The Wild entered the lockout shortened 2012-13 campaign with heightened expectations after making pair of long-term commitments to Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, giving each player a 13-year, $98 million contract in free agency. With the presence of a top-tier scorer for the first line, and a high-end blueliner stabilizing the defensive corps, second-year head coach Mike Yeo led the Wild to the franchise's fourth postseason berth in 12 seasons.
As the eighth-seed in the Western Conference, the Wild were met with the challenge of an opening round matchup against Chicago. The Blackhawks' depth proved overwhelming for the Wild, and the series ended in five games while the only Minnesota victory came in overtime when the series returned to St. Paul for Game 3. Even with the early exit from the playoffs courtesy of the eventual Stanley Cup Champions, the season can be regarded as a successful one for a few reasons.
First and foremost, Parise provided the Wild with a legitimate 30-goal threat for the first time since Marian Gaborik's departure. With a full complement of games and a year to become familiar with his teammates, his production should only increase from the 0.80 PPG he provided last season, and Parise should make a run at Gaborik's franchise-record 83 points this season with health. Further, Suter's per-game production would have led to a career-high 55 points over a full 82-game slate, giving the Minnesota blue line a much needed source of steady offense.
In goal, Niklas Backstrom shouldered a heavy workload in his age-35 campaign with good results - tying for the league lead in wins (24) with Antti Niemi and Henrik Lundqvist - and earning a three-year extension in June. Backup Josh Harding was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in November and was subsequently limited to just five games while taking medication for treatment throughout the season. If Harding's health is once again a limiting factor, Darcy Kuemper is waiting in the wings to become the Wild's No. 2 netminder.
After making a $196 million commitment to two players last summer, the Wild were quiet in free agency this time around. In an effort to continue bolstering the team's group of top-six forwards, the Wild flipped Cal Clutterbuck to the Islanders for former No. 5 overall pick (2010) Nino Niederreiter. Even with the addition of Parise and Suter, the Wild tied for 22nd in the NHL in goals scored per game last season (2.46). Now 21, the Long Island cast-off could quickly make an impact with his new club after potting 28 goals in 74 games with Bridgeport (AHL) a year ago.
The blue-line play and goaltending should remain at least average, if not better, putting the playoff hopes largely on the production of the team's scorers. If the likes of Jason Pominville (acquired at the trade deadline last season) and the youngsters including Charlie Coyle and Niederreiter can provide enough support behind Parise, Suter and Mikko Koivu, the Wild should push their way back into the postseason and make a run for spot behind Chicago and St. Louis in the re-aligned Central Division.
The Big Guns
Zach Parise (LW): Parise didn't miss a beat in his first season with the Wild, equaling his 0.8 career average in points per game. Parise was third in the NHL in shots on goal and tied for 15th in power-play goals. He's as steady as they come -- he's missed at most one game each season except for 2010-11 when he suffered a knee injury. Now that he has one year with the Wild under his belt, it's possible that he could increase his output on offense if some of Minnesota's young talent on offense improves. Draft him as one of the top options on the left side.
Ryan Suter (D): Suter's first season in Minnesota was a success as he was runner-up for the Norris Trophy and finished third among defensemen with 32 points. Part of his success may have come from leading the NHL in average ice time (27:16). He also developed a good rapport with rookie Jonas Brodin on the Wild's top pairing that can only help improve his efficiency as Brodin becomes even stronger. Suter will get heavy time on the power play again and should remain a top defenseman in most leagues.
Niklas Backstrom (G): Backstrom tied for the league lead in wins with 24 as he started 41 of 48 games and had a solid 2.48 GAA. However, he tired down the stretch as he played more than the team would have liked with backup Josh Harding struggling with multiple sclerosis and then missed the playoffs with a sports hernia that required offseason surgery. The free agent returned to the Wild with a three-year, $10.25 million contract this summer. At age 35, there's some risk he will continue to break down, but the Wild do have options in the minors with prospects Darcy Kuemper and Johan Gustafsson. Still, he's shown no signs of diminished skills and should continue to produce at a high level with a slightly lower workload as the Wild tries to keep him fresh.
