The Wild begins its 13th season Thursday night against the Los Angeles Kings, and the objective is to build on last season’s playoff berth by taking the next step as an organization.
Expectations are high, especially from inside the owner’s suite.
“We have to continue to get better because there’s not one team in the league that is good enough right now to win the Stanley Cup,” said coach Mike Yeo, who is entering the final year of his contract. “The biggest thing for us is we want to get better offensively. That’s been well-documented. We’ve talked about it an awful lot.
“But our bread and butter still has to be that we have to be a great defensive team. The challenge for us is keep building the offensive part without taking away from the defensive part. That will be a work in progress.”
Here are four things to watch this season.
The go-to guys
Much will be expected out of the top line of Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville, and veteran sniper Dany Heatley.
Parise and Koivu were the team’s top scorers last season but didn’t produce in the playoffs. Both are highly driven to turn this into a feared line in the NHL, and it starts with work ethic and the Wild taking care of its own end so they have the puck.
The hardworking Pominville, who seems to mesh well with Parise, should complement Nos. 11 and 9. Pominville scored nine points in 10 games after arriving from Buffalo last season.
Heatley, in a contract year, is motivated to resurrect his career. Goals have come harder for him the past few years. He is coming off season-ending shoulder surgery, but he arrived in camp noticeably slimmer and looks as if he is skating better.
The young guys
Frankly, the kids must take the next step in their careers if the Wild is to have any hope.
It starts with Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter. To start the season, the 21-year-old 2010 first-round picks will skate on the second line with Heatley.
Coyle and Niederreiter, both standing 6-2 and weighing around 205 pounds, have size and can skate. They both had strong training camps, especially Coyle, who was all over the ice and scored three goals in five games. They will be key fixtures on the No. 2 power-play unit.
Mikael Granlund, 21, also a 2010 first-rounder, entered last season way too hyped and proved to not be ready. He arrived noticeably stronger and quicker. He made the team and will again have all eyes focused on him, especially with speedy fan favorite Jason Zucker waiting in the wings in Des Moines.
The mobile blue line
Yeo has tweaked the system to try to become more of a puck possession team, and one big reason is to try to mold a system around the Wild’s mobile blue line.
The Wild’s potential top-six defensemen to start the season — Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon, Keith Ballard and maybe ultimately rookie Matt Dumba — can all skate. Veteran defenseman Clayton Stoner is also mobile for a big man.
The Wild wants to carry the puck into the offensive zone more, and a lot of that will have to do with defensemen who are now free to jump into the play.
Suter finished second among NHL defensemen with 28 assists last season, Brodin is looking to produce more points, and Ballard, who has a big shot and can move the puck, might be a big help.
The masked men
The Wild inquired about trading for a handful of goaltenders during the offseason, but in the end, Niklas Backstrom, who turns 36 in February, was re-signed for three years.
Backstrom, the franchise leader with 184 wins and 28 shutouts, was ridden hard last season when Josh Harding was lost for two months because of side effects from a new medication to treat multiple sclerosis. Backstrom struggled in April and eventually sustained a sports hernia minutes before Game 1 of the playoffs. The Vezina Trophy runner-up in 2008 needs to return to form, but the Wild also needs Harding to push after a strong training camp.