Although the Minnesota Wild have kept many of their homegrown players and tried to build a familiar core following the signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in July 2012, things are going to look a little different this season.
Not only is the team playing in a new, more geographically logical division, but it also has a revamped, younger roster this season.
To compete with the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues, Minnesota is building a core from the bottom up and adding skill players like Nino Niederreiter to a core that features Charlie Coyle and Jonas Brodin. The Wild also replaced Tom Gilbert with Keith Ballard and added a little grit with Matt Cooke.
2013-14 should be an exciting season, one in which the Wild will be expected to compete for a playoff spot and be a threat in the Western Conference.
Keep in mind that only key arrivals and departures were included in this preview, the depth chart is a projection and will likely change frequently throughout the season and all roster moves are accurate as of September 30.
Key Roster Changes
Cooke and Ballard arrived via free agency and the reaction to the signings couldn’t be more different. Cooke is known for miscreant behavior and is trying to change his image whereas Ballard is from Baudette, MN, and known for his fundamental hockey.
Niederreiter, on the other hand, arrived in a trade with the Islanders. Drafted No. 5 overall in 2010, he was once considered a cornerstone player on the Island.
Minnesota paid a heavy price for him, giving up fan favorite Cal Clutterbuck as well as a third-round draft pick to acquire the Swiss forward.
Departures: RW Devin Setoguchi (Winnipeg), RW Cal Clutterbuck (Islanders), C Pierre-Marc Bouchard (Islanders), C Matt Cullen (Predators) and D Tom Gilbert (Florida)
Not only did the Niederreiter trade mean that Clutterbuck was going to be headed to Long Island, but Setoguchi was suddenly deemed expendable and shipped to Winnipeg for a second-round pick.
The Wild also parted with Bouchard, who spent his first 10 seasons in St. Paul and ended up signing with the Islanders.
Two Minnesota natives, Cullen and Gilbert, will also be wearing different sweaters next year. Cullen, a veteran who mentored Jason Zucker and Setoguchi, was not retained while Gilbert was bought out.
Projected 2013-14 Depth Chart
*Keep in mind that Dumba may go back to junior and Scandella will likely take his place.
Starting goaltender: Niklas Backstrom
Backup goaltender: Josh Harding
Backstrom and Harding, a longtime tandem in St. Paul, will begin the year as No. 1 and 2 on the depth chart, but Backstrom is aging and Harding is suffering from multiple sclerosis.
As such, it’s possible that Darcy Kuemper, who started against Chicago in the 2013 playoffs, and Johan Gustafsson will see playing time this season as well.
Minnesota’s top line is pretty set, with Mikko Koivu centering Zach Parise and Jason Pominville. The team also has Ryan Suter and Keith Ballard to anchor the blue line.
After that, however, there is a lot of youth on the roster.
Suter will be paired with Brodin, who did not play like a rookie last season, but is still only 20 years old. Ballard could play alongside Mathew Dumba, a 19-year-old that is likely to be sent back to junior, or 23-year-old Marco Scandella.
Expect Dumba to play a couple of games with Ballard and be sent back to Red Deer of the WHL.
Young forwards could easily dominate the second line—especially if Dany Heatley continues to struggle. Niederreiter is expected to be an impact player in the NHL and Coyle deserves to be the second-line center.
Granlund will either see time on the wing or be sent down to the AHL for additional playing time—especially with Brodziak and Konopka playing on the third and fourth lines.
Fontaine is a 25-year-old rookie who has had a good camp. Zucker, 21, played well enough last year to at least get some time on the third line this year.
If Minnesota is going to make a playoff run this year, it needs its young stars to contribute in a big way. If they don’t, this team will be top-heavy and either fail to make the postseason or be bounced in the first round in a tough Western Conference.
Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios
The first line jells with a training camp together and Suter and Brodin lock it down like they did last year, placing Minnesota’s top line and defensive pair among the best in hockey.
Niederreiter and Coyle develop a sublime connection, Heatley shows signs of being the player he was in Ottawa, and the Wild’s second line becomes more productive than some first lines around the league.
Ballard plays like he has throughout his career and doesn’t have to clean up after Dumba or Scandella all season long. Spurgeon is used as a power-play specialist and consistently blasts his massive slapper past goaltenders.
The forward depth allows for flexibility, making the grinder lines not only difficult to play against, but also productive enough to cover for Minnesota’s best players when they have to face the top pairings in the league.
No matter who is in net—Backstrom, Harding or the two young guys—the team is talented enough to win and makes life easy for the netminders.
With one of the best young teams in the league, the Wild get a favorable matchup in the playoffs, pull off an upset in the second and third rounds, and shock the world by winning the Stanley Cup long before anyone outside of the Twin Cities thought they could.
Brodin, Coyle and the rest of the young guys have sophomore slumps, Heatley becomes a complete shell of himself and cannot score, Koivu and Parise are not on the same page, and Suter and Ballard tire from having to cover for their young defensive partners.
On top of that, Backstrom suffers another injury, Harding has complications from MS and the two young guys prove to be overwhelmed in net.
In a division that not only features the Blackhawks and Blues, but two other teams with incredible young talent—the Colorado Avalanche and Winnipeg Jets—as well as the desperate Dallas Stars and the crafty Nashville Predators, the Wild sink to the bottom of the Central, miss the playoffs and have Parise and Suter wondering why they signed with Minnesota long-term.
The young Wild go through spurts where they exceed everyone’s expectations, but also have moments throughout the season when Minnesota fans—beaten from years of seeing the Vikings, Twins and Wolves struggle—throw up their hands and wonder why the team didn't keep Setoguchi, Clutterbuck and Cullen.
In the end, the team does not collapse like it did at the end of the past two regular seasons, head coach Mike Yeo keeps his job and the team finishes No. 3 in the Central behind the Blackhawks and Blues.
Minnesota gets the No. 4 seed, wins in the first round and puts itself in a position to make a long run in the Western Conference playoffs.
The Wild will take a step forward in the Parise-Suter era this season.
Tom Schreier covers Minnesota sports for Bleacher Report and is a contributor to Yahoo! Sports.