Minnesota Hockey Journal

March 2017

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Page 26 of 31

The Wild has the ingredients for a long playoff run. It can score, defend, and, maybe most importantly, turn pucks aside with goaltender Devan Dubnyk. 5 Differences This Season 1. Boudreau: Not only has the veteran coach with eight division titles under his belt brought an expectation of success—who would have predicted the Wild would be leading the Western Conference and Central Division at the All-Star break?—Boudreau has brought accountability to a franchise that desperately needed it. In years past, the veterans seemed to have carte blanche. Even if they weren't playing well, the same cast of characters would be on the ice late in a one-goal lead or deficit. Even if the No. 1 power play wasn't scor- ing, they'd be thrown out there to start every power play with little personnel tinkering. Now? "It doesn't matter if it's me, Zach, Staalzy, Mikko, Granny, whoever he wants to put out, he puts out," veteran defenseman Ryan Suter said, before laughing. "I don't know how he picks it. Maybe he closes his eyes, but … everybody's buying in." 2. Addition of Staal: When the Wild signed the now 32-year-old veteran on July 1 to a three-year, $10.5 million deal, the Wild knew it was getting a star and proven winner. Staal, who won a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, is the second-leading goal scorer (322) and point producer (775) in Whalers/Hurricanes histo- ry behind Hall of Famer Ron Francis. He has been to four All-Star Games, was MVP of one and led the NHL in playoff scoring in 2006. He has scored 45 goals and 100 points in a single NHL season. But last year, Staal was coming off his toughest season since his rookie year, scoring 13 goals and 39 points in 83 games for the Hurricanes and New York Rangers. By the All-Star break, Staal had already surpassed both marks with the Wild. He is a true professional who is supremely respected in the Wild room. As importantly, Staal's addition has provided more depth up the middle and taken a lot of pressure off Koivu, who's enjoying one of his best seasons in years. 3. Younger core taking big steps: In years past, the Wild only went where Parise, Suter and Koivu took the team. But the growth of the MARCH.2017 // M I N N E S OTA H O C K E YJ O U R N A L . CO M 27 Wild always depended on the younger core like Granlund, Jason Zucker, Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba. Up front, Granlund, Zucker, Niederreiter and Coyle were all having career years by the All-Star break, especially Granlund, who had argu- ably been Minnesota's most consistent player and was leading the team in scoring. The lightning-fast Zucker is complementing perfectly on the Koivu-Granlund line with clutch goals and quality defense, an area where he has made the biggest improvement. Niederreiter, by all analytics metrics, has been one of the Wild's best forwards and he was thriving with a top-line role with Staal and Coyle and power-play time. Brodin was vastly improved until breaking a finger on his right hand, and while Dumba sometimes can be a wildcard defen- sively, he has the ability with one pass or shot to change a game. 4. Tenaciousness, speed and work ethic: Through the All- Star break, there arguably wasn't a more con- sistent team in the NHL. The Wild had only lost consecutive games in regulation once and lost by more than one goal three times. It was superb at home and the league's best road team. And frankly, the reason is the Wild routinely outworked almost every opponent it played. Wild Captain Mikko Koivu is enjoying one of his best seasons yet—and so are the Wild. "These guys we have can all just skate and they get in everybody's way, and they're like little gnats. But they're very, very effective gnats." –BRUCE BOUDREAU

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