Goodbye, 2013. You were OK, we suppose, but 2014 is going to be better. Every year going forward will be better than every year that preceded it for the rest of time. That’s what it feels like on Jan. 1, right? You feel invincible. As such, this is your optimist’s guide to Minnesota sports in 2014. Sure, everything could systematically fall apart over the next 12 months. But for now, here is the happy, yet hopefully realistic, version of what could happen:
Vikings: Facing two of the biggest decisions of his career — hiring a new coach and finding a quarterback of the future — General Manager Rick Spielman gets both right. The new coach and staff blend an increased emphasis on disciplined play with innovation on both sides of the ball, helping first-round draft choice (fill in the blank, but Johnny Manziel sure would be nice) thrive as he adjusts to life in the NFL. The Purple don’t become an immediate Super Bowl contender in their first season at TCF Bank Stadium, but they do nudge their record back above .500 and provide serious hope for the future.
Twins: In desperate need of restoring faith among the paying Target Field customers after three consecutive seasons with at least 96 losses, the Twins see their master plan start to take shape. New additions Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes help take a rotation that has been dreadful and make it middle-of-the-pack. An offense that looks to be challenged to score runs is boosted by Miguel Sano, who wins the third base job after a dynamite spring and — despite big strikeout totals — hits enough home runs to be a difference-maker. Byron Buxton, after a fast start at Class AA, can’t be held back any longer and provides a spark during a July call-up. After three terrible years, an average season with contributions from a young core feels like a breath of fresh Target Field air.
Wild: The Wild at one point this season had a 15-5-4 record. That was a nice start. What happened? Don’t worry about it. It’s all about what’s GOING to happen, remember? The Wild can brush off those December blahs. All it takes is a stretch of sustained good play, and it often starts with one game. With six of their first nine games in 2014 at Xcel Energy Center, the “good” Wild returns — the team that scratches out 3-2 victories, has occasional goal-scoring outbursts and gets dynamite play from Josh Harding. All of it is enough to squeeze into the playoffs, and from there anything is possible.
Timberwolves: There is good news to be found in the team’s often maddening 15-16 start. The Wolves rank in the top 10 in the NBA in offensive rating and defensive rating, according to basketball-reference.com. And they have been almost impossibly bad in close games (0-8 when the margin is four points or fewer). Let’s choose to believe in this new year that those are signs that the team is close to reeling off big chunks of victories and only needs a few key possessions to turn the tide. Playoffs? That will be tough in the brutal Western Conference, but the talent is there to make it happen.
Gophers football: The Gophers had a four-game Big Ten winning streak for the first time in 40 years in 2013. Why not do it again in 2014? Sure, the conference schedule looks daunting with Ohio State and Michigan as crossover games. But look at this stretch: home against Northwestern, home against Purdue, at Illinois, home against Iowa. With even more improvement in Year 4 under Jerry Kill, why not reel off a string of victories there, and maybe another one or two on top of them in conference play, to finally break through into not just a bowl game but a really good bowl game? It could happen.
Gophers basketball: Expectations for the men’s squad were hard to pin down with new coach Richard Pitino taking over for Tubby Smith. What we know now is this: The Gophers look to be improving and they look to be playing an exciting brand of basketball. Those were typically not descriptions of Smith’s teams. Will it be enough to squeeze out enough Big Ten wins to make the NCAA tournament? It sure could be, and it wouldn’t be a major surprise if the Gophers women’s team joined them in the Big Dance.
Gophers hockey: Want to talk about realistic expectations? Both the Gophers men’s and women’s hockey teams enter 2014 ranked No. 1 in the nation. Dare we dream about not just two berths in the Frozen Four but two NCAA champions? This is the time to dream big, and in this case it’s not all that far-fetched.
Lynx: Minnesota has already won two WNBA titles in the past three seasons, with a runner-up finish sandwiched in between those championships. What’s left to accomplish in 2014? Well, how about a dynasty? As long as the Lynx have Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Rebekkah Brunson, a third championship in four seasons is well within reach. And if they could accomplish that, we would be talking even more seriously about their place among the WNBA’s all-time greatest teams.