Continuing our spin around the Central, and today we’ll look at the Minnesota Wild who became a far more annoying playoff opponent than anyone thought they would. People forget just how good Crawford had to be in Games 5 and 6 to keep the Wild at bay (in those games where Peter Regin was among the best Hawks forwards and then was never heard from again). It could work out that way again.
Forwards: While everyone is gushing about the Stars’ new-found depth, the Wild have been slowly building their own and it’s hardly to be sneezed at. There’s already an established top line of Parise-Koivu-Vanek, and while Vanek has his detractors he’s the exact type of forward — who just hangs around the net with soft hands — that drives the Hawks nuts. Though Vanek and Parise play both the left side, Vanek did flip over on the Canadiens last spring, but you could see them split up on other lines. Which could put Vanek with Mikael Granlund, who looks poised to be a breakout star this season. Nino Niederreiter and Jason Pominville round out the right side on the top six, and that’s certainly a good look. Below that, no Hawks fan wants to see Erik Haula ever again, but sadly he’s going to be bothering us for years to come. Charlie Coyle could play on the right side of any of the top three lines, and there’s a slobbering, destructive power forward in there just waiting to get out. Justin Fontaine and Jason Zucker are kids who can do some damage on the bottom six, and Matt Cooke and Kyle Brodziak, another Hawks killer, are still here. 1-12, you could do a whole lot worse than this.
Defense: It begins and almost ends with Ryan Suter who will probably still skate nearly 30 minutes a night. He led everyone in ice-time last year by almost two minutes per game, and you’d think that would catch up with him. But Suter is so efficient with his time on the ice that he can pull it off. Check out Justin Bourne’s piece on him from The Score. It’s too tempting to say that’s where it all ends with the Wild blue line, but that’s not really true. Jonas Brodin might not have been as good as his rookie year last year, but he was still mighty impressive. The Hawks couldn’t get at Marco Scandella last year in the playoffs, and Scandella is only 24 years old and might have crossed that threshold that all young d-men need to really establish themselves. There’s also a couple kids here that could transform the whole unit. One is Matt Dumba who got a brief look last year, and Christian Folin who has really turned heads in camp. They may not both or either make it or play regularly, but they might. Could be a real thing here. They’re going to start as the Wild’s third pairing, with Mighty Mouse Jared Spurgeon playing with Scandella. There’s potential for a solid 1-6 here, and perhaps just as solid as what the Blues or Hawks will sport. If not more so.
Goalies: Ah, here’s the problem. Maybe. The Wild were a real mess in net when Darcy Kuemper was unsigned, Niklas Backstrom got hurt because Niklas Backstrom got hurt, and Josh Harding had ruled himself out for months after “an altercation with a teammate,” which is generally code for got drunk somewhere and fucked himself up. But Kuemper is now in, and if they just hand him the starting job he can probably be league average for them. Is that enough? Behind that defense if it fully flowers it might just be. He’s not going to be an All-Star, but he might not have to be. He could bring it all down with him, and Backstrom (or whatever is left of him) isn’t going to come in and be a savior. This could be the team’s achilles heel, but they may have put enough in front of the netminders that they can lessen the burden they carry.
I can’t sit here and say the Wild are in the Blues or Hawks class just yet, but I don’t think they’re far behind. They finished ahead of Dallas last year, and I think they’ll probably do so again. If Kuemper doesn’t turn into an immolated monk, 100 points is really not out of the question. And they’ve already proven to be a real annoyance in the postseason.