - Jason Zucker or Mikael Granlund
Nino Neiderreiter - Kyle Brodziak - Matt Cooke
Torrey Mitchell - Zenon Konopka - Justin Fontaine
Extras: Jake Dowell, Erik Haula, Jason Zucker or Mikael Granlund, Mike Rupp (IR)
Ryan Suter - Jonas Brodin
Jared Spurgeon - Keith Ballard
Marco Scandella - Mathew Dumba
Extras: Nate Prosser, Jonathon Blum, Clayton Stoner
Looking at the top-6:
There are a few factors to consider when looking at the before-and-after situation of the top 6. First of all, Charlie Coyle played most of the half-season on the first line with Koivu and Parise on the wing. The rookie-turned-sophomore is a natural center, and he is basically inked on the second line as a successor to Matt Cullen. He is playing like a man possessed in the preseason and has visibly improved in all aspects of the game, which bodes very well for the Wild's secondary scoring.
Speaking of Cullen, there is no doubt he was a big part of the reason the Wild returned to the playoffs. He had a good, long stretch of point-per-game play after a rough start, was able to get Devin Setoguchi going and played with about as much heart as anyone could ask of a player. He had 27 points in 42 games, making his 0.64 point per game average his highest since 2007-2008. He had finally showed more of what made Wild fans excited when he was acquired. That being said, at 36 years old, what are the sheer odds of Cullen repeating such a season? Cullen is being replaced by Charlie Coyle, a young, hungry player with loads of upside.
Devin Setoguchi's name is also thrown around in the Wild's decline conversation. Devin Setoguchi also had a very good season, but I doubt it would have been so if Matt Cullen hadn't had his unusually good year. When Cullen went down with injury, Setoguchi absolutely disappeared. The funny thing is, when the Wild acquired Setoguchi, everyone was quick to tell us how overrated he was due to playing with the Sharks. Then Setoguchi is traded and all of a sudden, the Wild gave away a great player. You were right the first time, hockey pundits: Devin Setoguchi is overrated. Add that to the fact that Jason Pominville is technically Setoguchi's replacement and there is no question the Wild won't actually miss Setoguchi. Jason Pominville is superior in every way, absolutely no question. That being said, it looks like Dany Heatley will be the one to take the spot on the 2nd line. He's in a contract year, is leaner than he was last year and has shown chemistry with Coyle. Heatley will certainly be a player to watch this season. By the way, Heatley? Also better than Setoguchi.
As for the 6th player, Jason Zucker, there is currently a battle brewing between Granlund and him (and maybe even Nino) for the 6th spot. While Zucker has had a relatively rough camp, Granlund has clearly improved. Also, while Zucker had a strong rookie campaign,
Looking at the bottom 6
Cal Clutterbuck being traded to New-York Islanders and quickly replaced by Matt Cooke is a move many people see as questionable. They replaced Clutterbuck with an older Clutterbuck-type player (although if anything, Clutter is the Cooke-type player). Clutterbuck was falling out of graces with the coaches and the players. His hitting had less impact, his offense had evaporated and at times, his temper was hurting the team. In return, they got Nino Neiderretter, a player who still hasn't been given a proper NHL shot and proved himself as one of the AHL's best snipers. There is no denying his upside. Strong, tall player with a wicked shot and a change of scenery. Matt Cooke's experience and Nino's offense are clearly upgrades over Cal Clutterbuck. Of course, the overall offense of the 3rd line may slip because the Wild are switching Heatley and Bouchard for Nino and Cooke (probably), but it will almost certainly improve defensively. Also, Brodziak is poised for a bounce-back season.
As for the 4th line, this is still very much in the air. If you haven't read Tony's article on a potential unconventional 4th line yet, go take a look.
Justin Fontaine and Erik Haula are two guys that could also contribute at some point in the season. Fontaine is an offensive player who will likely be asked to play a bottom-six role, which doesn't always turn out great. However, he could fill in nicely on the top 6 in case of injury.
