NHL 2014-15 preview: Minnesota Wild

Ilya Bryzgalov talks about returning to the Minnesota Wild and whether he had offers from any other NHL teams.

Counting down the final 30 days to puck drop on the 2014-15 NHL season, Sportsnet previews all 30 NHL teams in reverse order of how we believe they will finish the regular season.

A dozen reporters and analysts from Sportsnet’s hockey brain trust — Doug MacLean, John Shannon, Chris Johnston, Damien Cox, Mark Spector, et al. — submitted a list ranking all the teams in order of how they think the NHL season will shake out. We crunched the numbers and will be unveiling our consensus standings prediction from worst to first.

Minnesota is our 11th-ranked team.

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Minnesota Wild
Division: Central
2013-14 finish: 43-27-12, 98 points, 11th overall; lost in quarterfinals to Chicago
Leading scorer: Jason Pominville (60 points)
General manager: Chuck Fletcher
Head coach: Mike Yeo
Captain: Mikko Koivu
Opening night starter: Undecided
Key acquisitions: Thomas Vanek
Key departures: Matt Moulson, Dany Heatley, Clayton Stoner, Cody McCormick

Off-season grade: B+. Minnesota general manager Chuck Fletcher did exactly what everyone expected him to do this summer — sign free agent forward Thomas Vanek to a three-year, $19.5-million deal on the opening day of free agency, a move that had been widely rumoured for months. Fletcher didn’t make any other significant moves, putting his faith behind a deep, talented group that got the franchise past the first round of the playoffs last season for the first time in more than a decade. Matt Moulson and Dany Heatley are both gone, but Minnesota has such great depth and a strong top-six, their contributions will hardly be missed.

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Greatest strength: With the addition of Vanek, Minnesota has formed a dynamic top six. Between Vanek, Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Mikael Grandlund, Jason Pominville and Charlie Coyle, there should be plenty of offence to go around. And don’t forget Nino Niederreiter, who’s entering his age-22 season and could be poised for a breakout year. Opposing defenders will have their hands full trying to contain this bunch.

Greatest weakness: Goaltending is the obvious question mark for this team, but a less discussed weakness could be the defence. Cornerstone Ryan Suter plays more minutes than any other defenceman in the NHL, but his puck possession and offensive production numbers are far from elite. Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella form a solid if unspectacular core behind him, but Nate Prosser and Clayton Stoner were both lost to free agency, leaving the team without a reliable third pair. It’s assumed prospect Matt Dumba and college free agent Christian Folin could help fill that void, but those are two unproven NHL commodities who may not be ready to be thrown into the fire. If Suter were to burn out after two straight years of dominating the league in ice time, the Wild may have trouble filling his minutes.

Biggest story line to watch:
Which of Minnesota’s three NHL-calibre goaltenders takes the reigns in net? Easily be the most intriguing storyline of the preseason, and one that will likely carry on into the winter months. Niklas Backstrom, Ilya Bryzgalov, Josh Harding (now injured and suspended) and Darcy Kuemper have all had stretches over their careers where they have looked like NHL starters, but they’ve all taken turns looking wholly unreliable as well. Wild head coach Mike Yeo has given no indication as to which way he’s leaning and has said he plans to disperse starts evenly between his netminders in the preseason. But a team can only go so long with such an uncertain situation between the pipes.

2014-15 prediction: If the Wild can stay healthy while placing the final piece of their roster puzzle—a steady, reliable hand in goal—they could take another step in 2014-15 and make some noise among the elite group at the top of the Western Conference.

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