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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota Wild's 14-year existence has revolved mostly about mediocrity. The narrative has finally taken a turn for the better.
There is more confidence. There are fewer concerns. Advancing deep into the playoffs and, dare that ultimate goal be voiced, challenging for the Stanley Cup have trumped past hopes of simply playing a few bonus games in April.
"Every year you feel good about your team, but it's just a little different. You feel like there's unfinished business," owner Craig Leipold said.
Last season was far from smooth. The Wild lost their sixth straight game on New Year's Eve. Coach Mike Yeo was on tenuous footing with an expiring contract, though Leipold said in a recent interview "he really wasn't on the bubble."
But despite foot injuries to Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise that kept them out for a total of 32 games, the Wild were at their best when they were the most vulnerable. The biggest health problem was between the pipes, where four different goalies were called on to start 19 or more games. After Darcy Kuemper picked up the slack for Josh Harding, who had taken over for Niklas Backstrom, Ilya Bryzgalov was there down the stretch to fill in for Kuemper.
So here they are with every key player back from the group that upset Central Division champion Colorado in the Western Conference quarterfinals and reached the second round for just the second time in franchise history. There's also an important addition in left wing Thomas Vanek.
Mikael Granlund, who will center the first line with Parise and Jason Pominville, now has a full year of NHL experience. Two other 22-year-old forwards, Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter, combined for 76 points last season. The speed of third-line center Erik Haula, who is 23, was a revelation in the postseason with four goals in 13 games. Parise, Pominville, Vanek, Koivu, Matt Cooke and ironman defenseman Ryan Suter form a proven core of veterans.
The pieces are in place. Yeo has a new deal. Now it's up to them to fulfill that potential.
"I'd have a hard time listing the teams that I know are better than we are," Leipold said. "There's probably a couple of them, but if we have a couple of our players step up like we hope we will this year that gap is going to get narrower."
Here are some key nuggets to know about the Wild this season:
GOAL SETTING: Harding is out indefinitely with a broken foot, leaving Backstrom and Kuemper to compete for time in the net. This is unquestionably the biggest issue to resolve, likely the hinge between status quo and a step forward in the playoffs. That's one reason why Bryzgalov was invited to training camp on a tryout contract and the Wild have not ruled out keeping three goalies on the roster. "I know it's repetitive, but we're just going to kind of evaluate every day," Yeo said. "So I don't want to go in and say one guy's got the edge over another right now."
WINGMAN: The emergence of Granlund and Haula allowed the Wild to slide Coyle over to right wing, where he'll start the season on a second line with Koivu and Vanek. Yeo declined to declare the move permanent, but the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Coyle has the presence and skills to make that a long-term fit if he's not needed again as a fill-in at center.
DUMBA ON DEFENSE? There's a top-six opening on defense, and prospects Matt Dumba and Christian Folin have been getting a long look during training camp. Dumba was the team's first-round draft pick in 2012. Nate Prosser was brought back this week via waiver claim for more depth.
GRAND CENTRAL: The Wild pushed for realignment as much as any team in the league, desiring more road games in their own time zone to increase television ratings and more regional rivalries in their division to enhance ticket sales. In a classic be-careful-what-you-wish-for case, the Wild have found themselves in a brutally difficult division. They went 14-12-3 against the Central in 2013-14 and despite matching the second-highest point total in franchise history finished in fourth place. Only two of the 14 teams that missed the 2014 playoffs came from the Central, Nashville and Winnipeg.
FAMILIAR FOE: The Wild's opener is at home against the Avalanche on Oct. 9 in a reprise of that epic seven-game series, and there's a rematch two days later in Denver.
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