Looking at the defense:
Barring a sophomore curse for Brodin, which is unlikely given his sound type of play, the first pairing will still be a Norris-caliber dynamic duo. The other two pairings look like they could be switched around a lot, just like last season, but they look noticeably better offensively. Mathew Dumba looks like he's here to stay and he will provide the Wild with something they probably never really had yet: an offensively gifted d-man who plays with an edge. It would be unfair to expect the kind of season Brodin had, and there will most certainly be growing pains, so we need to temper our expectations. That being said, if Yeo plays his cards right and Dumba is as advertised, the Wild may (finally) have a bonafide power-play weapon on its hands.
The addition of Keith Ballard is looking like a pretty smart one so far. I've personally always found him to be overrated, but again, he's an improvement on offense from the blueline, which the Wild sorely needs. The Wild only had 15 defensemen goals in 48 games last season.
The departures of Tom Gilbert and Justin Falk, for some reason, had people wondering what the Wild were thinking. Look, I know Oilers fans are still in love with Tom Gilbert, but in his time with the Wild, he was wholly unimpressive. He never really did anything to justify the hype. Stat-savvy fans point to his advanced stats, but fail to realize he ultimately played his way onto the 3rd pairing, even being scratched a few times. The supposed powerplay specialist wasn't even used on the powerplay on a team that really only had Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon as worthy PP d-men. Face it everyone; Tom Gilbert is overrated. Possibly even more so than Keith Ballard. (I await your hate-comments. Do your worst.)
Marco Scandella was brought up during the playoffs and looked very strong alongside Jared Spurgeon, who turned out to be quite the playoff performer. Scandella finally looks ready for full-time NHL duty. If he plays with the potential he has shown, the 2nd pairing will be astronomically better than last year's.
It isn't all sunshine and lollipops though...
As usual, a lot could go wrong. Ignoring the injury factor, which applies to every team, there is the youth factor. The new Wild have gotten MUCH younger. If we look at the big picture, for all the talent the Wild have gained, there is a big chance not every player is ready for the big time. Coyle, Granlund, Dumba, Zucker and Neiderreiter may have oodles of talent, but they are still quite raw. Of that list, only Coyle looks to me as a sure thing right now.
Then, there is the goaltending situation. Niklas Backstrom may decline or get hurt. Josh Harding can still mind the nets, but for how long? Would Darcy Kuemper be ready for an extended stint if anything happens? It seems weird to put so many question marks on goaltending when at this time last year, goaltending seemed to be set for a while, but here we are.
I'm also not quite sure the Wild got any better defensively. The names they've added on the blueline aren't exactly defensive-minded defensemen. The loss of the two-way play of Cullen and Clutterbuck are offset by Pominville and Cooke, so I'd call it about even up front.
Also, as mentioned in the intro, the division got way tougher. The Wild have never been particularly good against Dallas, and that probably won't change because the Stars look to have improved. Same goes for the Blues. The Blackhawks will also be a pain. In the last few years, the Wild's divisional record was above average and helped immensely, but that stat is quite likely to take a drop.
Then there are uncertainties in regards to coaching. I like Yeo, but he's talking about using an unconventional fourth line and switching the strategy up a little bit. Those things may not necessarily be bad things, but they are pretty big gambles. His players will have to get used to a new way of playing pretty quickly. That being said, the Wild had a good preseason and Yeo finally has the offensive personnel to better suit the style he's trying to give the Wild, so it may work, but you'd have to think that one more lackluster season means Yeo's out.
Where do I see the Wild?
I see the Wild around where most sensible people see them: Behind Chicago and St. Louis is the Central Division. That should make the Wild a playoff team. I can't really imagine Edmonton, Winnipeg, Calgary, Colorado, Anaheim, Phoenix or Nashville finishing ahead of the Wild. I think the Wild should also be better than Dallas. Predictions are made to be broken, but the Wild sure as hell aren't finishing 29th, I can guarantee that.