Last year, when the Wild was adapting to the leadership of new coach Bruce Boudreau, the team finished with the best regular season in its history. Despite a franchise-record 106 points and 49 victories, a first-round playoff loss to St. Louis made for an abrupt and unsatisfying end to the season — and a long wait for the chance to try for a better conclusion. Most of the key players are back, and they have the benefit of familiarity with Boudreau’s systems and style. The cutthroat Central Division, though, leaves little room for error. Here are five elements that will be critical for the Wild to replicate — or surpass — last season’s performance.
1. Getting reliable production from its backup goaltenders.
Last season, Devan Dubnyk was among the top goalies in the NHL until the staggering workload wore him down. Boudreau lost faith in backup Darcy Kuemper and used him sparingly, including only three starts in March and April. Though Dubnyk insisted he wasn’t weary from his 63 starts, Boudreau believed the stress took a toll. The coach hopes that South St. Paul native Alex Stalock — who spent most of last season in Iowa after being signed as a free agent — can play 20 to 25 games to help keep Dubnyk fresh. He thought Stalock’s “energy and life’’ fit well with the Wild in limited duty last season, and the goalie compiled a goals-against average of 1.51 and a save percentage of .947 in two preseason games. Niklas Svedberg, assigned to the Wild’s AHL affiliate in Iowa, also had an impressive preseason and should provide depth.
2. Continued improvement from the guys born in 1992.
General Manager Chuck Fletcher has noted that NHL players often have breakthrough seasons when they reach the age of 24. That led him to predict big things last season for Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter and Jason Zucker. They didn’t disappoint. All were among the Wild’s top six scorers; Granlund led the Wild with a career-high 69 points, Niederreiter finished with a career-best 25 goals, and Coyle logged a career-high 56 points. Coyle said each of them has more to give, and all are determined to prove they can be consistently excellent. Niederreiter might project into the team’s top goal scorer. Granlund and Zucker thrived playing wings on Mikko Koivu’s line, with his success in the faceoff circle a crucial component.
3. The guys on the older end of the roster deliver again, too.
A trio of thirtysomethings — Eric Staal, Mikko Koivu and Ryan Suter — also helped drive last season’s success. A revitalized Staal, 32, led the Wild with 65 points in his most productive season since 2011-12. Koivu, 34, was a Selke Trophy finalist and finished with 58 points, his best output since 2010-11; Suter, 32, remained among the NHL leaders in ice time with nearly 27 minutes per game. But will they be able to maintain that pace? The Wild remains a team without a sharpshooter, so getting scoring throughout the lineup will be important. Boudreau said the Wild’s improved depth at forward — including the addition of 40-year-old center Matt Cullen — will allow him to hold players’ ice time to a reasonable level, which should benefit the veterans.
4. Keeping Zach Parise healthy and at his goal-scoring best.
The alternate captain’s back already has left a hole in the roster, as Parise will miss at least the first two games of the season because of the lingering injury. He spent most of training camp skating on his own and never took contact in practice. Though Parise’s point production declined during an illness- and injury-pocked season in 2016-17, he remains an emotional leader and the Wild’s standard for tough, tireless and poised play. Boudreau has said if Parise is healthy, the 33-year-old is capable of producing 25 to 30 goals. If he isn’t, that leaves a significant void in the locker room and on the stat sheet.
5. Maintaining a stout defensive corps youngsters stepping up.
The Wild gave up a top-four defenseman when it traded Marco Scandella to Buffalo last summer for forwards Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis, and depth defenseman Nate Prosser left via free agency. That creates opportunity for two highly regarded youngsters, Mike Reilly and Gustav Olofsson. Reilly is likely to start the season on the third defensive pair with free-agent signee Kyle Quincey, matching a veteran known for steady, physical defense with an offensively skilled player who has 46 games of NHL experience. Olofsson added bulk and muscle during the offseason, and Boudreau said both he and Reilly have “improved greatly.’’ With standouts Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon reunited as the top pair, the Wild also will look for more consistent performances from second duo Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin.