Let’s just get this out of the way at the very beginning: Devan Dubnyk is the biggest key to the Minnesota Wild having a successful 2015-16 campaign. Last season proved that point pretty emphatically. Without him, they were on their way to becoming one of the NHL’s biggest disappointments — a highly paid team that seemed destined to miss the playoffs by a considerable margin. Then they acquired him from Arizona in early January, and he promptly went on a memorable tear that took Minnesota to the postseason as one of the league’s hottest second-half clubs, won him the Masterton Trophy, nearly won him the Vezina and landed him a six-year deal worth an average of $4.33 million per season.
So yeah, Dubnyk is pretty important. The goal for the Wild is obviously to make a deep playoff run, and that likely means (finally) finding a way to get past Chicago in a seven-game series. We’d be saying the goalie was vital no matter who he was. The fact that he’s coming off a year like that just drives the point home.
The stars on the roster are obviously important too though. If Zach Parise and Ryan Suter somehow stumble, that would a) be a surprise, given the entirety of their careers to this point and b) probably derail Minnesota’s season in a hurry. At this point, Mike Yeo and everyone else who has watched hockey over the last decade pretty well knows what those two will provide. They’re about as dependable as it gets.
Parise and Suter delivered their usual efforts last year though — and Dubnyk went on that crazy run — yet the Wild still bowed out earlier than they probably had hoped. It was a solid season, but this organization has set higher expectations for itself. And without much cap room to work with, GM Chuck Fletcher couldn’t really bring anyone new into the mix over the offseason. So additional responsibility now falls on some guys already on the roster to find ways to contribute a little more.
Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle could headline that group, for a few reasons. First and foremost, they’re each just 23 years old, so it’s only logical to expect improvement from season to season anyway. And given their pedigree, there’s some nice upside here.
Both players were first-round selections in 2010 (Granlund went No. 9 overall, while Coyle came in at No. 28). They’ve been fine so far, but there’s certainly an expectation that each has the ability to ultimately be better. Granlund, for example, managed just eight goals and 31 assists last season. The 39 points aren’t terrible for a 22-year old, but the eight goals leave noticeable room for improvement — especially considering he spends most of his time skating on a line between Zach Parise and Jason Pominville.
If Granlund can just produce at, say, the rate he did during the playoffs, that would be a nice jolt to the offense. His two goals and four assists in ten games — when the competition level was presumably higher — would project out to roughly 17 goals and 33 assists. That would be a nice 11-point boost, with essentially a 100 percent increase in goals. Given the defense and goaltending already in place in Minnesota, that sort of statistical jump from any forward would have an impact.
Particularly from a center. And that might be the biggest reason why Granlund and Coyle really have an opportunity to help push the Wild to a higher level. Production up the middle was lower than you’d expect from a team that won a playoff series and hopes to challenge the Blackhawks here at some point. Mikko Koivu is the club’s other main option at the position and, at age 32, it’s pretty safe to assume you know what you’re getting from him over the course of 82 games. Granlund and Coyle, on the other hand, are two players with room (and ability) to improve. And they play the position that their team needs help at the most.
There’s also one other key element that this duo could help bolster: the power play. Only four other forwards on the roster (Parise, Pominville, Koivu and Thomas Vanek) logged more ice time with the man advantage than Granlund (146:53 over the full season). If his production goes up, it stands to reason that the Wild will be more effective in that part of the game. Which is good, because they somehow ranked an abysmal 27th in the league on the power play last season.
To put that in perspective, the Maple Leafs were rated higher. The Toronto Maple Leafs.
Coyle, on the other hand, saw just 104:35 of action with the extra attacker. But there’s a growing opinion that Yeo may need to expand the role of some of his younger players in that department. If that proves to be the case, Coyle’s 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame could be a perfect fit as someone to park in front of the opposing goal. Not that the Massachusetts native will ever be a power play specialist or anything, but it’s certainly feasible that he could bring a much-needed element to the attack every now and then.
In the postseason — where games are generally lost by a timely goal here or an odd bounce there — cashing in on the man advantage is that much more integral. And that’s where Minnesota will ultimately be judged. To their credit, the Wild did rank No. 1 on the power play in the playoffs. That alone is a huge reason they were able to oust the Blues in the opening round, as well as an indicator that improvements could be just around the corner.