NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout August.
The Minnesota Wild has to be pleased with its progression during the past two seasons. After missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs from 2009 through 2012, the club returned to the postseason in 2013 and then won a playoff series for the first time in 11 years by upsetting the Colorado Avalanche this past spring. The Wild followed by giving the Chicago Blackhawks a challenge before losing in six games.
That's solid improvement under the tandem of General Manager Chuck Fletcher and Head Coach Mike Yeo, though it's still a long way from the Stanley Cup. However, Fletcher feels his team is on the right track.
"I think the group has really matured over the past two years," he told NHL.com. "I felt the year we made the playoffs in '13, there was a sense of relief that we made the playoffs and a sense that it was a good-enough accomplishment. This year, it was great to make the playoffs and great to win a round, but I think our group was striving for more than just getting in.
"I think everyone believes we're a competitive team and we can compete with the best teams in the League. We were certainly happy that we won a round, but everyone's expectations are a little higher going forward."
To meet those higher expectations, the Wild will have to sort out a logjam in the crease.
Minnesota used five goaltenders last season. Four will come to camp next month, though John Curry is expected to return to the Iowa Wild of the American Hockey League. Fletcher said he's happy to have Josh Harding, Niklas Backstrom and Darcy Kuemper battle for the starting job in camp.
"We're going to let training camp sort everything out," he said. "We were pretty confident that at a minimum two or three of those goaltenders will be able to step up and play well for us. Hopefully all three will. Hopefully we'll have three healthy and productive goaltenders and we'll have to make some hard choices. All three have proved over the past two seasons that when they're healthy they can play extremely well in this League. We have no reason to believe they won't be healthy this year."
The Wild has never been an offensive powerhouse, but the addition of free-agent forward Thomas Vanek should provide a boost. Vanek, who starred in college at the University of Minnesota, turned down at least one bigger offer before opting for a three-year contract with the Wild.
It will be up to Yeo to figure out where Vanek fits. Vanek, whose 277 goals since 2005-06 are eighth in the NHL during that period, could find himself on the right side in Minnesota. Zach Parise figures to be the top-line left wing, as he has in each of his first two seasons with the Wild since signing as a free agent two years ago.
"We've toyed around with some different options," Yeo told NHL.com. "He's felt more comfortable during his career playing on the left side. I know he's had chemistry playing with Jason Pominville [in Buffalo] in the past, but I also know that Zach Parise and Jason had really good chemistry together last year as well. We're going to have to go into training camp with a bit of an open mind. We'll have somewhat of a plan, but part of that plan will be to try some different options and see which one works the best."
One area Fletcher feels Vanek will help is on the power play, where the Wild ranked 16th in the League at 17.9 percent. Vanek had eight power-play goals last season and has 113 in his career.
"Thomas is a high-end offensive talent, a player who's scored a lot of goals in this League and, in particular, a lot of power-play goals in this League," Fletcher said. "Our power play was middle of the pack last season, and what we felt we needed was a right-shot forward who could add a little versatility."
Most of the top-six forwards will be veterans. But an influx of young talent helped carry the Wild into the second round of the playoffs and Minnesota will count on its maturing kids to continue the upswing. Forwards Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter and Erik Haula all played key roles up front, and Jonas Brodin has become an effective partner for Ryan Suter on the top defensive pair.
Suter is the cornerstone of the defense. He had eight goals, 43 points and was plus-15 last season while averaging 29:24 of ice time in 82 games, 2:20 more per game than runner-up Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators. He and Brodin are among the NHL's best pairings.
Jared Spurgeon (26 points, plus-15) and Marco Scandella (17 points, plus-10) are a good second pair. With Nate Prosser and Clayton Stoner gone in free agency, there's an opening if 2013 first-round pick Matt Dumba, who played 13 games last season, can show he's ready for the NHL.
Winning a playoff series was an achievement for a team that hadn't done so since 2003. But to Yeo, it's also an indication of how much his team has yet to achieve.
"Our goal is to win the Stanley Cup. We believe that we're closer to reaching that goal," he said. "We also recognize how hard it is. I think that's the biggest thing for us. We have to come in feeling good about ourselves, but we'd better have our work boots on. Five teams from our division made the playoffs last year, and there's not really any sign of any of those five teams going away, not to mention that there's other teams in our division that have improved as well."
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