NHL.com 30 in 15: Three Questions
NHL.com continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
After making the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2008 the Minnesota Wild experienced a quick exit last season, eliminated by the Chicago Blackhawks in five games in the Western Conference Quarterfinals.
With goaltender Niklas Backstrom sustaining a lower-body injury in warm-ups prior to Game 1, the Wild were forced to insert Josh Harding, who had started three games in the regular season. Between the sudden injury and the talent boasted by Chicago, it was too much to overcome.
A similar roster returns to Minnesota this season. Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher kept the bulk of the team intact, other than popular right wing Cal Clutterbuck being traded to the New York Islanders in June for right wing Nino Niederreiter and a third-round pick.
Backstrom bypassed unrestricted free agency to sign a three-year contract in June and rugged forward Matt Cooke left the Pittsburgh Penguins to sign with the Wild once the free-agent market opened. Veteran defenseman Keith Ballard also was signed to provide a physical presence on the blue line.
For the most part, if the Wild are going to improve this season it's going to come from within.
"Every team could always use upgrades, but right now we're really happy with where we're at," Fletcher said. "There will be some good competition in camp and we're excited to see where some of our young players will sort out."
Here are three questions surrounding the Wild as training camp winds down:
1. Who is the No. 2 center? -- It was a valid question during the offseason and it remains up in the air as the Wild prepare for their season opener Oct. 3 against the Los Angeles Kings at Xcel Energy Center.
The competition revolves around two 21-year-olds. Mikael Granlund, the Wild's first-round pick (No. 9) in 2010, is doing his best to avoid being bumped by Charlie Coyle, who spent a large portion of last season skating as a right wing on the top line alongside Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu. But with veteran Jason Pominville primed to take that spot, the versatile Coyle could be asked to center the second line if Granlund isn't ready for a full-time role in the NHL.
"You never know what's going to happen or where they're going to need you to play," Coyle said. "If I keep playing my game, that's why they like me as a player. I've played right wing and center, so I'm pretty comfortable playing both positions."
"Charlie Coyle's a capable centerman," Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo said. "He's played it his whole life. He's got a lot of things that you would want in the center position, but he's also a great winger.
"If Mikael Granlund is capable of filling that position, it would open a lot of things up for us, especially with his playmaking ability, his skill level coming up the middle of the ice, his ability to distribute the puck. I think it would be beneficial for him and for our team."
2. Can Dany Heatley bounce back? -- With the top line set, Heatley is bound to play on the second line, alongside some combination of Granlund, Coyle, Jason Zucker and Niederreiter. Heatley's production has dipped in recent seasons, and a shoulder injury limited him to 11 goals in 36 games last season. Heatley is fully healthy now and aiming to prove he still can be an elite forward in this League.
"Having my time off the last months of the year and having to take care of the shoulder this summer, I was in the gym a lot more," said Heatley, who appears to have lost 15-20 pounds. "I feel pretty fresh coming into this camp."
3. Will the goaltending hold up? -- With a need for points every night, Yeo was forced to start Backstrom in 27 of the Wild's final 28 regular-season games just to make the playoffs. It's conceivable that workload played in a role in Backstrom's injury prior to Game 1 of the playoffs against Chicago, so the coach is going to have to find nights to rest Backstrom in favor of Harding.
Harding stood tall in the playoffs despite appearing in five games during the regular season after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. This time around, Yeo knows he'll have to turn to his backup more as he attempts to keep Backstrom fresh during the second half of the season, when the playoff race intensifies.
"We can't sit here and drop a blueprint for it right now," Yeo said. "There's been other years where we've put a pretty set plan in place, and I think this is a unique situation with both guys where we have to evaluate it a little bit more closely on a day-in, day-out basis and be prepared to adjust."