In the salary cap era, where NHL teams have to be efficient with their money, it's important for each club to have a core group of players who set the foundation on which to build the rest of the team. This group often includes the players who consume the bulk of a team's cap space, while also providing the greatest on-ice impact.
With that in mind, Eye on Hockey introduces our summer series: "Core Values." We'll take the rest of summer to evaluate the group of five to seven players who make up the core of each team. Using criteria like point production, average age, how the players were acquired, total cost and cap hit, we'll detail which teams have the strongest cores and which need work. On top of that, we'll also gaze into the future to look at the players who could one day be part of this crucial group for each team.
The Minnesota Wild have been taking steps forward as an organization and have become relevant after four consecutive seasons of missing the playoffs between 2008-12. They took another step last season by winning a hotly contested playoff series against the Colorado Avalanche before ultimately falling to the Chicago Blackhawks.
After a busy summer that included landing top free-agent prize Thomas Vanek, the Wild have a forward lineup that should keep them extremely competitive in the tough Central Division. Questions on defensive depth and the tenuous goaltending situation may be among the most important the Wild will have to answer during the season.
The concerns in net are very real with Josh Harding's ongoing health concerns tied to his MS diagnosis. He was able to play a stellar first half of the season before it was unfortunately derailed. The team also has injury-prone Niklas Backstrom to try to lean on. When healthy, he has been a solid netminder for the team, but good health isn't terribly common for the veteran. They would also have Darcy Kuemper, but the restricted free-agent goaltender that had some bright spots in 2013-14 remains without a new contract.
That said, the Wild have built a pretty strong core of players, mostly through trades or free agency, that gives them a veteran base to lead a roster that is balanced out by a strong group of young players that may end up carrying the torch for the organization even further.
Here's a look at the Wild's strong central unit.
Core Values: Minnesota Wild
Players (Age, term remaining on contract): D Ryan Suter (29, 11 years), LW Zach Parise (30, 11 years), LW Thomas Vanek (30, 3 years), C Mikko Koivu (31, 4 years), RW Jason Pominville (31, 5 years), D Jonas Brodin (21, 1 year), C Mikael Granlund (22, 1 year)
Total cap hit for 2014-15: $35,721,091 (51.7 percent of cap space consumed by seven players)
Average age: 27.7
Total production in 2013-14^: 94 goals, 179 assists, 273 points (48.8 percent of team's total production)
^-Does not include Thomas Vanek's 27-41—68 stat line from last season with three different teams.
Minnesota Wild Player Usage Chart via ExtraSkater.com*:
*Circle size represents time on ice, shade of circle represents possession (5v5 Corsi For percentage -- total shot attempts for relative to total shot attempts against). Blue represents CF percentage of 50 or better. Red represents below 50 percent. The darker the shade, the further away from 50 percent.
About the Core
Ryan Suter: It's hard to understate the impact Suter has on the Wild. Considering that since joining the team as a free agent in July 2012, Suter leads the NHL in total ice time by more than 240 minutes. That's a lot of work. He averaged nearly 30 minutes a game last season. So he's out there a lot. And it's interesting to look at his advanced numbers because they don't look particularly spectacular, but I think time on ice itself is an overlooked stat. The coach is the person with the most information about how Player X is feeling, how the rest of the lineup stacks up, how the player does in certain matchups historically. Considering that Mike Yeo puts Suter out as much as humanly possible, that says a lot about what Suter is as a defenseman and what he means to this team. He's also producing for the team. In 130 games since joining the Wild after seven years with the Nashville Predators, Suter has 75 points. His 0.58 points per game is up considerably from his time with the Preds. The Wild really should try and find ways to limit Suter's ice time to keep him fresh, but he showed no ill effects to the extreme usage last year. That could change over time, though. He has been in the top four in Norris voting over the past two years and with 11 years remaining on his contract, Suter likely remains the Wild's No. 1 for a long, long time. How he was acquired: Signed as an unrestricted free agent on July 4, 2012
Zach Parise: When Parise and Suter signed, it signified the coming of a new era in Minnesota NHL hockey. Long had the Wild been unable to bring in top-flight free agents. Affording Parise a homecoming changed all that. Minnesota has been able to bring in more talent thanks to trades and one has to wonder if Vanek would have signed if the Wild weren't heading in the direction they are. Parise dealt with injuries last season, but still managed to put up 56 points in 67 games. Since arriving in Minnesota, there has been zero drop-off from Parise's career points-per-game numbers (0.82) and his 29 goals last season showed he still can fill the net. The high-energy style Parise plays makes him awfully fun to watch and he should continue to produce at a high clip. Assuming he stays healthy in 2014-15, and with some reinforcements at forward to draw some matchups away from Parise, he very well could have his best season with the Wild to date. How he was acquired: Signed as an unrestricted free agent on July 4, 2012
