Despite being bounced from the playoffs by the Chicago Blackhawks for the past three straight years, the Minnesota Wild believe they finally have it figured out.
After finishing 12th in the league in scoring last season, Mike Yeo’s team won’t be hard-pressed to put the puck in the back of the net again this year. The State of Hockey boasts speed, skill, terrific goaltending, and most importantly, a deep defensive core that’s likely to demand the attention of the league.
Deepening the Pool
Although Minnesota’s blue line wasn’t necessarily a liability in the past, the usage of eight different goalies didn’t exactly do them any favors. Add in top defenseman Ryan Suter’s heavy usage through his first three years with the team, and voila! A narrative is born.
With the steady progression of fellow defenders Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba, as well as Devan Dubnyk established in net, the Wild will lean on their entire defense as they once again run through the NHL’s Central Division gauntlet.
In order to do that, however, Minnesota will look to reduce Suter’s time on ice, which has eclipsed 29:00 the last two seasons.
Craig D. Schroepfer of CBS Minnesota recently added to this dynamic:
The goal is to play Suter an average around 25 minutes per game. Suter struggled at times last season and when he did the Wild struggled as well. A rested Suter should mean more success for Minnesota.
In the fourth year of his massive 13-year, $98 million deal, Suter will remain the team’s top defender. An increase in quality depth will undoubtedly keep the 11-year veteran fresh, while giving more opportunities for others such as Brodin, Dumba and Marco Scandella.
“The first few years Ryan was with us, he was kind of carrying the mail for us,” assistant coach Rick Wilson told Chad Graff of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “We had a lot of young guys. He was asked to do a lot on a consistent basis in every situation. Now these younger players are maturing, and they’re ready to absorb and take on more responsibility.”
For Dumba, a 21-year-old who skated in 58 games last season–that responsibility just so happens to come in the final year of his entry-level contract.
One guy who has impressed me all of #mnwild training camp is Matt Dumba. Everything he does is incredibly, incredibly crisp.
— Evan Sporer (@ev_sporer) September 30, 2015
Dumba’s strong transition game and scoring touch could earn him a new deal similar to the one of his new linemate Brodin, depending on cap space.
“There’s a lot of pressure going into a contract year,” said Dumba, per Michael Russo of the Star Tribune. “It’s a big year for me. But at the same time, I’m just going to have fun with it and do what I always do. I play a game. But it would definitely be awesome continuing to be part of this organization because I love it here.
“It’s pretty exciting what we have in store. Everyone’s charged up.”
Brodin’s reward for his performance while paired with Suter for a 60.86 percent deployment percentage last season, logging an average time on ice of 24:10, was $25 million over six years.
Dumba may be just old enough to have a drink at an American establishment, but his potential breakout year comes on the heels of his first experience with the NHL playoffs, tallying four points in all 10 of Minnesota’s postseason games.
Yeo’s defense will be rounded out, of course, with Scandella pairing up with Christian Folin and/or Nate Prosser, as Jared Spurgeon will jump to the top pairing with Suter after leading his fellow defensemen last season with a 53.72 percent five-on-five SAT percentage.
In 64 games last season, Scandella blasted past his previous career-high in goals, going from three to 11, en route to finishing with a career-best 23 points. This, of course, not only allows Yeo to cut Suter’s minutes, but feel comfortable doing so. Given the state of Minnesota’s blue line, could it get any better?
Actually, yes. As it turns out, the rich have gotten richer.
Adding to the Stockpile
While the Wild deploy five of their 12 players at 25 years of age or younger on the blue line, perhaps their biggest acquisition of the offseason was a skater who’s not currently on their NHL roster.
After three seasons with the University of Minnesota, the 6-foor-2, 186-pound Mike Reilly will begin his professional career in the AHL with the Iowa Wild. But despite his lack of experience at the professional level, Minnesota’s top pro prospect is drawing comparison’s to Keith Yandle of the New York Rangers.
Peter Prohaska of Hockey’s Future gives further analysis of the 22-year-old prize:
Mike Reilly is no Keith Yandle at this stage of his career, but he is a similar player in some regard: a defenseman who can maneuver out of danger in his own end and who can distribute the puck through all three zones. If Reilly can prove his offensive abilities, his physical game, and decision-making are up to the challenge of the AHL, he can step into the NHL at times this season when some of that power play skill and offense are needed. The Wild’s dynamic defense corps was already its primary position of strength – adding Reilly improved it further.
The former Golden Gopher was initially drafted in the fourth round by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2011, but refused to sign. As a result, Reilly became one of the most sought after college free agents this year, pursued by Chicago, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, and Columbus once again.
Landing Reilly was especially important to GM Chuck Fletcher since the Blackhawks would’ve added a viable replacement option down the line to an aging crop of defensemen in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.
A native of Chicago himself, Reilly earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors the last two years, while being named to the All Big Ten First Team during that same stretch.
In the meantime, Reilly joins the Wild in Iowa after a disappointing training camp while under the microscope of Yeo.
“That’s the pressure I expected,” added Reilly via Graff again. “It’s something new for me. Coming in the last couple years as a seventh-rounder, I kind of flew under the radar. This year, I have high expectations from the coaching staff and myself. I need to make a big impact.”
Whether that impact comes this season, or later down the line, the blue line in Minnesota appears to be set for some time to come, the perfect response to the circumstances of their last three playoff exits.