By Derek Lambert
As Minnesota sports fans, we grow more impatient every season waiting for one of our teams to win a championship, or even make the playoffs. Since we are the state of hockey, the Wild are perhaps under the most scrutiny when they fail to perform up to our high expectations set for them. The summer of 2012 saw a Fourth of July where the Wild signed two NHL All-Stars, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, to matching 13 year contracts and Minnesota fans went nuts. Fans were disappointed when the Wild went down to the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but let’s try and look at the positive side of this. The Wild made the playoffs last year for the first time in five years dating back to 2008, showing some progress with the new additions. But Wild fans let’s keep in mind, championship teams are not built over night, these things take time.
The Wild are off to a 3-2-2 start to the season. While not a great start, it’s not bad considering they started out 0-1-2 before winning three straight games. Those numbers are good enough to have them tied for third in the Central Division with St. Louis, and 14th in the 30 team league. More importantly, they seem to control most of the play this season and their puck movement has been incredible. With new additions and young players stepping up and producing offensively, the Wild look like a team that can hang with anyone. They look like a completely new team, and for the most part, they are.
Remember when we signed NHL enforcer Matt Cooke in the offseason and no Wild fan wanted him in Minnesota? Well despite his checkered past in the NHL with suspensions and fighting, Cooke leads the team in points through the first seven games with six, and is second on the team with three goals. That’s right; a former goon in the league leads our team in scoring. But that’s not a bad thing because the more players the Wild have that can produce, the better off they’ll be. Parise is coming along nicely in his second season in a Wild sweater as he leads the team with four goals, three of which were scored on the power play. Parise is also one of the hardest working players in the league and his fast play and aggressive fore checking forces opposing players to turn the puck over multiple times per game. Suter on the other hand, is among league leaders in average time on ice, playing just under 30 minutes per game. Then there’s Jason Pominville, who captained the Buffalo Sabres before coming to Minnesota. Pominville is one of the go to players on the power play, scoring all three of his goals with the man advantage. These additions have undoubtedly helped the Wild, but how are their youngsters doing?
Cal Clutterbuck was a fan favorite in Minnesota, so it was disappointing to see him traded away for a guy who had scored a combined three goals in the past two seasons. The New York Islanders sent the Wild Latvian native Nino Niederreiter in exchange for Clutterbuck, which turned out to be a pretty sweet deal on our end. Niederreiter was the fifth overall draft pick in the first round of the 2010 NHL draft, but hadn’t been able to prove himself over the last few years as a steady NHL player. Now he is playing alongside Mikko Koivu and Parise on the Wild’s first line. While he certainly has help playing with those two, he has shown he can keep up, scoring a goal and two assists thus far. Niederreiter isn’t the only young European player on the team contributing, though.
The Wild were pretty excited last season when their 2011 tenth overall pick Jonas Brodin of Sweden made his debut. He played in 45 of 48 games for the Wild and contributed offensively, but at times looked as if he could not keep up. This season, the 20 year old defenseman has been seeing top minutes for the club and has produced two goals and three assists to rank second on the team in points. Another second year player may have found a permanent spot on the roster in Mikael Granlund. Last season the Finnish forward bounced around between the Wild and their AHL affiliate the Houston Aeros, now the Iowa Wild. Granlund has looked much improved this season and seems to have earned himself a spot with the big boys while registering three assists so far this season. With all of these players playing well early on, the only question mark for the Wild remains between the pipes.
Niklas Backstrom has been the Wild’s starting goalie for the last seven seasons, but it’s no secret that he is often battling injuries and forced to sit out of the lineup. In last week’s game against Nashville, he suffered a lower body injury, and Josh Harding was forced to come into the game. Harding has since gone 3-1 since taking over for the injured Backstrom, but he isn’t a guy that can play every night. Although a very capable backup and potential starter, Harding was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a year ago and his body will not allow him to play the minutes that the Wild need him to while Backstom is out. So in the meantime, Harding’s backup is Darcy Kuemper, which could be trouble for Minnesota. Kuemper has potential as a big goaltender, but it’s clear he isn’t ready for NHL shots yet. On Tuesday, the 23 year old from Saskatchewan gave up three goals on seven shots versus Toronto before being pulled in favor of Harding. If the Wild can find some consistency in goal, they should do just fine this season in their quest to make the playoffs for a second year in a row.
Minnesota finishes off their four game road trip with games against the Tampa Bay Lightning Thursday and then against the Florida Panthers on Saturday before returning to St. Paul.