DENVER – The faces of the franchise remain Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, but an important part of the Wild’s immediate future include four forwards selected in the first 59 picks of the 2010 NHL draft.
Chuck Fletcher no longer calls Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter and Jason Zucker the “young guys.”
As he enters his eighth season, the Wild general manager calls them “the 24-year-olds,” and he expects more from each this season.
“Historically, the age 24 season is often the year where guys have their breakthrough,” said Fletcher, using Brayden Schenn, who scored a career-high 26 goals for Philadelphia last season as an example.
“There are additional steps Coyle, Granlund, Nino and Zucker can take, and I think we’re all going to be pleasantly surprised how the year goes for these guys.”
Coyle, who apparently will start at right wing with Parise and center Eric Staal, scored a career-high 21 goals last season. But after an 11-goal tear in an 18-game stretch, he scored none in his final 18 games.
Granlund, expected to move from center to wing on Koivu’s line, answered questions about his durability by playing 82 games with a career-high 13 goals and 44 points, but dipped in the points per game department.
Niederreiter scored a career-high 24 goals two seasons ago. He fell to 20 last season despite increased ice time. And Zucker was on a 34-goal pace if he had played a full season two years ago. He dipped to 13 goals in 71 games last season.
“It’s about taking that next step and no longer having the excuse of being young,” Zucker said. “We don’t want that excuse anymore. We want to be able to play and take on everything that goes along with it. We have to be more vocal in the locker room, too.”
Coyle knows players often peak in their mid-20s.
“I say every year, I’ve got another year under my belt,” Coyle said. “But we’re not young guys anymore, especially myself. I’m ready to take that next step. I think I’ve taken little steps, little steps, but I want to keep going in the right direction and take a big step.”
Fletcher hopes 2015-16 was a lesson for the 24-year-olds, especially Zucker.
“The first half of the year for Zuck, like most of our team, was pretty good,” Fletcher said. “Then we hit a stretch where our shooting percentage dropped precipitously. The puck wasn’t going in the net, we were constantly giving up the first goal, chasing games, and many guys started getting away from what we needed to do to be successful, and we got into a real death spiral.
“When Jason’s playing the right way, he often has the puck on his stick and he’s able to use his speed and skill to score. But you can’t keep hoping and you can’t keep circling and you can’t keep cheating when things aren’t going well.
“There were real tough lessons for Jason last year. He’s a smart kid and a high-character kid, and I expect fully that he’s digested those lessons, learned from them and he’ll be a different and better player this year.”
Zucker entered Tuesday’s exhibition game in Colorado with two goals this preseason, including a buzzer-beater winner against Buffalo.
“Last year was something I never thought would actually happen,” Zucker said. “I pride myself on preparing for seasons and doing my summer training. I did that last summer just as much as I did that this summer. I came in ready to go. I figured in my mind if I came in ready to go, [a bad year] wouldn’t happen.
“But you have to learn how to get out of those things, and that’s where I was immature. I’ve learned a lot from that.”
Granlund and Niederreiter are both in the final year of their contracts. The Wild will have to make long-term decisions on each, and Fletcher says the Wild can afford both.
“But that’s a long way off,” Fletcher said. “So much can happen in the next year, from the expansion draft to changes we might want to make to be competitive.
“We also have to see how [new coach Bruce Boudreau] utilizes everybody. Every time you have a coaching change, there’s players that benefit or players that lose some ice time or their roles take a step back. So it’ll be interesting to see as the year evolves who’s playing more, who’s playing less.”
Niederreiter is aware, saying, “It’s another contract year for myself, so hopefully it’s a big one. I want to be a better player than I was last year, I want to be a bigger leader than I was last year. … I’m still a very young player, but at the end of the day, I’ve got to grow and lead as well.”