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Coming of age in Minnesota: The Young Guns mature in 2017

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Once prospects, then young veterans, now the Wild’s core is full of prime-aged performers who are finally finding their stride

Dallas Stars v Minnesota Wild Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The narrative around these parts for a long time has been that the success of this team rested not on the shoulders of its veterans, but on the coming of age of their younger players.

We’ve been in waiting mode for a number of prospects to reach the potential we’ve seen in them throughout the days we’ve followed them through World Juniors, NCAA, Junior leagues, AHL, and eventually the NHL. Because of the investment the club has made through acquiring top picks by trading marquee players and enduring tough losing seasons, the expectations have been high for a particular group of players who found their way to the team at approximately the same time.

And while we’ve watched and waited, everything aligned this season to display what the group is capable of, and show promise for the future. Because of that, the Wild were able to ice their greatest season of hockey to date, with the possibility of more coming in the near future.

The group I speak of consists of first-round draft picks Mikael Granlund (9th overall, 2010), Nino Niederreiter (Cal Clutterbuck trade), Jonas Brodin (10th overall, 2011), Charlie Coyle (Brent Burns trade), Matt Dumba (7th overall, 2012) and second round pick Jason Zucker (59th overall, 2012).

Though their journeys to NHL regularity vary greatly, and their results this year weren’t all completely spectacular, the 2016-17 season marked a large step forward for the budding talent that General Manager Chuck Fletcher has been working to assemble since the beginning of the decade.

In previous seasons, it would seem that one or two of the group might click, but the same or more would struggle or regress. This season, each member took a step forward and advanced the narrative of the Wild organization. Almost every player on this list burst out of “wait and see” mode to having “arrived.”

NHL: Minnesota Wild at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The first conclusion that can be drawn for the group’s breakout season begins with Bruce Boudreau and runs through John Anderson and Scott Stevens.

During the Mike Yeo era, these players often found themselves paying for a defensive mistake by finding a new home on the 4th line or becoming a healthy scratch. Yeo’s system was heavily dependent on suffocating defense, and a lapse in success led to a lot of 2-1 losses and inevitable punishment when young players made mistakes.

The treatment was not the same for the veterans, as they were never held accountable for their mistakes and it made a culture it which it would be hard to build confidence for the young team members who would inevitably miss an assignment or make a bad pass.

Boudreau’s style has been anything but that. Everyone is held accountable for their play and rewarded for their success with more time and an increased role. It has brought incredible balance to the team and finally allowed the younger players to become confident in their game. Boudreau’s offensive style is much more open than the previous regime and allows each of these young guns to use their best skills at their command rather than being tethered to their defensive assignments, and the change in scoring production between the two systems has been night and day, for the younger players in this group especially.

As I’ve mentioned before, the group as a whole took a major step forward, which has been a key to the success the Wild have found this season, and will continue to be a point of focus going forward. But while certain members of the group have arrived, there are still a couple that can find another gear to more closely align their performance with our expectations. And even for those who have arrived, there is the potential for them to take another step and exceed our expectations in the future. Let’s break them down now.

NHL: Minnesota Wild at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Arrivals

The three players who stormed the ice this season to rise above everything they have done in the past are Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, and Jason Zucker. All three set career highs in goals, assists, and total points.

Granlund surprised a lot of people by taking advantage of his switch to the wing by leading the team in scoring and besting his highest previous point total by a whopping 25 points. His playmaking came to life and his speed became a huge factor on the forecheck, and Granlund become the benefactor for his linemates in also putting together top notch production.

Jason Zucker found a more permanent home when he landed on Granlund’s opposite wing, and went on to complement Granlund’s playmaking by more-than-doubling his previous best goal scoring season with 25 (10 last season). Granlund also doubled his best previous season with 26. There is a lot of chemistry on that line and it has kept an aging Mikko Koivu looking smooth and productive.

Nino Niederreiter also found himself as a member of the 25 goal club and just missed the 60 point mark with 57 total. Nino established himself as a devastating netfront presence on the power play while skating with Koivu and Granlund and led the team in power play goals with 8. Nino unfortunately really never found a stable line to play on as he was shifted up and down the lineup throughout the season, but seems to be right at home getting top minutes with Zach Parise and Eric Staal as the playoffs open. Nino could have produced even more had he been able to manage more than 15 minutes per game. The best part is that we don’t even need to dive into any deeper stats to see the dominance that came from these three players in 2016-17.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Minnesota Wild Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Another Gear

The remaining players in the group also took a big step forward this season, but there is still a sense that there is more to come from each of them.

Jonas Brodin teased us early in the season with displaying the offensive skills we’ve all been waiting to see from him. He was shooting the puck with authority and earned himself a spot on the power play, which he managed to retain throughout the season. He was unable to sustain that output throughout the season, but still posted his best point total and nearly twice as many assists as his best previous season.

However, he still only netted 3 goals, which leaves a long way to go to match his best season with 8. It’s easy to forget that Brodin is only 23, as it seems like he’s been around forever, but the eye test says that there is more to his offensive game that can be displayed in the future. He did return to greatness in defense, and can play with any other defender on the roster.

Charlie Coyle also had his best overall season point total, but with a long slump in the second half of the season, missed his highwater mark for goals. Inconsistency has plagued Coyle throughout his career, and if he can find a way to push through the inevitable droughts every player experiences, he could become a top tier player in the league. He only scored 1 less point than Nino, but benefited from nearly 2 more minutes per game. Expectations haven’t been raised as much for Coyle as the other forwards, but he has the potential to continue to build his game in the future.

Matt Dumba set career highs in goals, assists, points, and hits. Unfortunately on the other side of the puck, the wide open system invited him to take more opportunities, which caused a higher volume of egregious defensive lapses, especially when partnered with Marco Scandella. You get the sense from watching the 22-year-old play that he has much more to give on both sides of the puck.

When all of this is put together, the growth of this group of players has been the base reason for the rise of this club. Coupled with a great season from Devan Dubnyk, and solid veteran production from Ryan Suter and Eric Staal, it has made this team unstoppable at certain points throughout the season.

And the best part of it is that all of the growth seems organic and repeatable. No one had such crazy success that you would consider it to be a fluke season. Each showed consistent growth and mostly consistent play throughout the season, so our expectations should be raised for this group moving forward, and it helps to keep the dream alive beyond this year in Minnesota.