Thomas Vanek: Long rumored to be the favored destination of Vanek, who resides in the Twin Cities area in the offseason and played college hockey at the University of Minnesota, the Wild and Minnesota hockey fans got what they have been hoping for. Vanek's arrival helps give the Wild one of the strongest top-six forward groups in the NHL. Though Vanek has been dealing with some offseason issues, the expectation is that he'll help bolster a team that was near the bottom of the league in goals per game. Vanek would have been Minnesota's leading scorer last season with his 68 points. If he can bring that kind of production to the club, the Wild are going to be sitting pretty. With only three years on his deal, the Wild didn't overcommit either. Adding 556 career points to the lineup is going to be awfully nice as the Wild try to keep up with the big boys in the West. With what they've done so far, they have a chance. How he was acquired: Signed as an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2014
Mikko Koivu: One of the few remaining links to the Wild's leaner years, Koivu has seen the ebbs and flows of this organization. As captain, he remains a flagship player for the Wild. Having spent his entire career with Minnesota, Koivu has long been a bright spot for the franchise. Over 601 games, he has posted 452 points and is one of the more gifted distributors in the NHL. Koivu has also long been responsible for eating some of the toughest matchups opponents have to throw at him and he has been a fairly responsible defensive player over the years. In fact, he finished fourth in Selke voting as the league's best defensive forward in 2008-09. Hobbled by injury last season, Koivu still managed to put up 43 assists in 65 games. Like Parise, staying healthy could lead to a pretty big season for Koivu with another weapon added to the top six. How he was acquired: 2001 NHL Entry Draft, first round, sixth overall
Jason Pominville: Minnesota paid a big price to acquire Pominville during the 2012-13 season via trade. The Wild utilized some of their young prospects and a first-round pick to bring the scoring winger to the team. They made sure that expense wasn't wasted when they signed Pominville to a long-term extension as well. The team's leading scorer last season, Pominville has been as productive as the Wild could have hoped for when they acquired him. With 34 goals in 92 games in a Wild uniform, there's plenty to like about Pominville, who has also been extremely durable over his career. It will be interesting to see if former Sabres teammate Vanek ends up on a line with Pominville, but regardless, he is one of those key top-six weapons the team has to boost scoring in 2014-15. The former Buffalo captain is going to be a big part of this push to take yet another step forward organizationally. How he was acquired: Traded from the Buffalo Sabres with a fourth-round draft pick for Johan Larsson, Matt Hackett, and a first-round draft pick
Jonas Brodin: The Wild had a stretch of drafting extremely well and right in the middle of that was Brodin. At just 21 years old, he's already seeing top-pairing minutes and has since he burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2012-13. Brodin has been given an awful lot of responsibility at a young age and he has responded with strong defending and good puck-moving capabilities. There's still a lot for Brodin to learn, but as he enters the final year of his entry-level contract, the Wild would be wise to lock him up to a long-term deal. The poise Brodin has shown so far over two years with the club has been really incredible. Over two seasons, he has averaged nearly 24 minutes a night and has 30 points. His offensive numbers have a chance to improve, but the value he brings defensively is certainly helpful. I debated for a while between Brodin and Jared Spurgeon, but gave the nod to Brodin for the upside that remains attached to his game. How he was acquired: 2011 NHL Entry Draft, first round, 10th overall
Mikael Granlund: Another representative of Minnesota's ability to mix older outside acquisitions with young drafted prospects, Granlund took a big step forward last season. The 21-year-old phenom has been highly touted since he was about 16 years old. It has taken a little bit longer at the NHL level to see that promise translate, but last season may have showed a glimpse of where Granlund is heading. He finished fifth on the team with 41 points despite missing 19 games and showed off some of his spectacular playmaking skills throughout the season. He also posted seven points in his first taste of playoff hockey, including some fantastic goals. The Wild should be expecting another big step forward for the skilled center. He is likely to occupy a top-two center role and he'll have some weapons on his wings, possibly even Vanek, which should boost point totals. There's still a lot of excitement around Granlund and he's only just scratching the surface presently. How he was acquired: 2010 NHL Entry Draft, first round, ninth overall
Who's next in line
This is the part about the Wild that I find so intriguing. There are actually quite a few players who could one day jump into this core group.
