With only a few weeks before the start of hockey’s regular season, the Guardian Liberty Voice will be taking an in-depth look at the 30 organizations, one for each day. Today, 30 in 30 will look at the Minnesota Wild. Minnesota surprised many analysts last year by not only making the playoffs, but advancing past the first round as well. This season will bring new challenges, especially in a highly contested Central Division, but the Wild know they need to build on their momentum and repeat, if not surpass, the success they had last year.
Last Season – The Minnesota Wild were successful last year because they started and finished the regular season strong. From October 22 to November 23, Minnesota won 12 out of the 15 games played. Likewise, at the end of the year, the Wild won six out of the last eight games to secure a Western Conference Wildcard spot. So why did they need a streak at the end of the season to fight for a playoff spot? Because outside of those two runs, Minnesota had a less than impressive season, winning only 25 of the remaining 59 games.
A large reason for their inconsistency was the rotating door of goaltenders the team was subject to. The Minnesota Wild had five goaltenders start a game for them last year, and four of them started more than 10 games. In an ideal world, Minnesota could have run with Josh Harding throughout the year, whose 1.65 Goals Against Average and .933 save percentage topped the league. Injuries to Harding and Niklas Backstrom did allow the Minnesota Wild to get a good look at Darcy Kuemper, who impressed in his 26 games with the team.
Despite being a 7th seed, the Wild shocked much of the hockey world when they eliminated the favored Colorado Avalanche in the first round of last year’s playoffs. They came close to repeating that performance in the next round, taking the Chicago Blackhawks to six games before losing on a Patrick Kane goal in overtime.
The Offseason – By far, the biggest move the Minnesota Wild made in the offseason happened just hours into free agency. Former Minnesota Gopher Thomas Vanek signed a three-year, $19.5 million deal with the Wild, joining his fellow ex-Buffalo Sabres teammate, Jason Pominville. Vanek’s desire to join the Wild had been rumored for over a year, which might explain why Minnesota was able to sign him so cheaply. Of course, Vanek’s performance (or lack thereof) with the Montreal Canadiens in last year’s playoffs might also explain the low signing price.
Vanek should round out Minnesota’s Top 6. With Mikael Granlund and Mikko Koivu centering the top two lines, and Zach Parise, Nino Niederreiter, Pominville, and Vanek on their wings, the Minnnesota Wild have a Top 6 that can compete with any other team in the league. This is important for any team, but especially for teams in the Central Division, as most of the top tier teams in the West come from that division.
The Wild almost made it through the offseason without any bad news, but with only a few weeks before the season begins, the hockey gods struck. First, Bob Suter, player for the legendary “Miracle on Ice” 1980 US Olympic Ice Hockey team and father of current Minnesota defenseman, Ryan Suter, passed away just a few days before training camp. The news sent shockwaves through the hockey world, and especially through the Minnesota organization, who had gotten to know Bob personally due to his efforts to spread the game around the community. The death left a somber tone to begin camp.
Only a few days ago, the situation turned worse for the Minnesota Wild. It was reported that Josh Harding broke his foot after kicking a wall, allegedly after an argument with a teammate. The Minnesota front office was not pleased with Harding, who will miss up to three months recovering from the injury. Since the injury was “non-hockey” related, and came mostly as a result of Harding’s own stupidity, the Wild suspended the goaltender for the length of his recovery, meaning he will not be receiving a paycheck from the Minnesota organization until he steps back on the ice.
What to Watch for Next Season – Harding’s injury will create the most interesting storyline of the season, just as it was last year. A team with a rotating group of goaltenders will rarely find much success, but with Harding out, and Ilya Bryzgalov receiving an invite to the Wild training camp, the Wild could see a similar rotation this year as well. Backstrom is fresh off abdominal surgery, and Kuemper has a newly-signed contract to live up to, so the starting job, at the moment, appears up in the air.
Thomas Vanek’s final moments in Montreal left a poor impression, but perhaps a return to his home state will ignite his passion again. Minnesota has enough talented wingers that a down year from Vanek will not sink the team, but it will make the playoffs a much tougher goal to reach. Despite being bounced around three teams last year, Vanek put up 68 points in 78 games. A similar performance should be expected from the star winger this year.
Finally, Minnesota’s consistency will need to be examined. True contenders are threats to win every game throughout the year and are rarely prone to long losing streaks. If Minnesota wants to be put in that group, they cannot rely on two good months to push them into the playoffs. It will required a much better performance in December through February for the Minnesota Wild to take the next step from wildcard spot to Cup contender.
Join the Guardian Liberty Voice tomorrow, where 30 in 30 will take a look at the determined Montreal Canadiens. Also check out yesterday’s team, the Los Angeles Kings.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner