2008-09 Team Preview: Minnesota Wild
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OUR EXPERT'S TAKE
By Pierre LeBrunBrian Rolston was destined to be the key to Minnesota's offseason. Either way.
"I knew at the end of the day Brian was either going to come back and we would have less chance to change some of the team because of the money he was going to take," Wild GM Doug Risebrough told ESPN.com. "Or, if he doesn't come back, we'll have more chance to change some things."
It was the latter after the free agent bolted for New Jersey. So Risebrough got to work. He missed out on Marian Hossa (Detroit) and Kristian Huselius (Columbus), but did reel in forwards Andrew Brunette, Owen Nolan and Antti Miettinen, as well as offensive blueliners Marek Zidlicky and Marc-Andre Bergeron.
The Wild also lost Marian Gaborik's good friend, center Pavol Demitra to free agency (Vancouver). Gaborik is front and center on this team because he's by far the most talented and dynamic offensive force. He's also going to be front and center heading into the season as his contract status threatens to dog the team. He's slated for unrestricted free agency July 1 and the team was in contract negotiations with his camp as the season approached.
If he doesn't sign, he could be traded, and that dramatically changes the outlook of this team depending on the nature of the deal. But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. He may sign!
The losses of Rolston and Demitra are significant since Brunette is really the only offensive forward replacing them. But Risebrough is hoping some of his younger forwards will continue to make strides and cover those offensive losses.
"I felt good that some of the changes we were going to make were about giving better opportunities for some of our young core to continue to develop to be significant players," he said. "I've always believed that. So, at the end of the day, signing Bruno helps Gaborik. Some of the [offensive] defensemen are going to help some of the forwards. Having [James] Sheppard come in and be able to play a significant role allows [Mikko] Koivu to move up the ladder as a centerman and not have to be in a checking role, creating more balance in three lines of offense."
This is where the Wild are as deep as ever. The additions of Zidlicky and Bergeron complement a group that was already strong with Brent Burns, Nick Schultz, Kim Johnsson, Kurtis Foster and Martin Skoula. Super solid.
"The biggest change that we were trying to get is more on our blue line, get more offense out of our blue line," said Risebrough. "Some of that isn't just going to be points, but just better plays coming from back there. I think Zidlicky was a good addition there; I think Bergeron has a specific offensive component. "And I saw what I would say was an upsurge from Burns and Johnsson at the end of the year and I'm trying to keep that going."
Niklas Backstrom warranted his new contract last season with 33 wins, a 2.31 goals-against average and .920 save percentage -- numbers that put him in the top 10 in all three categories. The 30-year-old is also somewhat protected by a system that doesn't allow too many second chances or odd-man breakdowns. He's backed up by Josh Harding, a potential future No. 1 goalie, giving the Wild one the most solid tandems in the NHL.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
FROM INSIDE THE GM'S BRAIN ...
By Jay FeasterThe biggest improvement for the Wild this offseason was GM Doug Risebrough being able to convince coach Jacques Lemaire to return for another season. Lemaire was frustrated at various times in 2007-08 and wasn't sure if he wanted to return. The only coach in the franchise's history, Lemaire is a master teacher and defensive strategist, and his return is huge.
The Wild experienced a significant amount of turnover this summer, and a host of new faces dot the lineup. Andrew Brunette returns for a second tour of duty in Minnesota, while Owen Nolan, Antti Miettinen, Marek Zidlicky and Marc-Andre Bergeron join the new faces. All should contribute and will find a way to fit in with Lemaire's defense-first system.
Mikko Koivu and Pierre-Marc Bouchard will be counted on to have big seasons and the focus will be on Marion Gaborik and his contract issues. Will he re-up with the Wild? Will he get signed well before the trade deadline? Will Risebrough move him if he can't get him signed? The drama will play out (and could be a major distraction) throughout the season unless the club can get him signed sooner rather than later.
Jay Feaster served as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2001-02 season before resigning last season. He is a contributor to ESPN.com.
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• Record: 44-28-10
• Division: First in the Northwest
• Conference: Third in the West
• Playoffs: Ousted in first round vs. COL
• The Wild play nine of 10 on the road from Feb. 27 to March 15, with stops in Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Colorado, Dallas and St. Louis. Yikes!
Experience: 14 years
Stanley Cup titles: 1
• Depending on whom you believe, Jacques Lemaire enters what may be his eighth and final season behind the Wild bench. With Lemaire at the helm, the Wild have always been one of the most disciplined and structured teams in the league, sometimes at the expense of forwards who believed his system suffocated their creativity. Demitra, who apparently butted heads with him the most, is gone. But the young guys on this team respond to the coach.
STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE ITF -- Andrew Brunette
The 35-year-old dipped to 59 points last season after a career-high 83 the previous year. Can he bounce back playing on the big line in Minny?
F -- Mikko Koivu
The two-way center had 42 points in only 57 games last season and is just coming into his own at 25.
D -- Brent Burns
Career-high 43 points last season for the 23-year-old. Great skater, slick puck mover and solid defensively -- what's not to like?
D -- Nick Schultz
Entering his seventh season with the Wild. The 26-year-old makes smart decisions and is very consistent.
Answer: Pretty simple answer. If he signs a contract extension, he stays for a very long time. If he doesn't sign, the Wild may very likely put him on the block and get what they can for a hugely valuable asset. A lot of people around the league believe he will be traded.
Bust: Eric Belanger, C: He had just one goal and four assists in 25 games after the All-Star break, and the Wild want to give Sheppard and Benoit Pouliot more opportunities, at Belanger's expense.
Fantasy outlook: The Wild's fortunes hinge on whether the team can sign RW Marian Gaborik to a long-term contract extension by the end of October. If talks break down, the Wild will look for a trade that will not bring in anyone as talented as the slick Slovakian. Minnesota should expect more scoring from its defense, however, with the continued improvement of Brent Burns and the additions of Marek Zidlicky and Marc-Andre Bergeron. Niklas Backstrom, 30, will back them up with solid goaltending. -- Jim Wilkie