Defenseman Jared Spurgeon, a supremely skilled puck mover, just missed the core cut for this piece, but the team has to think awfully highly of him. Though his defense probably needs some work, his ability to control and distribute the puck gives him a higher value. He still has two very affordable years under contract and there's reason to expect another step forward from the 24-year-old.
Niederreiter was sixth on the team with 36 points last season and really broke out in the playoffs with six points in 13 games. Considering 2013-14 was his first full NHL season, there's a lot more that will be expected of Niederreiter next season. He still remains unsigned as a restricted free agent, however.
Coyle, meanwhile is beginning to grow into the power forward many expected him to be when San Jose picked him in the first round in 2010. He was part of the Brent Burns trade with the Sharks, and was basically the key piece to get that deal done. He has rewarded the Wild by continually moving his game forward. At just 22 years old, he has a lot of promise left to fulfill.
The Wild also managed to nab the top college free agent last year in Christian Folin and he could make his impact felt as early as this coming season. On top of him, former first-round pick Mathew Dumba will be looking to make a case to be an NHL defenseman next season. He has had some spectacular junior seasons, but has struggled with the NHL adjustment. Better days should be ahead for that young blueliner.
The team also has other young forwards who could make longer-term impacts like Erik Haula and Jason Zucker, most recent first-round pick Alex Tuch and new signee Jordan Schroeder, who was let go by the Canucks but could thrive playing in his hometown.
There's a lot of talent at the top of the Wild roster, but the youth throughout really makes this an exciting team for years to come.
The Wild are not really built conventionally. A good chunk of their core was brought in from outside the organization. Their best players are not homegrown prospects. There's nothing much wrong with that if they produce, but they do come at a higher price that way.
The Wild have done a good job of doling out big contracts to the stars, but they're saving money thanks to the young guys they have brought in either through the draft or via trade. That has helped keep them clear of the cap ceiling despite having to spend big on free-agent additions.
General manager Chuck Fletcher definitely deserves a good amount of credit for building a team with money, but not relying solely on it. The team has allowed players to marinate in the AHL or junior and when they're ready, they have often contributed.
That's part good drafting and part smart trading as guys like Coyle and Niederreiter were unproven before being acquired by Minnesota.
As the younger players continue to improve, they'll become more expensive. That could make things more challenging for the Wild, but as most of those players will be restricted free agents, many could still be a few years away from those massive paydays.
The big questions in net are a real concern though. Even if Harding and Backstrom are healthy, it's hard to know how impactful they'll be. With Kuemper still unsigned and with his potential still largely yet undiscovered, it's unclear if he's a suitable heir to the current veterans on the roster.
The team also has to find a way to get more out of its D corps. They were a tad too porous last season and Suter can't play 60 minutes unfortunately (he probably would if they asked him to). They'll have to hope younger guys like Folin and Dumba are ready for more responsibility, especially with veteran Clayton Stoner gone.
All in all, the Wild have a roster that is going to be able to compete in the Central Division. They should make the playoffs with relative ease should they get passable goaltending. Their goal scoring should go up with Vanek in town and all of the young guys coming back with some experience this season. There's a lot of signs that this will be a big year for the Wild.
Can they compete for the Cup? It's probably too early to go that far, but they're getting closer.