High expectations. And fear.
The Wild opens training camp Thursday hoping to build on last season’s strong second half and trip to the conference semifinals. But playing in the powerful Central Division and the cutthroat Western Conference provides a harsh reality.
“I feel like we are a legitimate contender to win the Stanley Cup,” coach Mike Yeo said. “And I also am scared to death of missing the playoffs.”
Said winger Zach Parise: “There are going to be some really, really good teams that aren’t going to make the playoffs — really good teams.”
The team made one significant addition — goal scorer Thomas Vanek. Regulars will get more reps in camp and play more exhibition games, all designed to help the team get off to the fast start that might be necessary to make the playoffs for a third consecutive season.
And there will be slight tweaks to the system, although Yeo proudly says, “We took a step toward a very aggressive game last year, and I just want to keep pushing that.
“The old days, if anybody wants to call us a trapping team this year, don’t you dare because we’re not. We’ve gone the completely opposite direction of that. We are an in-your-face, pressure hockey team. We like to skate in straight lines and pressure and go forward and attack.”
Yeo sat down with the Star Tribune to offer thoughts heading into training camp:
Q Camp hasn’t started and Josh Harding is hurt and Darcy Kuemper isn’t signed. Can you believe goaltending is already an issue?
A I’m disappointed for our guys that we’re here before Day One of camp, and we’ve got a lot of guys that put in a lot of work and this is what we’re sitting around talking about. I’d rather us talk about the excitement around our team and the work that these guys put in. I think [Niklas Backstrom] deserves our full attention right now. He’s the guy who’s here, he’s the guy who’s putting in the work.
Q Goal scoring continued to be a challenge last year (24th in the NHL). How much can Vanek help?
A Combined with what everybody knows he brings — the net-front presence, the scoring — he’s a really underappreciated playmaker as far as vision and finding guys and reading the play and knowing where guys are. There’s a lot of things that I’m anxious to see. All the areas where we need to improve, he’s a guy who can help us.
Q Vanek had impressive chemistry with Jason Pominville for years in Buffalo. Are you still planning on playing Pominville with Parise and Mikael Granlund?
A All I know is they were lighting it up [Monday]. We’re open to change anything, but sometimes if it’s not broke, you don’t need to start messing around with it. That was a pretty darn good line. Granny has a lot of comfort with those two guys, and as big of a step as he took last year, I’m expecting him to take another one this year. We’ll probably try different things though.”
Q You mentioned Granlund. How about Charlie Coyle, who had a dominant final 10 games and solid postseason?
A He’s a guy who just dropped everybody’s jaw. There were many times when he was the best player on the ice. I think he took a big step last year and I think confidencewise, it’s going to be a really different feeling for him coming into camp where he’s no longer trying to prove himself as far as, “Do I belong here?” He’s trying to prove how good he is and how important he is to our team.
Q Your bottom six forwards seem as deep as ever.
A Part of the challenge will be finding enough ice time for everybody. We don’t have fourth-line guys who are going to play two or three minutes. Whether it’s Nino [Niederreiter] or [Justin Fontaine] or [Jason Zucker, Matt Cooke, Kyle Brodziak, Erik Haula], these are all guys that have shown if you give them a little more, they can be effective. Part of our challenge is everybody has their role and feels important. That’ll be ongoing, that’s for sure.
Q Big year for Zucker?
A He’s a guy who, you want him playing. You don’t want him as your 13th forward. You don’t want him being a fourth-line guy playing six minutes a night. If that’s the case and we don’t have a valuable role on our team, then probably the minors would be a better place for him. That said, he’s going to get every opportunity to make our hockey team.
Q How do you improve on a 16th-ranked power play?
A [Assistant coach] Andrew Brunette has to be on the bench. I just think he can’t run the power play effectively without being on the bench. There’s too many things that he needs to be there for, whether it be reinforcement or teaching or just in-game adjustments. Our power play wasn’t too far off. We’re definitely going to make some changes, and I think having Thomas there is going to make a big difference. I think he’s an element we were really missing.
Q How much of it is just mind-set?
A We need a little more of a killer instinct. Where I thought we were particularly bad is we’re up by a goal and we don’t go out with that killer instinct and intensity that we need. That’s an opportunity to just bury a team in a game. There’s times we went out there a little nonchalant, we don’t score and worse than that we lose momentum. We have to attack. We’ve got the personnel to do it.
Q How about the defensemen?
A Our top five is pretty set, but I would say 6 and 7 are very open right now. A guy like Christian Folin, if he can have a real good camp, he has a chance. Same with Matt Dumba. Development vs. winning right now, big picture vs. short-term, these are things we have to weigh. Jon Blum. Justin Falk. Stu Bickel is in the mix. Gustav Olofsson, I don’t want to write him off. All these guys will get looks. There’s positions to be won.
Q Are you concerned about losing Clayton Stoner’s physicality?
A That’s why Bickel intrigues me. We don’t have a lot of jam on the back end. It is kind of nice having somebody that when the other team goes to the net, they don’t feel completely comfortable there.