2009-10 Team Preview: Minnesota Wild
AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt
10 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE WILD
By Pierre LeBrunAfter a near-decade with Jacques Lemaire as coach and Doug Risebrough as GM, the Wild ushered in a new era with new coach Todd Richards and new GM Chuck Fletcher.
Under Lemaire and Risebrough, the Wild were a model of consistency, a team that was always tough to play against even if the defensive system frustrated some Minnesota players and fans. Either way, the page has been turned.
"I have to thank them a lot because without them I would probably still be playing back home in Finland or somewhere in Europe," Wild netminder Niklas Backstrom told ESPN.com, referring to the old regime. "I think every player learned a lot from them. But maybe now was the time to move on. I think the whole team is excited about all the changes."
Here are 10 things you need to know about the Wild heading into this season:
"Last year, we were two points short of the playoffs," Backstrom said. "For sure you don't want to hide behind injuries, but we had big losses. Gabby played 17 games. He would have helped us get more points and helped us make the playoffs. If we stay healthy this season, we're a team that can really compete. Gabby's gone, he's one of the best players out there, certainly one of the fastest, but we got another one of the best players to replace him. So it'll be an interesting season to see how far we can go."
2. No wholesale changes
Fletcher didn't blow up the team upon his arrival, adding only five players in forwards Havlat, Petr Sykora and Kyle Brodziak and blueliners Greg Zanon and Shane Hnidy. Gone are forwards Gaborik, Stephane Veilleux and Dan Fritsche and blueliners Marc-Andre Bergeron, Martin Skoula and Kurtis Foster. All in all, fairly quiet on the roster front.
"Part of that is by design," Fletcher told ESPN.com. "I think you want to come in and get to know what you have, understand the dynamics of the room and the players and find out more about them before you make too many knee-jerk reactions. Most of the moves we made this summer were precipitated by free agency.
"Having a new coaching staff is a significant change for the group that's been here. To me the biggest thing is that there were players on this club last year that either suffered through some injuries or just fell back a little bit in their performance. We think there's a lot of room for internal improvement and internal growth as some of young players mature and get better."
3. Burns and the blue line
Greg Zanon might have been a real sleeper pickup by the Wild. Blocked by a deep blueliner corps in Nashville, some believe he's a legitimate top-four D-man. But the real key for Minnesota this season is getting a healthy season from Brent Burns. The 24-year-old was coming off a career-high 43-point, plus-12 season in 2007-08 when a shoulder injury and concussion made last season a year to forget.
"I think Brent Burns' best days are still ahead of him," said Fletcher. "He's still a relatively young player, he's still got the opportunity to improve and get better as he gains more experience in the league. Last year, he had some injuries and some issues that sort of crept up that he had to deal with. This season he has a clean slate. He feels healthy. He also has a chance to compete for a spot on the Canadian Olympic team and I'm sure that will play into it."
4. Masked men
Fletcher didn't hesitate when asked to comment on depth in goal.
"I think we have maybe the best 1-2 punch in goal in the NHL," Fletcher said. "Josh Harding is a real good goaltender that we think highly of. And of course Nicky Backstrom has proven himself as an elite starter."
Backstrom and Harding helped the Wild to the second-stingiest record in the NHL last season. But now the defensive-minded Lemaire is gone
5. Don't take offense
Oh, if the Wild front office could get a dime for every time they heard this summer that they don't have enough offense on this team. The Wild were 22nd in the NHL in scoring last season at 2.61 goals per game. Gaborik is gone, replaced by Havlat, and the question is where will the rest of the offense come from?
"I think we'll score enough goals," Fletcher said.
Just having a healthy Havlat over an injured Gaborik is a start. A healthy Burns is also a factor; he's the team's premier puck-mover who adds offense from the back end. And there's hope that a guy like Pierre-Marc Bouchard will go back to his usual 60-point pace after dipping to 43 points last season. Mikko Koivu will also be a factor (he posted 67 points last season).
Still, the fact is, the Wild aggressively pursued Mikko's brother, Saku in early July with the hope of penciling him in at the No. 2 center slot. In the end, they never found that man. Bouchard likely gets the first shot at the job this season.
6. Special special teams
It's hard to believe the Wild missed the playoffs last season when you consider they had the second-best penalty-killing unit in the NHL and the ninth-best power play. Usually a top-10 showing in both categories is an automatic playoff ticket. No need for the new coaching staff to change much here.
