The Wild enter the abbreviated 2013 season with high expectations; thanks to the free agent signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter and the arrival of star prospect, Mikael Granlund. Will the team meet these expectations? Will they succumb to the pressure and fail to produce the expected results? What will the lines look like? What prospects will make the team out of training camp? Can the Wild win the Northwest Division? Those are just a few of the many questions surrounding the Wild this season. Let's try to answer some of those questions.
-What will the line combinations be to start the season?
The first line appears to be Mikko Koivu at center; Zach Parise at left wing; Dany Heatley at Right wing. That is a top-flight first-line grouping in the NHL. If those guys can find the right chemistry, they should be able to put the puck in the net and lead the Wild to a playoff berth.
Centering the second line will be Mikael Granlund. His left wing will be Matt Cullen. Devin Setoguchi will be the right wing on this line. Now, if Pierre-Marc Bouchard is cleared to play (Bouchard has not played in over a calender year after suffering a concussion. This is the second time he has missed a whole year's worth of time due to a concussion. He claims he is 100%, but he has not faced any contact yet. So, yeah, his status is murky. ), he may replace Cullen on the left side of this line. This grouping of players will bring a lot of skill to the ice, especially, if (and this is a rather big if) Bouchard can return to his pre-concussion form. But they will be an undersized group, and each player has a history of injuries. Can they withstand the physicality of the NHL, and produce points consistently?
The third and fourth lines are the hardest to figure out at this early date. Kyle Brodziak will undoubtedly center the third line, with Cal Clutterbuck as his right wing. The left wing is a bit of a question mark: If Bouchard is cleared, does Cullen slide down to play left wing? Does the Wild call up prospect Jason Zucker, who leads all AHL rookies in goals scored, to play on the third line? Or, does the third line left wing slot get filled by Torrey Mitchell, an off-season free-agent signee?
Without knowing who is going to make the team, assigning names to the fourth line is, at-best, an educated guess. The one certainty on the fourth line appears to be, Zenon Konopka, another of the Wild's off-season free-agent signees . Konopka's grit, faceoff ability, and willingness to drop the gloves make him a shoe-in to play center on the team's fourth line. Potential wingers on the fourth line include: Torrey Mitchell, Darroll Powe, Matt Kassian, Stephane Veilleux and Jake Dowell.
My best guess on how the lines shake out to start the season: Cullen starts on the second line, Zucker plays third line left wing, and Mitchell and Powe start the season as Konopka's wingers on the fourth line. Sadly, I don't believe Bouchard is/can stay healthy. Which is a shame, because he is a dynamic player, with a ton of skill, who would look great next to Granlund and Setoguchi on the Wild's second line.
What will the Wild's defensive pairings look like?
-As of right know, the Wild are a tad thin on the blue line for my taste. Due, in part, to injuries and inexperience. With Marco Scandella and Brian Connelly both injured recently in the AHL, and star-prospect Jonas Brodin still out at least a month with a broken collarbone, Minnesota signed veteran defenseman Paul Mara to a minor league contract today and invited 2012 first round draft pick Matt Dumba to training camp. While it's doubtful, in my opinion, either player will make the Wild, I believe the moves show the Wild front office is concerned with their depth on defense.
The number one pair of defensemen will be Jared Spurgeon and Ryan Suter. Both of these players have great skating and passing ability. Suter, another free-agent signee, is also a top-flight, shut-down defender-- something the Wild have not had in the history of the franchise, with all due respect to Brent Burns, a young Willie Mitchell, Kim Johnsson, Filip Kuba, Nick Schultz, Cam Barker, and Petteri Nummelin.
The second pair of defensemen will be Marco Scandella and Tom Gilbert. Gilbert, acquired in a trade with Edmonton at last season's trade-deadline, might be the Wild's most underrated player not named Mikko Koivu. He can skate, pass and shoot. Plus, he can defend. All in all, Gilbert is a solid second-pair defenseman. Scandella, a Wild draft pick, is an up and coming d-man. He has a solid shot and is adept at making the first pass out of the zone. But what he really excels at is defending. He has the size and skill needed to play defense at a high-level in the NHL. And he should only get better as he gains more experience at the NHL level. He is injured, but he should be ready to go soon.
Clayton Stoner, Justin Falk, Nate Prosser, Matt Dumba, Brian Connelly, and Paul Mara will be competing for the final two spots on defense. Stoner, a Wild veteran, has the inside track on one of the final two spots. The other slot is up for grabs. Look for Falk or Prosser to claim the final spot, while the other serves as the extra defenseman on the roster until Brodin is ready to go. Dumba, who must be returned to Juniors if he doesn't make the roster, could throw a wrench into those plans with a terrific camp. But I'm skeptical the Wild would burn a year of his contract in a shortened season.
This has been stated ad-naseum by me and others who follow the Wild, but it bears repeating: on paper, this is the most-talented roster the Minnesota Wild has ever fielded. And Frankly, it's not even close. With that said, you don't earn points on paper, you earn them on the ice. Can this team gel in a condensed time-frame and find the right chemistry, which is so improtant in pro-sports? We wont have an answer to that question until the season unfolds.
But an important thing to remember-- we are having a season, finally. We now have the opportunity to watch the games, to watch the ebb and flow of the hockey season, with all of it's up-and-downs, which is the only thing hockey fans have wanted throughout this moronic lockout; the ability to watch the best game in the world. And I, for one, can not wait for this season to get started.