Young and opportunistic

This is still very much a veteran roster at an average age of 28, but the Wild will only become more competitive if its youth takes on a prominent role. Jordan Greenway returns after a solid rookie debut, Joel Eriksson Ek was a force in camp and Luke Kunin’s versatility in moving between wing and center already is being utilized. Kevin Fiala and Ryan Donato also get fresh starts after being late additions last season in trades. At one point or another, each of these players have shown flashes of being special talents. But if they can deliver consistently, the Wild should have an easier time vying with the elite teams in the league.

Fast start

The Wild will be tested early, with 13 of its first 18 games on the road, a strenuous trek that could lift the team up the standings or bury it at the bottom. There are only two sets of back-to-backs during this run, which should ease the workload a bit, but the schedule is rife with division battles. And since the Central houses the reigning Stanley Cup champions (St. Louis) and legit title contenders (Colorado, Dallas and Nashville), success against its rivals looks imperative for the Wild to even have a chance to stay in the playoff hunt. What should encourage the team is it’s coming off a strong showing on the road last season, banking 21 of its 37 wins as the visitor.

Going for goals

An offensive shortage doused the Wild’s waning playoff hopes down the stretch last season, as the team recorded two or fewer goals in 11 of its final 15 games. Five of those outcomes were shutouts, and the Wild sputtered to the finish line in a scoreless rut of nearly 125 minutes. It also didn’t score for more than 170 minutes in one February stretch, a dry spell that came close to setting a franchise record. Overall, the offense ranked 27th in the NHL with 210 goals and 2.56 goals per-game. Forwards Eric Staal and Jason Zucker weren’t as productive as past seasons, and the power play rated middle of the pack. Free-agent newcomers Mats Zuccarello and Ryan Hartman could help spark a resurgence; Zuccarello is an established playmaker, and Hartman has a history of supplying secondary scoring.

Ready to return

What could also boost the Wild’s offense are smooth transitions back into the lineup by defenseman Matt Dumba and captain Mikko Koivu. Both were sidelined with season-ending injuries in 2018-19, absences that weakened the team all over the ice. Aside from eating up steady minutes at even strength, they also handle double duty on special teams. Dumba and Koivu have healed up, impressing in training camp with how seamlessly they’ve resumed practicing and playing. Getting Dumba back on the top defensive pairing and slotting Koivu up the middle should give the Wild the stability it was lacking in the second half last season.

Home-ice advantage

Another reason why the Wild missed out on the playoffs last spring was its woeful home record. The team went a disappointing 16-18-7, this after it tied for the second-most points on home ice in the NHL the previous season. Part of the issue can be traced to poor starts; the opposition scored first 26 times, early holes that the Wild had difficultly climbing out. In the end, the Wild gave up more goals (117) at Xcel Energy Center than it scored (104). Extra time at home was also a mixed bag. Of the 11 contests that advanced to overtime or a shootout, the team won only four — blanking on seven additional points, which was the difference between the Wild and the final playoff berth in the Western Conference.

SARAH McLELLAN