The beginning of the Mike Yeo era started off very well in Minnesota. The Wild held the best record in the Western Conference late into December and looked poised to make a run at a division title and playoff berth for the first time in four years. However, a slew of injuries to top playmakers Devin Setoguchi, Pierre Marc-Bouchard and Mikko Koivu accompanied by a horrendous offense that finished dead last with 2.02 goals per game ultimately ended any hopes of the Wild returning to the postseason. Although the defense held up reasonably well (2.65 GAA, 13th in the league) the Wild could not overcome a lack of goal scoring from its first and second lines and ultimately finished 12th in the conference.
To address the lack offensive output, the Wild made a huge splash in free agency by signing forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter to identical 13-year, $98 million dollar deals. Parise had a spectacular 2011-12 campaign, posting 69 points while reaching the 30-goal plateau for the fifth time in his career while also helping the Devils reach the Stanley Cup Finals. In addition to Parise and Suter, Minnesota's top prospect, Finnish forward Mikael Granlund should be NHL ready and will provide a spark offensively. Granlund's credentials include being named as a first-team All-Star at the 2012 World Juniors and helping lead the Finnish national team to a gold medal in the IIHF World Championship in 2011. Scouts believe that Granlund's great speed and incredible hands will translate to make him a dominant goal scorer in the NHL for years to come.
Expectations in Minnesota have now shifted from whether they'll make the playoffs to how far the Wild will go in the playoffs. With a fan base that is yearning for a championship, the time is now for the Wild. Traditionally, a strong defensive team with great goaltending, the Wild now appear to be a complete team that should be a power in the Western Conference. With a dynamic first line that should feature Parise, Koivu and Dany Heatley and a second line of Setoguchi, Bouchard and Matt Cullen, the Wild should easily eclipse the 200-goal mark and compete with the Canucks for the division crown.
THE BIG GUNS
Zach Parise (LW): Following a four-day media circus when free agency opened on July 1, this dynamic winger said goodbye to New Jersey and inked a massive, 13-year contract with his hometown Minnesota Wild. Parise's numbers last season -- 31 goals, 38 assists and 69 points -- could have been stronger, especially considering he finally showed chemistry with Ilya Kovalchuk. He has many intangibles that undoubtedly factored into his new contract; unfortunately, leadership, work ethic and hockey sense do not translate into statistics. Parise heads to a team that has historically had difficulty scoring and he'll be expected carry the team's attack. Don't overpay for him on draft day, especially if your league uses the forward position opposed to specific positions. But 30 goals, 70 points and a truckload of shots are a solid bet for Parise.
Ryan Suter (D): Along with Zach Parise, Suter opted to leave the only NHL home he'd ever known and head to the Twin Cities, signing the same 13-year, $98-million contract that Parise did with the Wild. Suter had been remarkably consistent during his time with Nashville, averaging 41.5 points the last four season while cracking 45 points twice. The dominant question surrounding Suter will be how he will fare without Shea Weber on the ice. Suter is not a shooter and will be counted on to run Minnesota's power play. Much like Parise, Suter has skills on the ice that do not translate into statistics. He's a solid point producer, but won't get you many goals and he should not be the focal point of your team's defense.
Dany Heatley (RW): Heatley's 53 points last season continued the trend of regression we've seen from him in recent years. His numbers understandably fell following the trade from San Jose -- he just didn't have the same caliber of players beside him. He's never been the fleetest of foot on the ice, but he can still fire the puck and he should get plenty of opportunities to do that on the power play. It remains to be seen how he will gel with Zach Parise at even strength, but he could be a bounceback candidate if you believe in turnarounds. We're not holding our breath on that, but we don't mind being proven wrong.
ON THE RISE
Jared Spurgeon (D): A slick-passer and undersized for your typical NHL defenseman, Spurgeon has potential to put up solid numbers from the Minnesota blue line. He notched 23 points in 70 games last year and will turn just 23 in November. He won't score many goals, but he has the chance to challenge 30 points this season should he -- and not Tom Gilbert -- settle in on Minnesota's top power play unit opposite Ryan Suter. Follow them in camp and target Spurgeon in the later rounds of deep leagues. Just don't expect him to anchor your roster's defensive scoring.
Mikael Granlund (C): See above -- intro.
Mikko Koivu (C): Various injuries and a slow start conspired to limit Koivu's effectiveness last season, but the crafty pivot still managed 44 points in 55 games despite stretches of futility. You generally know what you're going to get with Koivu: a plethora of assists and a handful of goals. The difference this season is that he will have Zach Parise, a consistent 30-goal scorer, on his wing. Koivu's value certainly sees a bump with his new teammate, just don't overpay expecting a monster season. Another 60-point season is certainly possible for the consistent center.
Tom Gilbert (D): Another Minnesota native on the Wild, Gilbert came over at last February's trade deadline after several seasons with the Oilers. Gilbert will likely get an opportunity for power-play time alongside Ryan Suter, but just remember his numbers have declined the last three seasons. Since his 45-point campaign in 2008-09, he has posted seasons of 31, 26 and 22 points, and he managed just 72 shots on goal last season. Was that an erosion in skill or a function of porous team defense in the Oil Patch? One can only assume that Gilbert's numbers have nowhere to go but up, but much of the upside for the soon-to-be 30-year-old is gone. Expect somewhere between 25-30 points and consider any more to be gravy.
Jonas Brodin (D): Brodin is Minny's top prospect on the blue line and rightfully so. He suited up against men in the Elitserien -- and held his own -- before his 18th birthday. He's great one-on-one, is exceptional on his skates and plays a calm, cool and collected control game. Yes, just like the great Niklas Lidstrom. Now, we're not saying he's the next Nik -- we may never see another player like him. But Brodin has tremendous talent and at worst, he'll be a top shutdown specialist in the NHL. However, we're convinced there's a lot more just under the surface and he'll some day dominate at both ends of the ice. Not unlike Ryan Suter. Yep -- we said that out loud. He should be in the land of frozen lakes in 2013-14.
Charlie Coyle (RW): We can't wait for the day when Minny's top line includes Zach Parise on the left side, Mikael Granlund in the middle and Mr. Charlie Coyle on the right. Coyle has already dominated the QMJHL and has everything he needs -- size, skill, speed, strength, smarts and sandpaper -- to do the same in the NHL. He's a natural center, but we get shivers when we think of him on the wing. Think David Backes and then add a bit more offense. Yes, he's that good. He won't have a full-time gig with the Wild until next season. But he needs to be stashed in keeper formats -- act now or forever hold your peace.