On The Rise
Mikko Koivu (C): Despite an overall improvement in the Minnesota offense, Koivu's output on offense stayed close to his career averages in 2012-13. He's never been a prolific goal scorer, but puts up consistent assist totals and power play points (15th in power play assists in the NHL last season). He also played a full season after missing time with injuries the past two seasons. He'll center Minnesota's top line with Zach Parise and Jason Pominville, and there's plenty of value in that.
Jared Spurgeon (D): Spurgeon is a strong passer who saw his output on offense increase last season with 15 points in 39 games. He became a stalwart on the man advantage, averaging 3:31 power play minutes per game and scored seven points there. At age 23, he could continue to improve, as he'll get plenty of minutes on one of Minnesota's top two blue line pairings. He's a real fantasy sleeper.
Two To Watch
Jason Pominville (RW): Pominville was on pace for the lowest offensive output since his rookie season in Buffalo. With the Wild, he was back to form with nine points in 10 games before suffering a concussion, which caused him to miss the final regular season game and part of the playoffs. He says he is fully recovered from the concussion and should have a high-profile role with the Wild, getting lots of power-play time and benefiting from a better environment on offense than late in his Buffalo career.
Charlie Coyle (RW): Coyle had a strong rookie debut with 14 points in 37 games after the Wild acquired him in a pre-season trade with the Sharks. He's a hard-working forward that can deliver scoring and dish the puck when he chooses. He could make a big improvement in his second season as he may cement his role on a top line.
Dany Heatley (RW): Heatley continues to decline on the offensive end as his points scored per game declined for the fourth consecutive season. He played just 36 games as his season ended in early April due to a dislocated left shoulder. He's just not getting the opportunities as he averaged just 2.3 shots per game after averaging 2.9 shots per game the season before and well over three shots per game earlier in his career. He's long been considered a slow-footed, one-dimensional sniper and age 34, Heater is starting to look old relative to today's NHL. He needs to be on a scoring line and should stay there this season. But don't be surprised by an even quicker erosion in skills.
Josh Harding (G): Harding was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) before the start of last season and played just five regular season games as he struggled with issues related to the medication he used to treat his condition. However, he returned for the playoffs and started every game after Niklas Backstrom went down with a sports hernia. Harding responded with a solid 2.94 GAA against the eventual Stanley Cup champions. The playoff effort shows he has the skills to remain a top backup and could get more work this season as the Wild looks to reduce Backstrom's workload. However, the unpredictable nature of MS makes any prediction for his season difficult and continues to threaten his career.
Nino Niederreiter (LW): Niederreiter, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, is coming off a season in which he scored 28 goals and 50 points for AHL Bridgeport, but questionably wasn't called up to the NHL by the Isles. Part of the problem may have been issues with the Islanders' management, which likely also spurred a trade to Minnesota for Cal Clutterbuck. The 20-year-old now gets the fresh start he so desired and should get his chance to win a spot on a top three line with the Wild, One word: sleeper.
Mikael Granlund (C): As a superstar in the Finnish Elite League and as the ninth overall pick in the 2010 draft, Granlund entered last season as a favorite for rookie-of-the-year honors. However, his first season playing in North America didn't go as planned as he had just six points in his first 19 games and was sent to the AHL. He returned in April to play six games, but the Wild gave him a smaller role after he was centering a top-three line at the start of the year. Granlund didn't adjust well to the size and physical nature of the NHL and struggled with bad penalties and defensive lapses. He did score 28 points in 29 games in the AHL, so he showed he can produce outside of Sweden. However, he'll need to earn his role with the Wild and he could begin the season in the AHL. At age 21, it's still early enough in his career that he may figure out the NHL game and fulfill last year's hype.