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NHL Season Preview 2014-15: Three Big Questions Facing the Wild

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Question 1 - Will the power play improve to a level of competence?

Tony Wiseau

What if I told you that last year's power play was 16th in the league, at 17.9%, higher than Western Conference Powers in San Jose (20th; 17.2%), Anaheim (22nd; 16.0%), and Los Angeles (15.1%)? The penalty kill (79.8%; 27th in the NHL), and even-strength scoring (1.99 Goals/60; 27th in the NHL), were both more of a concern, as they were last among playoff teams in both areas.

That said, to answer your question, the power play was often ugly, sometimes even when the Wild scored. I think Vanek has got to help in that regard. If the Wild are smart, they'll get Mathew Dumba on the roster to handle the second unit- he brings an offensive edge there that Jonas Brodin can't. Those two things will help. After that, the skill added to the roster over the last year should increase opportunities- the Wild were actually 2nd-last among playoff teams in drawing penalties, which made the Power Play seem worse than it actually was.

Aaron - The Noogie

Well, it certainly looked great the other night against the Winnipeg Jets now didn't it? The power play is affectionately referred to here in Minnesota as 'passing practice' as it seems that's all the team tends to do with an extra skater on the ice. It drives fans nuts. Endless "SHOOOOOOOOOT!" tweets litter the Twittersphere as well as the Xcel Energy Center fans shouting the popular phrase. It never seems to help, nobody listens. While it would be great if the power play could look like it did Friday night against the Jets, in the preseason, it's really not the biggest issue in regards to special teams with the Wild. I could handle their 16th ranked PP last season, if it weren't for their 27th ranked PK. By comparison, the power play is actually quite competent when lined up next to their penalty killing unit.

Ger Devine

I think the power play has been fairly competent under Yeo, especially when compared with the Wild's deplorable even strength scoring and shooting rates. The biggest issues for me have been their powerplay hitting the wall at 5v3 and in the playoffs. Vanek should make a big difference. As will Yeo giving Nino Niederreiter some PP time (if that happens) and no longer having Heatley around so he can put him in because "net presence", or something.

Question 2 - Can the Wild stay healthy and rely on only 1 or 2 goalies?

Tony Wiseau

They'd better. There's a lot of forward depth, but this is a team that's success is heavily reliant on Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise. On defense, the Wild lose 26+ minutes a night if either Ryan Suter or Jared Spurgeon go down. As for the goalies? I'm not as concerned about them getting injured, given that Ilya Bryzgalov looks like he'll be undervalued and available if the Wild need him, and as we saw last year at the trade deadline, goalie depth can be had cheaply.

Dakota Case

Goaltending has never been more important with the influx of offensive fire power in the division. Niklas Backstrom has looked sharp in limited preseason action this far, but even he had said he's still not feeling 100 percent, and how long will it be before his next injury? Darcy Kuemper says he's feeling better than ever after seeing his season come to a close with a concussion in Game Seven of the 2014 Western Conference Quarterfinals against Colorado. That's good, but he's still only got 32 regular season games to his credit. Will he be able to improve upon an encouraging rookie campaign last season? Then there's Ilya Bryzgalov. I love this guy's attitude on and off the ice, but will he be able to prove to the Wild brass (or any NHL team for that matter) that he's worth a contract? I think so, but it may not be Minnesota and, if it is, he may have to wait patiently by the phone a while before finally putting ink to paper.

Aaron - The Noogie

Can the Wild stay healthy and just need 1 or 2 goalies this season? Well, no. Josh Harding has done his very best to harpoon this possibility, and we didn't even get to the opening of training camp. Harding's inability to Incredible Hulk his foot through a brick wall aside, there isn't much reason to be concerned on whether Niklas Backstrom and Darcy Kuemper can make it through the season healthy, but they will likely not be the only 2.

Backtrom's abdominal issues look to be behind him. General Manager Chuck Fletcher has stated Backtrom is feeling better than ever, although this could have been posturing while they were still negotiating with RFA Darcy Kuemper on a new contract. He's looked great in the preseason games, and if he can avoid Nazem Kadri and his deadly elbows I believe he'll be just fine this season.

Darcy Kuemper should also healthier this year. While his concussion issues are a point of concern, they are also pretty fluky injuries and very much unpredictable. He's young, and still learning his game. He likes to leave the comfort of the crease, which opens him up to take a dirty hit, but he's learning to protect himself in these situations as well.

The simple answer is no. Harding's injury and suspension will leave him on the shelf for awhile. When he's available to return, you'll likely have your 3rd starter on the year. Injuries are really impossible to predict, unless of course you know you're going to try and put your foot through a wall.

Question 3 - With the Central Division getting stronger, can the Wild find a way back into the playoffs?