7. Minny market
Last season, the Wild packed the joint once again at the elegant Xcel Energy Center, averaging 18,568 a game at the 18,064-seat arena for a 102.8 percent capacity rate (third in the NHL). These are passionate and educated hockey fans who deserve a winner. They're also smart enough to be patient and see what Fletcher has in store over the next few seasons.
8. Owen the warrior
Is this the last we'll see of Owen Nolan? He certainly doesn't look like he's done. The 37-year-old winger put up 25 goals and 45 points in total in 59 games last season, not too bad at all for a guy supposed to be in the twilight of his career. The hard-nosed veteran is in the final year of a deal that pays him $2.75 million.
9. A scheduling note
The Wild will get an early test with the team playing eight of its first 11 games on the road, including a five-game set Oct. 8-17 in Los Angeles, San Jose, Anaheim, Edmonton and Vancouver.
10. Olympic exposure
The Wild won't get much rest from the two-week Olympic break with as many of eight regulars possibly playing in Vancouver: Backstrom (Finland), Havlat (Czech Republic), Sykora (Czech Republic), Mikko Koivu (Finland), Antti Miettinen (Finland), Burns (Canada), Kim Johnsson (Sweden) and Marek Zidlicky (Czech Republic).
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
• Record: 40-33-9
• Division: Third in the Northwest
• Conference: Ninth in the West
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
• They'll be right on the playoff bubble all season long and just fall short: third in the Northwest Division and 10th in the West.
NORTHWEST DIVISION PREVIEW
Experience: Entering first NHL season
Stanley Cup titles: N/A
• Todd Richards comes on board after a year in San Jose as one of Todd McLellan's assistants. Richards got to know Fletcher when the two were in the Penguins organization, Fletcher as assistant GM and AHL GM, while Richards was AHL head coach. The buzz in camp with the Wild was that Richards was bringing a more offensive style to the team after years of Lemaire hockey.
"I think sometimes a lot of that gets overstated," Fletcher said. "The Minnesota Wild have had seasons where they've scored goals and been a very competitive team. Jacques Lemaire is terrific coach. He did a great job and build a great foundation here. Most teams have similar systems, every system is defensive-based just by nature.
"But we're going to try to be a bit more aggressive up the ice on the forecheck. We're going to activate our defense and try to get them more involved in the attack. Our goal is to be a little more aggressive in terms of pursuing the puck and a little bit more up-tempo in how we play. The coaches will still demand defensive accountability from the players."
STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE IT
F -- Andrew Brunette
• The 23-year-old has regressed from 50 points to 48 points to 42 last season.
F -- Mikko Koivu
• Produced a career-high 67 points (20-47) last season. He's no longer the second Koivu.
F -- Martin Havlat
• Played a career-high 81 games last season, first time he'd played more than 60 games since 2003-04.
D -- Kim Johnsson
• Has been a durable two-way presence for the Wild since joining three years ago.
D -- Brent Burns
• Looking to bounce back from injury-riddled year and re-establish himself among elite young blueliners of the league.
Best Bet: Niklas Backstrom, G: Backstrom has been a threat for the Vezina Trophy every season, and no doubt, deserves some credit in fantasy circles. The Wild might not benefit from Jacques Lemaire's defensive genius anymore, but the team is still built to be strong in its own end. Backstrom has a career goals-against average of 2.24 and, while it's a close call, we'll take him over Martin Brodeur at the moment. With the Wild poised to be more aggressive on offense under new coach Todd Richards, Backstrom's fantasy worth should benefit from a few more wins.
Risky Move: Mikko Koivu, F: His production slowed dramatically in the second half of last season, and the change from Marian Gaborik to Martin Havlat should require a learning curve, but Koivu still has the potential to be one of the most dangerous centers in the NHL. The projection for 77 points should be viewed as a worst-case scenario for Saku's kid brother. While some caution is in order because we don't know how he will fare with a new coach and new linemates, there is tremendous upside to adding Koivu as a No. 4 or No. 5 forward.• Player projections | 2009-10 Fantasy Draft Kit
INSIDE THE PROJECTIONS
Puck Prospectus uses its VUKOTA projection system to evaluate every NHL team in pivotal categories, while Will Carroll and E.J. Hradek weigh in on injuries and intangibles, respectively. Get an in-depth look at a new category every weekday leading up to the unveiling of The Mag's full rankings.
Where will the Minnesota Wild finish this season in Northwest Division?
Make your 2009-10 picks here.