The Wild made the playoffs this year after finishing a distant 12th in the Western Conference a year ago. The Vikings went from three to 10 wins and a playoff berth. The Twins lost at least 96 games each of the past two seasons; they will not lose as many this year, despite a disappointing home stand. The Wolves, as sad as this is, won more games (31) this past year than in any other season pre- or post-Kevin Garnett.
If we can all agree that the Wild, Vikings, Timberwolves and Twins have improved in some fashion from where they were recently, then we can all probably agree on this: None of the four has everything needed to win at a higher level. More specifically: Each of them lacks, for now, the most important thing it needs to take the next step:
• Wild: A pure goal scorer. Zach Parise is a terrific, relentless forward. But he is not a sniper. The same can be said for Mikko Koivo at his best. Dany Heatley? He can still pick a corner, but with far less frequency than he used to. The deficiency in pure goal scorers became most evident during a powerless playoff series against Chicago. Best hope for solving the problem: A crafty move in free agency or hope a young player develops into that missing piece.
• Vikings: A bona fide playmaking quarterback. Adrian Peterson had one of the most amazing seasons Minnesota — or the NFL — has ever seen in 2012. He willed the Vikings into the playoffs. But still, the NFL is a QB league. And Christian Ponder hasn’t shown yet that he’s an upper-echelon quarterback. Best hope for solving the problem: This looks to be a make-or-break year for Ponder. Best-case scenario, he makes it. Worst case, the Vikings tread water and start over.
• Twins: An ace. The squad still needs many things, but one that would solve a lot of problems is a true No. 1 starting pitcher. Twins starters rank near the bottom of MLB with an ERA above 5.00, and nobody in the current rotation has the look of an ace (or even, let’s be honest, a No. 2 starter). Best hope for solving the problem: Minor league development. Kyle Gibson could be that guy. Trevor May or Alex Meyer could be that guy. But it will take time.
• Wolves: A shooting guard. Luke Ridnour has played through pain. He has played despite being undersized. His effort is appreciated, but he is not a shooting guard. Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love would be that much better with a properly sized, young, talented shooting guard to run with in a league that is heavily dependent on getting to the basket and shooting three-pointers. Best hope for solving the problem: This year’s draft. Minnesota must take a shooting guard, and it must be someone who makes a quick impact.