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Friday, September 28, 2007
Updated: September 30, 4:05 PM ET
2007-08 Team Preview: Minnesota Wild

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Scott A. Schneider/Getty Images

Niklas Backstrom will now be the No. 1 goalie in Minnesota.

The Starting Line

By Scott Burnside

If last season's mission was to simply get to the playoffs, then the Wild certainly achieved that with a franchise-best 104 points and their second postseason appearance. But if the team's aim was to prove they're a Stanley Cup contender, then last season has to be seen as a letdown, because they were manhandled by eventual Stanley Cup champion Anaheim in five games in the first round of the playoffs.

If the Wild can't win at least one playoff round next spring, or worse, miss the playoffs, there will be serious questions asked about the direction the franchise is headed. That said, there are lots of reasons to believe the Wild can achieve both of those goals this season, with one proviso: the health of budding superstar Marian Gaborik. The Wild showed they are a different team with the slick-skating Slovak in the lineup, going 33-9-6 in games in which he played and only 15-17-2 with him out of the lineup. Given that the Wild were extremely quiet on the free-agent front this offseason, Gaborik better stay healthy.

OFFENSE
There are quite simply two Minnesota Wild teams, the one with Gaborik and the one without. The problem is the Wild have become all too accustomed to playing without their top player. Gaborik went down Oct. 20 with a groin injury and didn't return until Jan. 6, missing 34 games. The season before, Gaborik missed 17 games. Still, Gaborik tallied 57 points in 48 games, which means if he stayed healthy, he would've been a top-10 scorer.

It's not like the Wild don't have decent enough scoring depth. Brian Rolston has turned into a top-notch, versatile player with a booming shot. He tied for the scoring lead with 64 points. Gaborik's part-time linemate Pavol Demitra also had 64 points despite missing 11 games to injury. Mikko Koivu and Pierre-Marc Bouchard both added 20 goals and the team finished with the league's sixth-ranked power play. Mark Parrish will also be expected to improve on his 19-goal performance from his first season in Minnesota. But the bottom line is, without Gaborik, the Wild attack lacks the dynamics it needs to be an elite team.

DEFENSE
The Wild continue to be the role models for defensive hockey in the new NHL. They may not have a Nicklas Lidstrom or a Chris Pronger or a Sergei Zubov; in fact, we defy you to name three members of the Wild defense. But they are awfully good at what they do. The Wild led the league in team defense last season, allowing just 191 goals, eight fewer than runner-up Detroit. They managed that feat with solid goaltending, naturally, but also with a solid group of defenders who share the ice time as well as a common defensive goal.

Kim Johnsson, the former Flyer, and Petteri Nummelin lead the way in ice time at 23:33 and 20:17, respectively, but that's a relatively small number compared to other teams' workhorses. Martin Skoula and Nick Schultz, for instance, both averaged a little more than 20 minutes a night, meaning it really is defense by committee in Minnesota. The Wild added Sean Hill, who will miss the first 19 games of the season while serving his suspension for violating the league's drug policy. The back end won't produce much offense, and that's a bit of a problem come playoff time. But the Wild and coach Jacques Lemaire will always give up dazzling for defense.

GOALTENDING
In the relatively staid world of the Wild, this offseason was earth-shattering. Gone is longtime netminder Manny Fernandez, who also happens to be Lemaire's nephew. Although Fernandez shared the William Jennings Trophy with Niklas Backstrom last year for allowing the fewest goals during the regular season, Fernandez had been rendered redundant by Backstrom by the time the playoffs rolled around. In his first NHL experience, the 29-year-old Helsinki native went 23-8-6 in place of the injured Fernandez with a 1.97 goals-against average and .929 save percentage. In the postseason, he got really good, stopping 134 of 145 shots vs. Anaheim. With the enigmatic Fernandez gone, rookie Josh Harding will act as Backstrom's understudy. There will be some questions about Backstrom's ability to handle the full slate of games as a starter, but given his even-keeled personality (a definite contrast to Fernandez), it shouldn't be a big deal.

COACHING
Although the Wild loaded up on offensive talent last summer by bringing in Demitra, Johnsson and Parrish, they still managed to score just four more goals last season over 2005-06, when they finished last in the division. Either Lemaire has not fully embraced the new run-and-gun NHL or his players haven't. The problem is, when confronted with a bigger, more physical Ducks squad in the playoffs, Lemaire had no answer for them. Would it have been better to have played more wide-open? Could it have been worse? Still, Lemaire remains one of the game's top tacticians. The Wild had the second-ranked penalty-killing unit in the league and were the second-least penalized team on the circuit. Don't think Lemaire's job will be in jeopardy anytime soon.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.

MINNESOTA WILD

EXTRA CREDITS
• Wild Home
• 2007-08 Schedule
• Complete Roster
• Photos
• Search: Wild

LAST-SEASON REVIEW
• Record: 48-26-8
• Division: Second in the Northwest
• Conference: Seventh in the West
• Playoffs: Ousted in the first round by Anaheim



PLAYERS TO WATCH

Parrish

Goalie: Niklas Backstrom
From unknown afterthought to Jennings Trophy winner in less than a season. What does Backstrom do for an encore now that everyone's watching?

Defenseman: Brent Burns
Burns has finally settled in as a regular on the Wild blue line and led all Wild defensemen with 25 points. That's not a lot, but it's a start.

Forward: Mark Parrish
The Minnesota native was expected to do big things in his first season with the Wild, but had just 19 goals and 39 points. Parrish is looking to bounce back this season.

MORE FROM BURNSIDE

Buzz Cut
Rumors persist that outgoing Nashville owner Craig Leipold will be moving into an ownership role with the Minnesota Wild once he's clear of the Predators situation.

Where They Will Finish
The Wild will finish second in the Northwest Division and fifth in the Western Conference.

ESPN VIDEO

SPORTSNATION

Where do you think the Minnesota Wild will finish this time around? Who will lead the Wild in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench? Vote now!

FANTASY TAKE

Gaborik

Marian Gaborik changed his summer workout in the hope of staying healthy this season. Considering he scored 30 goals in just over than half a season, a full season of Gaborik is downright scary. Where Gaborik goes, so goes Pavol Demitra. Both will be terrific assets this season, albeit health risks. Brian Rolston and Pierre-Marc Bouchard are underrated fantasy commodities. Niklas Backstrom put up his numbers out of nowhere, so draft him cautiously. -- Sean Allen

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