Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Five Questions Going Into Training Camp

Photo: Wild.com
With training camp set to begin on Thursday, lets try and answer the top five questions surrounding the Wild:

1. Who will be the opening night goaltender?
If Darcy Kuemper's contract wasn't an issue, you could realistically make a case for three goaltenders to start on opening night for Minnesota. However, Kuemper and the Wild appear to be locked in a stare down right now, leaving the door open for Backstrom and Harding to start. The last time Backstrom was not the Wild's opening night starter was 2006-07 (his rookie season). But injuries have plagued his past four seasons, and his production has suffered from it. Harding was a Vezina trophy candidate (1.65 GAA, .933 save percentage) last year before complications from MS ended his season in late December. Both are reportedly at 100% to enter camp will make promising cases to start on October 9th against Colorado.

2. Can Jason Zucker make the team out of camp?
Last year Jason Zucker did not have a strong camp, then got injured late in the preseason, and started the year in Iowa because of it. Zucker spent the year going back and forth between Minnesota and Iowa before an injury in January ended his season. This year, Zucker enters camp with a new two year contract (first year is two-way, second year is one way) signed in the offseason but still does not project to make the Wild roster out of camp. The Wild's top six appear to be locked down and unless Zucker has a massive change in his defensive zone play, he doesn't cry out as someone who can play on the third line. So barring an injury, Jason Zucker appears to be on track to start the season in Iowa.

3. Who will be the third defensive pairing?
It seems like the most commonly used third pair last season was Clayton Stoner and Nate Prosser. Well good news, is that both players left during the offseason and can no longer take up the third defensive pairing spot. So who's left? If you eliminate the top four defenseman (Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon, and Marco Scandella), that leaves you with Keith Ballard, Matt Dumba, Christian Folin, Jon Blum, Stu Bickel, and Justin Falk as candidates to make that third pair. Keith Ballard (under a one way contract) did not have a strong season last year, but projects to start the year on the third pairing. His most likely partner on that pair will be either Dumba or Folin. Dumba made the Wild roster out of camp last year and played in 13 games with the club before being loaned to the Canadian World Juniors team. Folin only played in one game for Minnesota after signing on March 31st, but will give Dumba a run for his money to make the team with his strong play.

4. Can the power play improve from 2013-14?
Despite finishing the season ranked 16th on the power play, the Wild power play still has a lot of room for improvement. At times last year, the power play would go through long slumps and the second unit offered up little to no production for the entire year. But after the acquisition of Thomas Vanek this offseason, the Wild power play should now boast two solid units (assuming Jason Pominville does not return to the point on the top unit) given their depth at forward entering the season. Also take into consideration the fact a guy like Matt Dumba could start the season on the team, giving the (sometimes offensively challenged) defense an upgrade on the power play.

5. Will Darcy Kuemper sign?
No Wild player had a bigger impact on last year than Darcy Kuemper did. His play in January turned the Wild season around, and put them back on track to make the playoffs. But Kuemper has been a restricted free agent this summer, and the Wild and his agent are currently locked into a game of chicken over a one-way or two-way contract. While it appears that Kuemper isn't overly interested in a lot of money this time around (latest reports have him only asking for $850,000), the Wild are holding firm on only offering a two-way contract due to the fact they already have two goaltenders on the NHL roster. Problem is, those two goaltenders are not likely to stay healthy all season, opening the door for Kuemper. You would like to think that this will settle sometime within the next week, but both sides appear to not be in favor of budging anytime soon.

Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesferrell

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