We are at the front door of the hope springs eternal section of the sports calendar. It's great that the Twins refuse to die, but football has started, and hockey, and basketball, are just close enough to be annoying. So I've been doing some thinking (always dangerous), and I've come up with the Five Keys To The Wild's Season.
1. Matt Dumba and Jason Zucker in contract seasons.
A central theme to these keys is that this Wild team is no longer a veteran team with a few promising kids sprinkled in. The Wild is now a team with a solid core in the middle of their prime years, with a few veterans mixed in for seasoning. In fact, the Wild sits right in the middle of the central division in terms of average age of its players (per CapFriendly). Older than Colorado, Winnipeg, and Nashville. Younger than Dallas, St. Louis, and Chicago.
How much incremental lift can we get from what the likes of Granlund and Nino did last season? In particular Granny had his breakout season. And, if he starts the season at less-than 100% from his ankle injury...
Coyle, Dumba, and Zucker have not had that breakout season yet - at least we better hope they haven't. I realize that Zucker doubled his production from the prior season to last season. But, if he wants to get paid like a T6 forward, I'd like to see more than 47 points. What elevates Dumba and Zucker over Coyle in this case is that they're both playing for a new contract and Charlie isn't. I'll say 30-25-55 for Zucker, and 20-20-40 for Dumba as my targets for them. That's not a projection. That's what I'd like to see them produce, in a contract year.
2. Who is the backup goalie, and how many games will he start?
Over the past two regular seasons only one other goalie in the NHL started more games than Dubnyk. And didn't he start nearly every game after he arrived in the '14-15 season? Regardless, we've ridden Dubnyk hard and put him away wet since we got him. I don't know if that wore him out, and he certainly wasn't the reason the Wild lost to St. Louis in this playoffs (1.86/0.925). But, could getting him a little more rest down the stretch be a bad thing? Or maybe before the stretch, so he and the team can "get hot" at the end of the season and try to emulate what Nashville did this year?
More than that, it would be really nice to have a backup in whom the boys are confident. So, in the absence of that last season, if the result was that Duby played probably more than Bruce would have wanted in an ideal situation, and the rest of the team played more games with a higher degree of anxiety than everyone would have wanted, ideally (read every time Kuemper was in goal), then that situation was bad for everyone, not just Duby.
It would also be nice to have a viable backup if Duby got, you know, hur.....sorry.
3. Speaking of which: Depth
The Wild, not being blessed with an elite scorer, must have depth in their roster - in all positions. It seemed they were one of the healthiest teams last season. Was that balancing the scales after several years of shitty luck with health and other random calamities, or setting up this year for a return to even just a league average amount of man-games lost? If the latter: they need depth. The good news is that they appear to have said depth.
As mentioned above the Wild is right in the middle of the division, in terms of average age. Three teams younger, three teams older. (See my prior post for more numbers. Lots more numbers.)
Up front, what this amounts to is whether or not Eriksson Ek and Cullen can replace or exceed what Hanzal and Haula did last season, and whether they ever choose one position for Coyle and let him settle into it and maybe, just maybe, develop some momentum there.
On the back end, the key here is whether Dumba takes the aforementioned next step, and if Reilly and/or Olofsson can earn (and keep) a job with the big club.
4. Scott Stevens
More accurately, the absence of Scott Stevens. Russo said on a podcast recently that Bob Woods is a defensive coach, and that's great. But the theory on defense last season was that Stevens would command respect - from all the defensemen - while helping the younger guys improve. Scandella may have been the best defenseman for the Wild against St. Louis, and now he's hanging out at the Anchor Bar. So the key here is the extent to which Stevens impacted the defense last season, and in his absence the extent to which Woods can replicate that impact this season. And, if Suter doesn't buy what Woods is selling, look out.
5. Is this a good regular season team, or a playoff contender?
Initially, we were told by Fletcher that last season was still successful because they were so good during much of the regular season. He has since undergone sensitivity training because his comments at the State Fair with Russo were much less tone deaf. But those initial comments did offer a potentially key peek into the mindset of the team's front office/ownership dynamic. And remember: Fletcher is the man who doesn't believe in windows of opportunity in which teams are contenders. So at least he's consistent.
I've made my feelings clear on this blog on the degree to which I expect this team to be a contender at this point. But, heading into season six of the PariSuter era, having established themselves as a playoff team, this must be the season in which they take the next step toward contending. Another first round loss, in other words, must not be acceptable - regardless of whether or not they set records for regular season performance again. And, just looking at the roster, not taking the next step this year could result in significant change to the roster for next season - just looking at Mikko's contract situation if nothing else.
With another season's worth of data on this point in the offing, against what feels like a building sense of anxiety from the fanbase, it's easy to see that this will be a critical season in the Wild's existence.
What's your take on this? Join in the discussion on our message board.