The one area of the Minnesota Wild roster that will see some turnover heading into next season is the third and fourth lines. The Wild's tight cap situation forced the team to buyout Matt Cooke and move on from bottom-6 mainstay and unrestricted free agent (UFA) Kyle Brodziak opening up spots for other players to earn playing time. It is also unexpected that Minnesota will bring back last season's trade deadline acquisitions Chris Stewart and Sean Bergenheim. Both forwards are UFA's.
As it currently stands, Minnesota has eight players locked into its top-9 forward spots. Mikael Granlund, Mikko Koivu, and Charlie Coyle figure to be the team's top-3 centers. Zach Parise and Jason Pominville will take two wing spots in the top-6 and Thomas Vanek, Jason Zucker, and Nino Niederreiter will battle for the other two open wing spots. That leaves a wing spot open on the third line and the fourth line entirely up for grabs among a handful of players, who will step up?
Front Runners for Spots
2014-15 Stats: 9G-22A-31P +13 in 71 GP
Fontaine will have to earn his spot like anyone else in training camp and pre-season, but looks to be the favorite for that open third-line wing spot. In his two years playing for the Wild, Fontaine has proven to be a versatile option. He can play a tight defensive game on the bottom two lines, has the offensive abilities to fill-in in the top-6 when necessary, and plays both the PK and PP. Fontaine has become popular among Wild fans for his offensive production in limited ice-time. Last season Fonzy averaged 11:57 TOI/G, 13th most on the team, but finished eighth among forwards with 31 points. This may finally be the year that he gets the increased role on the team many fans have been calling for.
2014-2015 Stats: 7G-7A-14P -7 in 72 GP
Erik Haula will head into training camp for next season looking to bounce back from a dismal 2014-2015 campaign. Haula has the tools to be an effective NHL player as shown by his impressive rookie season in 2013-2014, but he has to prove he can play at that level consistently. At his best, Haula uses his blistering speed to be a pest defensively and create scoring chances off turnovers. Haula is an outside bet for the third-line spot, but should win a place on the fourth-line barring a disappointing training camp.
2014-2015 Stats: 3G-10A-13P +3 in 53 GP
Carter fits the mold of the typical fourth-line player. He's gritty, physical, and defensively responsible. Carter can provide a veteran presence, and his style of play will be needed against the bigger, tougher Western Conference teams. Last season Carter was a pleasant surprise on the fourth-line after being picked up on waivers, but an untimely injury forced him out of the lineup for an extended period. After returning from injury, the Minnesota native was unable to earn a place in the lineup during the playoffs. Carter figures to be the 13th forward if he doesn't win a fourth-line spot outright.
2014-2015 Stats: 3G-5A-8P +9 in 25 GP
Schroeder played only 25 games for the Wild last season but made an impression with his speed and nose for the net. The former Golden Gopher refused to be sent back down to Iowa after being called-up late in the season with strong play and even earned himself a few playoff games last year. Schroeder has similar build and make-up to Haula but provides more offensive creativity whereas Haula is better defensively. Like Haula, Schroeder is an outside bet for the open third-line spot though a fourth-line spot is more likely. At worst, he will be one of the first call-ups from Iowa next season.
2014-2015 Stats (AHL): 21G-25A-46P -8 in 73 GP
Graovac, a 7th round pick in 2011, is proving to be a steal for the Wild. Graovac took a huge leap forward last season leading the Iowa Wild in goals and points in his second professional season. At 6'4 205lbs, he brings size and a physical presence along with his scoring touch. Graovac made his NHL debut last season suiting up for three games, after earning a call-up in late December, and didn't look out of place. He has his work cut out for him if he wants to make the roster though because GM Chuck Fletcher has said he doesn't want him playing limited fourth-line minutes. An interesting scenario would have Tyler winning the third-line center spot and pushing Coyle over to his more natural right-wing position.
2014-2015 Stats: 0G-3A-3P +1 in 6 GP
AHL Stats: 12G-17A-29P -16 in 71 GP
At 28 years old Sutter isn't much of a prospect. His game is simple and very well suited to the fourth-line. He hits, he can fight if he needs to, and he plays hard-nosed, all-out defense. Sutter was a depth signing for the Wild last year and showed well when called-up to the team. He's an energy player that has displayed some offensive ability in the AHL scoring 48 points (19G-29A) in 2012-2013 playing for the Charlotte Checkers, but hasn't been able to stick in the NHL to date. Sutter will mostly be competing against Ryan Carter in camp, as both players bring a similar game, for a fourth-line/13th forward spot.
2014-2015 Stats (AHL): 10G-27A-37P -12 in 70 GP
Keranen spent the first five years of his professional career playing for Ilves Tampere in the SM-Liiga before signing with the Wild last summer. He didn't crack the NHL roster in his first North American season, but lead the Iowa Wild in assists and finished third overall in scoring. Keranen is a creative offensive player with a good shot. He was a top-scorer for Ilves in the SM-Liiga and still has plenty of upside to his game at 25. Keranen isn't a typical fourth-line player but has added value in his skill on the power play.
2014-2015 Stats (AHL): 7G-9A-16P -17 in 67 GP
The perception of many was that the Wild made a significant reach when they selected Gabriel in the third round of 2013 NHL Draft. Gabriel's game is that of a modern era tough guy. He's a big player that fights often, but has the skills to play a regular shift and contribute on both ends of the ice like a Chris Stewart. Last season was definitely a learning experience for Gabriel as he adjusted to the pro game and struggled with inconsistency. Gabriel has a bigger mountain to climb to make the roster than the other guys on this list because of his raw status, but the Wild may feel the element he brings is necessary playing in the rough and tumble Western Conference.
2014-2015 Stats: 1G-2A-3P -11 in 21 GP
AHL Stats: 16G-12A-28P -7 in 44 GP
Dalpe was signed this off-season to a depth player in Iowa but, much like Brett Sutter, he has NHL experience and has been successful offensively at the AHL level. He's a right-handed center that can play wing and while he has good size, he could be more aggressive physically. He played 21 games for the Sabres last season without giving a lot to be excited about. Dalpe will be competing against Carter and Sutter who both offer similar games making his NHL roster chances slight but at the very least he's the AHL depth we signed him to be.
2014-2015 stats (AHL): 17G-18A-35P -6 in 76 GP
The Wild signed Mitchell to a entry-level contract after he spent five seasons playing juniors for the Guelph Storm in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). Mitchell fared well in his first pro season posting 35 points for Iowa finishing fourth on the team in scoring. Mitchell likely needs more seasoning in Iowa before he's ready for the NHL, though he could follow Graovac's career trajectory taking a big step forward in his second pro season.
2014-2015 Stats (AHL): 4G-12A-16P -10 in 53 GP
Bulmer has never lived up his potential as second round pick in 2010 and that can largely be attributed to his inability to stay healthy. Bulmer is a big body with good skills but the offense hasn't translated to the pro game so far. He played a career-high 53 games for Iowa last season and hopefully can build on that heading into next season. If he can stay healthy and find his game, Bulmer is young enough at 23 that he isn't a lost cause by any means. Discipline and consistency will be the key factors for Bulmer. A strong training camp and preseason would put him in the conversation for a roster spot and a good start to the season in Iowa could earn him a quick call-up.