Minnesota Wild season preview

Updated: October 2, 2006, 12:34 PM ET
ESPN.com

Minnesota Wild

STARTING LINE

By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com

The Minnesota Wild hibernated through the post-lockout free-agent period a year ago and then, as befitting their style of play, slumbered through most of last season, missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five NHL seasons. But credit GM Doug Risebrough and ownership for recognizing that their plan to develop almost solely from within wasn't working and they were risking the loyalty of some of the best fans in the business.

Risebrough managed to pry Pavol Demitra, an offensive talent with a strong defensive work ethic, out of Los Angeles for top prospect Patrick O'Sullivan, and brought in Minnesota native Mark Parrish. The GM also bolstered the blue line by signing Kim Johnsson, a top puck-moving defenseman who was recovering from a concussion. The Demitra deal also paved the way for the Wild to sign Slovak countryman and burgeoning superstar Marian Gaborik to a long-term deal. Gaborik had warred with ownership over past contracts and having him from the get-go will enable the Wild to get off to a good start.

Offense: The Wild finished 25th in goals scored last year and 28th in five-on-five scoring, so there's work to be done in filling opposing teams' nets. But assuming Demitra and Gaborik play together, there is potential for an offensive explosion from the duo that will give coach Jacques Lemaire options with his other lower-profile offensive weapons (Brian Rolston, Todd White, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Parrish). Mikko Koivu, Saku's bigger little brother, and Pascal Dupuis also have tools, although they're taken out of the box less often. It's pretty good offensive depth for a team that shouldn't have to grind out as many wins as has been the case in the past. If Johnsson can stay healthy, he'll help out from the back end, especially on the power play, which ranked 21st last season.

Defense: The Wild traded away their best defenseman, Willie Mitchell, because they wanted to spend their free-agent money elsewhere. That's not a bad tradeoff as long as Johnsson can stay healthy and Keith Carney, another free-agent acquisition, still has something left in the tank at age 36. There is size along the Wild blue line with 6-foot-4 Brent Burns, who seems to have settled into his role as a defender after spending some time as a forward, and the 6-5 Kurtis Foster. There aren't a lot of studs on a back end (although Johnsson has the potential to emerge as one) that will look dramatically different with the departures of Mitchell, Daniel Tjarnqvist, Andrei Zyuzin and Filip Kuba. But as the Sabres and Hurricanes proved last season, as long as your players are all pulling on the same rope, it doesn't matter. Witness the Wild's league-leading penalty-killing unit. Minnesota was also one of the least-penalized teams in the NHL, and there's no reason to think that should change.

Goaltending: Well, it's the Manny Show now. After years of splitting duties with Dwayne Roloson, Manny Fernandez is the No. 1 guy in town. The platooning system employed for much of the past three or four seasons made it hard for a goalie to develop both technically, because they're not playing as much as other starters, and psychologically, because they don't have the comfort of knowing that a bad outing isn't going to put them on the pine. Fernandez is technically sound and appears to be in a better psychological frame of mind than he has been in the past, as the Wild mount their most potent attack in front of him.

Coaching: Lemaire is generally considered one of the top coaches in the game. He's got a Stanley Cup win with New Jersey on his coaching résumé and he guided the Wild to the Western Conference finals in 2003, the Wild's only playoff appearance. Now, he has to show he can shift gears and unleash the most talented team he's had since he was in New Jersey. Can he do it? He'd better if he wants to continue to call Minnesota his hockey home.

WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
3rd With a revamped defense, solid goaltending, excellent coaching and a potent offense, the Wild will be one of the regular-season surprises, winning the Northwest and finishing third in the West.

BUZZ FACTOR
Stock Up
Stock up. This is a great hockey town, and while it appeared ownership had taken fans for granted in the last couple of years, the team's offseason moves should infuse Minnesotans with renewed confidence in their team.



FANTASY AND THE FUTURE
TRISTAN COCKCROFT'S FANTASY SPIN
THE HOCKEY NEWS' TOP PROSPECTS
Goalie Manny Fernandez finally has the starting job all to himself and he could be a No. 2 fantasy goalie who sneaks into the top 10 overall at his position. The main concern is Minnesota's offensive additions, Pavol Demitra, Mark Parrish and Kim Johnsson. The team might open things up a bit, but even in that instance, Fernandez's win potential would rise to offset an increase to his GAA. Marion Gaborik, one of the fastest players in the game, should benefit from Demitra. The Hockey News' Top 5 Prospects for the Wild:
1. Benoit Pouliot, 20, C, Sudbury (OHL)
Statline: 51 GP, 35 G, 30 A, 141 PIM
2. Josh Harding, 22, G, Houston (AHL)
Statline: 29-8-0 record, 2.68 GAA, .922 SV%
3. Roman Voloshenko, 20, LW, Houston (AHL)
Statline: 69 GP, 33 G, 27 A, 36 PIM
4. Danny Irmen, 22, C, Minnesota (WCHA)
Statline: 30 GP, 16 G, 22 A, 40 PIM
5. Eric Reitz, 24, D, Houston (AHL)
Statline: 72 GP, 5 G, 23 A, 139 PIM
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Minnesota Wild
When We Last Saw Them ...
Record38-36-8 (84 points)
DivisionFinished last in Northwest
ConferenceFinished 11th in West
PlayoffsDid not qualify

Who To Watch Now ...
Center: Todd White
Most of the attention is on newcomer Demitra, and with good reason. But White, a former Senator, is a terrific two-way player who missed 21 games due to injury last season and still netted 19 goals. He's got 25- to 30-goal potential.
Winger: Marian Gaborik
Is this the season that Gaborik doesn't just break out but assumes the superstar mantel many have predicted since he came into the league?
Defense: Kim Johnsson
If he's healthy, he has a chance to be an impact player in the new NHL. But the specter of last season's concussion looms large.
Goalie: Manny Fernandez
He won the goaltending battle, now he has to help the Wild reach a much more difficult goal: making the playoffs and a deep playoff run.

Key Moves
For a team that made essentially no moves last season, this offseason has been a blur for the Wild. Johnsson and Carney should fill the gap left by Mitchell, while Parrish is an underappreciated signing given his roots in the state and understanding of what it means to have a winner in the Wild.

SportsNation
Rating the Wild
The Minnesota Wild finished 11th in the Western Conference last season, but what is the team's outlook this time around? Who will lead the Wild in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench?
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