The Minnesota Wild made a big splash in the summer of 2012, plunking down a total of $196 million in contracts to land forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter.
While it's still too early to call that free-agent spending spree a runaway success, the duo of Parise and Suter did help to end a four-season playoff drought, as the Wild qualified for the postseason last year for the first time since 2008. It wasn't a long playoff trip, however, as Minnesota earned the eighth seed after beating Columbus out in the tiebreaker for the last playoff spot and then went down in five games against Chicago.
After signing two guys to identical 13-year, $98 million contracts last summer pulled in the reins a bit during the 2013 free agent season. General manager Chuck Fletcher did pick up Nino Niederreiter through a trade with the New York Islanders and signed forward Matt Cooke and defenseman Keith Ballard to reasonably-priced deals.
The Wild will play the 2013-14 season as part of the Central Division after the NHL's realignment plan scrapped the club's previous division, the Northwest. Minnesota will battle the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks and the St. Louis Blues for the Central crown this season and the Wild will be expected to at least claim one of the division's three automatic playoff bids.
Expectations were raised in Minnesota after the Parise and Suter signings and that could cost head coach Mike Yeo his job if his club starts off slowly this season. After all, Yeo is in the final season of his deal with the Wild, making this a do-or-die season for Minnesota's bench boss.
FORWARDS - Parise was brought into the fold to give the offense a go-to guy and he certainly was Minnesota's top offensive threat last season. Still, at these prices the Wild is expecting even more from the Gopher State native in 2013-14.
Parise led the club with 18 goals during the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign and he also posted 38 points while playing in all 48 games. The Wild are expecting at least 30 goals from Parise over the course of a full season and it's a good bet he'll be able to reach that mark for the sixth time in his career.
A strong season could help Parise wash away the bitter taste from his poor playoff showing last spring. He had just one goal and a minus-seven rating as the Wild were downed in five games by the Blackhawks in the opening round.
Parise expects to play left wing on the top line with centerman Mikko Koivu and right winger Jason Pominville, who was acquired from Buffalo at last season's trade deadline. Pominville had four goals and five assists in 10 games with the Wild last year, but only saw action in two playoff games due to a concussion.
Koivu, the team captain, finished second on Minnesota last season with 37 points on 11 goals and 26 assists. The steady two-way player also led all Wild forwards in ice time, garnering an average of 21 minutes and 5 seconds of action every night.
Last season's third-leading scorer, Devin Setoguchi, was dealt to Winnipeg for a second-round pick in July, but the Wild hope Niederreiter can make up for the loss. Setoguchi tied Matt Cullen in points with 27 in 2013, posting 13 goals and 14 assists. Niederreiter was the fifth overall pick by the Islanders at the 2010 draft, but has managed only two goals and one assist over 64 NHL games. Still, the Swiss winger just turned 21 years of age earlier this month and the Wild is hoping 2013-14 will be his breakout season.
The Wild parted with fan favorite Cal Clutterbuck to land Niederreiter, but the Cooke signing will help Minnesota make up for Clutterbuck's physicality. Clutterbuck had two goals, six assists and 27 penalty minutes for the Wild last year, while Cooke, who has earned a reputation as one of the league's dirtiest players, posted eight goals, 13 assists and 36 PIM for Pittsburgh.
Minnesota's offense could receive a big boost if winger Dany Heatley can bounce back from a rough 2013 campaign. The former All-Star's season ended in early April thanks to a shoulder injury, but he only had 11 goals and 10 assists in 36 games before the injury.
If Heatley can rediscover his scoring touch -- he's scored 35 or more goals on six occasions -- that would go a long way towards helping Parise shoulder the offensive load and greatly aid a team that finished 22nd in the NHL in offense last season.
One problem area for the Wild is down the middle of the ice, where there is a big drop-off after Koivu. Both Cullen and Pierre-Marc Bouchard departed via free agency, leaving centermen Kyle Brodziak and Mikael Granlund to fight for second-line minutes.
Brodziak had eight goals and four assists in 48 games last season for the Wild, but the second-line job should be Granlund's to lose. After all, the latter player comes with the loftier pedigree, having been selected by Minnesota with the ninth overall pick of the 2010 draft, while Brodziak is more suited for a checking role on the third line. Last season, Granlund split time between the Wild and the club's AHL affiliate in Houston, but the 21- year-old Finn should stick with the big club in 2013-14 after notching two goals and six assists as a rookie last year.
DEFENSE - Suter made his name by playing alongside Shea Weber in Nashville, so there was some questions as to how he would respond to being the undisputed No. 1 defensemen in St. Paul. As it turns out, the exact opposite happened as Suter played his way to a Norris Trophy finalist spot, while Weber and the Predators struggled to get along without him.
Suter silenced his critics by earning every penny in 2013. Not only did he finish third in the league among defensemen with 32 points (4G, 28A), Suter also paced all NHLers with an average ice time of 27:16. His playing time increased to 31:37 during Minnesota's five playoff games, but Suter failed to score a single point in the series against Chicago.
The Wild expect to pair Suter with Jonas Brodin, who turned 20 years old over the summer despite looking like an old pro during his rookie season. Brodin had two goals and nine assists in 45 games last season and his steady, smart play proved to be a good fit with Suter.
Ballard could help add depth to the back end, although he failed to meet expectations over his past three seasons in Vancouver. Ballard had 28 points on eight goals and 20 assists in 82 games with Florida in 2009-10, but only managed to record a total of 16 points (3G, 13A) in 148 games with the Canucks. After posting two assists in 36 games for Vancouver last season, the Wild were able to sign Ballard to a two-year, $3 million contract and that could be a bargain if the change of scenery gets him back on track.
Clayton Stoner, Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella also will log minutes on the blue line. Spurgeon had the best 2013 of that trio, finishing second to Suter on the team with 15 points on five goals and 10 assists.
Mathew Dumba, the seventh overall pick of the 2012 draft, is a major prospect but he is likely to spend another year in juniors before making the jump to the NHL. However, with a big drop-off from Minnesota's first pairing to the rest of the group, the 19-year-old has an outside chance at making the NHL club.
GOALTENDING - The Wild were in a difficult spot during last year's postseason after No. 1 goaltender Niklas Backstrom injured himself in warmups prior to Game 1 and missed the rest of the series against Chicago.
With Backstrom out of commission, the Wild turned to Josh Harding, who started all five games and recorded a save percentage of .911 against the high-powered Blackhawks. It should be noted that Harding suffers from multiple sclerosis, a fact that led to him winning the most recent Bill Masterton Trophy, an award given annually to the NHL player who best represents the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.
Before getting an unlucky break in the playoffs, Backstrom turned in a solid regular season for Minnesota in 2013. He went 24-15-3 with a 2.48 goals against average and .909 save percentage in 42 games. This will be the Finland native's eighth straight season as the club's No. 1 goaltending option.
Barring an injury to Backstrom, Harding expects to be lightly used this season. Prior to being pushed into service in the playoffs, Harding started only three games for the Wild during the 2013 regular season.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - Although the Wild managed to return to the playoffs last spring, the team was not nearly as impressive as planned after the signings of Parise and Suter. The top line is superb, as is the go-to defensive pairing of Suter and Brodin, but there isn't a tremendous amount of depth for Yeo to work with. Minnesota projects as a borderline playoff team in 2013-14, although the Wild could receive an automatic bid to the postseason if they finish third in the top-heavy Central ahead of Dallas, Nashville, Colorado and Winnipeg, all teams that the Yeo's squad appears to have out- gunned on paper.