Last April the Wild made the playoffs for the first time since 2008, but the salary cap ceiling dropped nearly $6 million. That meant veteran forwards Matt Cullen, Devin Setoguchi, Cal Clutterbuck and Pierre-Marc Bouchard, and defenseman Tom Gilbert were dispatched.
“We’ll be a different-looking team,” coach Mike Yeo said. “We are relying a lot on the kids, and with that comes growing pains. It’s important for everybody — us as an organization, our team, players, coaches, fans, media — to have a bit of patience early in the year. It could take a little time, but once we get going, we’ll be better for it.
“Now, I’m not saying I expect us to have a slow start or bad year. I still think we have the pieces to be a real dangerous team.”
Training camp will be critical for many of these “kids.”
“We went into the offseason with that mind-set, but when all of a sudden [the veterans left], guys finally realized we have to step up this year to help us as a team,” second-year forward Charlie Coyle said.
Here are five young players to focus on as the team hits the ice for the first time in training camp Thursday:
Charlie Coyle, age 21
The 6-3, 220-pound power forward acquired in the 2011 Brent Burns trade with San Jose burst onto the scene last season with eight goals in 37 games, and wound up finding a spot on the right side of Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu.
But this month, the Wild will be trying him at center to potentially replace Cullen on the second line.
Coyle has played the middle for much of his young career. He spent the offseason working on faceoffs, and the fitness freak says he tried to get faster while also bulking up.
Confident heading into camp, Coyle hopes his ability to play every position will give him a better chance to make the team because he provides so many options. And he’s officially changed his number from 63 to 3.
Matt Dumba, age 19
One year after the Wild got masterful play from 19-year-old Jonas Brodin, the team could be looking at another teenage defenseman to make the squad.
Dumba, the seventh pick in the 2012 draft, could add an element the Wild lacks: a flashy, big-hitting, right-shot horse from the back end — he had 20 goals with Red Deer of the Western Hockey League last season. As of now, the Wild’s top six defensemen include five lefties: Brodin, Ryan Suter, Marco Scandella, Keith Ballard and Clayton Stoner.
Dumba is raw but intriguing because of his huge open-ice hits and threatening power-play presence. He must either play with the Wild or return to Red Deer, and the Wild has nine regular-season games to make that decision.
Mikael Granlund, age 21
A winner and star at every level in Finland, Granlund had a tough transition to North American professional hockey, scoring two goals in 27 games with the Wild. Things the skilled forward got away with on the bigger ice surfaces of Europe proved more difficult in the NHL and AHL because there’s less time and space.
Expectations were too vast last season, partly because Wild fans and the media waited three years to see him after he was drafted ninth overall in 2010.
Granlund, who made the team initially but eventually was sent back to Houston, handled everything maturely and says he learned what he’ll have to do to be successful in the NHL. He worked on his footwork this offseason — at 5-10, he was easily knocked off the puck as a rookie.
Granlund’s best play in Minnesota came at wing, but he’ll start camp by competing with Coyle for the second-line center spot.
Nino Niederreiter, age 21
“El Niño” — the highest-drafted Swiss player in NHL history at fifth overall in 2010 — is a projected top-six power forward who was acquired from the Islanders for Clutterbuck.
His skill is obvious — skates well, shoots well, dangles, has size at 6-2. He finished 10th in goal scoring in the AHL last season with 28 and had 130 points in 120 games in Portland of the Western Hockey League.
But he was probably thrust into the NHL too soon by the Islanders, languished on the fourth line two years ago, and eventually asked to be traded. He can play either wing and, if he’s to make the Wild, he might have to start off on the third line. The biggest questions about him are how he handles the rough stuff in the NHL and whether he’ll initially need more polishing with the Wild’s AHL farm team in Iowa.
Jason Zucker, age 21
The Las Vegas-raised, California-born supremely-confident winger was a star at the University of Denver and became an instant fan favorite during his call-ups with the Wild last season. He scored four goals in 20 games with the Wild and had 24 goals in 55 games in the AHL.
Fast, skilled and exciting to watch, Zucker should make the team because the Wild needs a dangerous second-line left winger, especially with scoring a concern.
Zucker scored a bunch with Houston during the NHL lockout and had chemistry last season with Cullen and Setoguchi in Minnesota. Yeo wants to see more consistency from Zucker, meaning not straying from the system.