Tony Wiseau

Yes. I think Chicago and St. Louis are still better, and I think Dallas is more or less Minnesota's equal (and a bit of a doppelgänger- their strengths and weaknesses are in similar areas). But Colorado took a step back in losing Paul Stastny (to say nothing of their fancy stat issues), Nashville doesn't have the forward depth necessary to overtake the Wild, and the Jets are held back significantly by Ondrej Pavelec. Barring a huge disaster, the Minnesota Wild finish no lower than 4th in the division.

Chris - mntrumpterguy

I do believe the Wild can find a way back into the playoffs, for a few reasons. Firstly, the Wild didn't lose ANY players who were at or above the ‘average' level of the team. By cutting or letting go low-quality players, the average level of the team rises. Furthermore, they brought in Thomas Vanek, who will simultaneously add more goals for the Wild and improve their power play. They have a full season coming of high-quality Mikael Granlund, as well as Nino Niederreiter continuing to develop. Maybe most importantly, the Wild were very much hindered last year by injuries to three of their best players. These injuries will (hopefully) not happen this year, and the Wild can maintain that quality.

Finally, the Wild have been reliant on Ryan Suter absolutely gobbling minutes. With the number of promising young defensemen in the Wild's system, they likely can reduce some of those minutes. The question there is whether Head Coach Mike Yeo and Suter will allow that to happen or not.

Aaron - The Noogie

In the toughest division in the NHL, nothing is given and everything is earned. The Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, Dallas Stars, and the luckiest team in the NHL, the Colorado Avalanche all joined the Wild in the playoffs coming out of Division III last season. The Wild should be primed for a return to the playoffs this season due to some key additions, key subtractions, and the youth movement growing their game.

They got rid of Dany Heatley which will actually help them out this season. Clayton Stoner also won't be returning to the Wild, as he followed Heater to Anaheim to be the Ducks problem now. I'd like to personally thank the Ducks organization for taking these guys off our hands. The addition of Thomas Vanek has been billed as the veteran goal scorer the Wild desperately need. Vanek will be reunited with former teammate Jason Pominville, who was the Wild's leading scorer last season. Plus, with the emergence of Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter and Erik Haula, the future's looking bright.

The big question here is, can Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu stay healthy. Parise played 67 games last season while Koivu played just 65, both missing significant time before the Olympic break due to injuries. If these 2 can complete a full season, it will do wonders for their possession game and put valuable points on the board. Parise and Koivu finished 2nd and 3rd on the team in points respectively, behind Pominville who played all 82 games and notched 60 points. With a healthy core of players, and some better luck between the pipes injury wise this season, there is absolutely no reason to count this squad out of the playoffs.

Ger Devine

If they're healthy, then definitely. It'll be tough though. I'm hoping the Avalanche flame out after their hot run last year, the Jets continue to have terrible goaltending and the Predators signing the definition of "a bunch of guys" doesn't work out for them so that the division isn't too much of a bloodbath. If the Hawks, Blues and Stars run away with it at the top, I'll happily settle for a Wildcard spot, which I think is where the Wild will top out this year.

Tiffany - 1SadClown

If the Wild did enough to address their biggest need--scoring--they will make it back to the playoffs. Even though the Wild have continued to improve prospects into NHL players, and even though the Wild have added quality veteran talent consistently for the last few seasons, it still hasn't been quite enough. The addition of Thomas Vanek should help the power play, one of the Wild's biggest flaws last season. It is also imperative that this summer the coaching staff managed to identify reasons for powerplay failures and devised solutions to fix a power play that was much weaker than the personnel would suggest it should be. A lot of the Wild's improvement needs to come from new strategies. They have to carry the puck in all season--not just when they remember to do and not just when they are healthy enough that that the veteran stars are playing. They have to shoot more, especially defensemen.

Vanek should also help improve 5 on 5 scoring and take some of the pressure off the Wild's over veteran scorers so they don't feel as much pressure to be the guy responsible for scoring. The addition of Vanek was essential to the Wild's off-season, and even better, management was able to do it without messing up the cap situation far into the future. I also like the Wild's addition of Vanek more than I like St. Louis's addition of Stasny, and Colorado's addition of Iginla. Dallas's addition of Spezza seems that it will improve the Stars about as much as Vanek will improve the Wild. But because Vanek is known for scoring inconsistency, the younger players (i.e. Niederreiter, Coyle, Granlund, and Haula) will also need to demonstrate improvement. As long as the young players are given opportunities to showcase their talents, they should also be able to make a greater contribution to the Wild's offense.

It won't be easy to improve even with changes that should have made the team stronger because the Wild play in the NHL's best division; they could play better without their record showing their improvement. Last season, when the Wild were healthy, they loved the way they were playing, but frequently lost even though they played the game exactly how they wanted to play it. But there are a lot of questions and ifs on which the WIld's playoff aspiration hinge.