The Wild seems ready to take the next step.
It has spiced up its arena with $6.5 million worth of new technology, including a 40-foot-long, 54-foot-wide, 48,000-pound center-ice scoreboard.
It doled out an additional $19.5 million for goal scorer Thomas Vanek, who joins an already-respected veteran corps that includes captain Mikko Koivu, 2012 free-agent purchases Zach Parise and Ryan Suter and former Buffalo Sabres captain Jason Pominville.
And it has a slew of quality youngsters poised to take on bigger roles.
After skating into the second round of the playoffs for only the second time in franchise history last spring, the Wild is looking to enlist in the Western Conference’s elite this season. Last season, it had the seventh-best record in the conference and was a wild-card playoff team.
“We have to try to prove that we’re in that next tier,” coach Mike Yeo said. “Having spent a great deal of time talking with our players about expectations, the simple fact is we’ve said that we know we can be a contender.”
It won’t be easy. The Central Division is stacked. Chicago and St. Louis still should be powerhouses, Colorado and Dallas are offensively frightening, and last season’s playoff outsiders, Nashville and Winnipeg, should be better.
Still, Yeo said, “It would sure be nice to become a team that not many people have any doubt whatsoever that you’re going to be in the playoffs.”
here are four keys to the wild season
1 Goaltending stability
Last season could have blown up at any step because of goalie issues.
Josh Harding’s marvelous first half was derailed by a multiple sclerosis relapse. Niklas Backstrom was never right physically and finally was shut down. Darcy Kuemper leapt into the savior role, and then his game started to slip before a concussion. Luckily, Ilya Bryzgalov was there to save the day, going 7-1-3 down the stretch.
So many stars needed to be aligned perfectly for last season not to crumble. The Wild cannot afford a repeat of last year.
It looked as if that volatility began again in September when, five days before training camp, Harding broke a foot in a non-hockey-related incident that has resulted in a team suspension.
However Backstrom, coming off his latest two of what has been at a half-dozen surgical procedures the past five years, and Kuemper survived the preseason healthy and performed quite well.
Now, it’ll be interesting to see which of the two emerges as the team’s No. 1. Health is paramount, though, because the Wild has proved that most goalies can function mightily behind Yeo’s defensive system.
2 Better special teams
In today’s NHL, teams that can play 5-on-5 even and win the special teams battle are usually successful.
Last season, the Wild only scored 138 5-on-5 goals (25th in the NHL) but survived because it allowed only 120 (third fewest).
When it came to special teams, the Wild fell apart. Its power play ranked 16th. Its penalty kill was atrocious, being scored on 21.2 percent of the time (fourth worst).
The Wild expects the power play to improve with more weapons, such as Vanek’s net-front presence (third-most power-play goals in the NHL since 2005), Matt Dumba’s big shot from the point and another year of maturity from playmaker Mikael Granlund.
And the Wild plans to be more aggressive on the penalty kill and feels it has the personnel to be successful. Besides veterans like Parise, Koivu, Suter and Matt Cooke on the PK, youngsters Erik Haula, Jason Zucker and Nino Niederreiter will see PK time.
3 Scoring from three lines
The best teams in the NHL get scoring from every line, and General Manager Chuck Fletcher continues to try to build that type of lineup in Minnesota. Could this be the year?
Granlund played so well when Parise and Koivu were injured at the same time last year that he opens this season on the top line between Parise and last year’s leading goal scorer, Pominville. Koivu and Vanek are expected to be second-line mainstays.
From there, Yeo has been auditioning wingers. Charlie Coyle or Niederreiter very likely could end up there, but Yeo is tempted to go with an all-kid third line that includes Haula because of how much of a threat they would be to score.
The Wild could have skill and speed up and down its lineup. Now, will it result in more goals for last season’s 24th-ranked attack?
4 Well-rounded blue line
This could be the year that Suter doesn’t have to play half the game.
The 2013 Norris Trophy runner-up and NHL’s top minute-muncher the past two seasons always wants to be on the ice, but the Wild wouldn’t mind trimming his ice time, especially if it’ll help him offensively.
The Wild expects a rebound season from Jonas Brodin, and hopes defensive pair Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon build on a strong 2013-14 season.
The intriguing part of the start to this season is that rookies Dumba, 20, and Christian Folin, 23, made the team. Dumba is the ultimate risk-taker, and Folin is super smooth with a big body. The Wild is excited for both to work full-time with assistant coaches Rick Wilson and Darryl Sydor.