Wild season preview: Minnesota aims for deeper run

ST. PAUL, Minn. — When the Minnesota Wild changed general managers during the offseason, following a third straight first-round exit from the playoffs, owner Craig Leipold was adamant that the roster only needed some tweaks after a fresh evaluation and not a drastic rebuild.

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True to Leipold’s proclamation, new GM Paul Fenton made only minor changes during his first summer in charge. He brought back the same core of players that has made six straight playoff appearances while winning just two postseason series during the run.

Limiting improvement to fiddling with the fourth line and increasing depth on defense could be a recipe for entering the draft lottery, particularly in the rugged Western Conference. The conservative approach of trusting in established players to bounce back from various injuries and substandard production, though, could just as well produce success.

On the first day of training camp earlier this month, coach Bruce Boudreau recounted a brief conversation with center Eric Staal about the state of the team that boosted his optimism that the Wild can progress rather than slip back.

“He says if we don’t get injured, then we’re going to be really good,” Boudreau said. “I love it when leaders say those things. I don’t think, with our relationship, that he would be just saying it for the sake of saying it.”

Staal is one of the few players the Wild, who finished in third place in the Central Division with 101 points and lost in five games to Winnipeg, would be elated about if they matched their 2017-18 production. Staal, who was one of only four players to skate in all 82 regular-season games, led the team with 42 goals, 76 points and 11 power-play goals. At age 33, his goal total was the second-most of his 14 seasons in the NHL .

The spotlight will instead be on left wing Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter as they start the seventh year of their identical $98 million mega-contracts coming off serious injuries. Right wings Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter, who went long stretches without scoring after early injuries, will also face scrutiny.

If the Wild extend their postseason streak, which is tied with Anaheim for the longest active run in the West, left wing Jason Zucker will be under pressure, too, after tallying only one goal and two assists over 16 playoff games the last three years, including none of either last season.

“I think there’s a little bit of extra hunger around the room right now, just with the way things finished last year,” Parise said. “I think we, as a group, are looking to redeem ourselves a little bit.”

Here are some other key angles to the start of the season:

ZACH’S BACK: Parise missed the first 39 games because of a back problem that required surgery, and his delayed start was predictably slow. He scored 12 goals in his last 18 games of the regular season, though, and scored in each of the first three playoff games until being knocked out of action again by a broken sternum .

“He looks so much quicker and stronger than he has at the beginning of the last two years,” Boudreau said.

KUNIN COMING ALONG: After surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee in April, center Luke Kunin has resumed skating. The Wild will usher back their 2016 first-round draft pick cautiously, though, and his presence on the opening day roster is unlikely.

“I want to be out there helping my team, but you’ve got to think long term, your health for a long career,” Kunin said.

DEPTH ON D: When Suter went down with a career-threatening right ankle injury right before the playoffs last spring, defenseman Nick Seeler‘s role was elevated. After posting a plus-10 rating in 22 regular-season games as a rookie and tallying two assists in five postseason games, Seeler is a sure bet for a top-six spot on the blue line. He’ll likely be paired with newcomer Greg Pateryn, who was among the handful of free agents Fenton signed .

“We do have similar games. A little bit grittier and more defensive,” Seeler said.

NEW DIGS: The Wild now have their own practice facility, after years of driving to various metro-area rinks on days when Xcel Energy Center was booked. The TRIA Rink at Treasure Island Center is just a half-mile away, with the new ice on the fifth floor of an old department store building. Players now have the benefit of upgraded training equipment like state-of-the-art cold tubs and underwater treadmills.

“I feel like when guys see that, it’s kind of like, ‘OK, if they’re not cutting corners, we’re not cutting corners either,'” Boudreau said.

LAST SEASON: 45-26-11, 101 points. Third in Central Division. Lost to Winnipeg Jets in Western Conference quarterfinals.

COACH: Bruce Boudreau (third season, 12th NHL season).

ADDED: RW J.T. Brown, C Eric Fehr, C Matt Hendricks, RW Matt Read, D Greg Pateryn, D Matt Bartkowski.

LOST:Matt Cullen, LW Tyler Ennis, RW Daniel Winnik.

PLAYER TO WATCH: LW Zach Parise. After missing the first 39 games because of a lower back problem that required surgery, Parise’s delayed start was predictably slow. He scored 12 goals in his last 18 games of the regular season, though, and scored in each of the first three playoff games until being knocked out of action again by a broken sternum. Parise, who’s entering his 14th NHL season at age 34, isn’t built to be the team’s premier scorer but needs to replicate that productivity down the stretch to help keep the offense balanced.

OUTLOOK: New GM Paul Fenton made only minor moves this summer for fresh faces on the fourth line and more depth on defense, so the Wild will rely on the same core that has been bounced out of the playoffs in the first round three straight times and won only two series over the last six years. Just reaching the postseason again in the rugged Western Conference would be an accomplishment in itself, and Boudreau has as strong of an 82-game track record as any bench boss in the league. Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter, who’s coming off a serious ankle injury that kept him out of the playoffs, must stay healthy throughout the seventh year of their identical $98 million megadeals. Wings Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter also have to bounce back from down seasons.