After a disappointing six-game loss to the Colorado Avalanche in last year’s playoffs, the defending Northwest Division champions are coming into the 2008/09 with a different look. Sure Jacques Lemaire is back for another season behind the bench, and the team will continue to play the same suffocating style but the players playing that style have changed. Will the Wild take another step forward after winning the division last season and make it to the next round of the playoffs? That is a good question, but the most important question on Wild fans’ minds may be whether Marian Gaborik will re-sign with the club or be traded during the season? Unfortunately for fans of the Wild, that question could linger for quite a while; so let’s take a peek at the Wild’s outlook for 2008/09.
The Wild’s biggest offensive loss over the off-season was the departure of Brian Rolston to the New Jersey Devils via free agency. Rolston played in all situations for the Wild and was a critical component to team success. In fact, there probably isn’t a player more suited for Jacques Lemaire’s system. In addition to Rolston, the Wild also lost Pavol Demitra to free agency. While Demitra struggled last season and was unhappy with the system and how he was asked to play, he still had the ability to put points on the board (54 points in 68 games) and the team will miss his production. Without Rolston, Demitra and the recently bought-out Mark Parrish, the Wild is going to have to replace 61 goals and 81 assists in its line up. Is that impossible? Definitely not, but it also is not easy.
To replace some of that lost offense, the Wild signed Andrew Brunette (familiar with Lemaire from his earlier days with Minnesota) and veteran winger Owen Nolan. These players are 35 and 36 years old respectively, so they are not suddenly going to revert to their top career production. Nonetheless, they add a physical element to a team that was pushed around at the end of last season and will help improve the size and play along the boards of the team’s forwards. A beast along the boards, Brunette is a very durable player and he did register 59 points in 82 games last season. Nolan popped in 16 goals and also registered 16 assists. In addition to Brunette and Nolan, the Wild also traded for Antti Miettinen from the Stars. The Finnish forward will be counted on to help the team’s depth scoring and will see some power play time as well. So, combined the three significant moves on forward brought the Wild 125 points registered last season. Not bad but maybe not what the Wild faithful had in mind prior to the summer.
In reality, the reason the Wild didn’t make any desperate moves for more offense is because the team believes in the young players it has in its system and, more importantly, believes the young players already on the roster are ready to improve on past totals. More specifically, Mikko Koivu is certainly capable of taking the next step and proved it with his play in the playoffs. Additionally, young James Sheppard will be counted on to have a strong sophomore campaign and I am sure the Wild would still like to see something more from Pierre-Marc Bouchard (especially after the big contract he just signed).
On the team’s depth lines, Erik Belanger will be counted on to take face-offs (he was second best on the team in that area last season) and kill penalties (he led the team in penalty killing ice-time last season). Along with Belanger, the Wild has Derrek Boogaard to scare and literally beat up opposing players. This season he will be helped by fellow tough guy Craig Weller who spent last season in Phoenix. As well, Stephane Veilleux will be counted on to provide energy and willingness to battle in the corners.
Minor off-season acquisitions Corey Locke and Krys Kolanos could be surprises, as both possess a ton of offensive talent, but it is more likely these two players will be shuffling between the NHL and AHL all season long.
Before moving onto the team’s defense, let’s not forget youngsters Benoit Pouliot and Colton Gillies. Pouliot got into the coaching staff’s doghouse early last year and was jettisoned to the AHL where he put up 24 points in 46 games. Pouliot possesses tons of talent and as a center, he could be important to the Wild’s cause. It goes without saying that the team’s coaching staff is hoping that the youngster will prove why he was the 4th overall selection in the 2005 draft.
Meanwhile, Gillies impressed mightily at the Canadian junior team’s development camp and may very well crack the Wild’s roster out of training camp. He is big, strong and very aggressive and is certainly in the power-forward mould.
The Wild may have moved sideways at forward over the summer but the team certainly improved on defense. The addition of Marek Zidlicky is a huge boost to the team’s back-end. Zidlicky can quarter back the power play, is a good skater and has a good slap shot. Moreover, he should help the team breakout of its zone quicker with breakout passes and can log 20+ minutes per game. The fact of the matter is that Zidlicky was the perfect pick up for a team that was lacking in top four defensemen to end last season.
Now, it is true that Zidlicky was the team’s big off-season pick up but the Wild’s defense is led by Brent Burns. Last season he played at over a 0.5 point-per-game clip and logged over 23 minutes of action per night. He is a terrific skater, passer and can play the body as well. Simply, he is the player you match against the other team’s top line and let him go to work. It may be concerning that the 23 year old Sarnia native did just have elbow surgery but that is not expected to keep him out of regular season action.
While Burns and Zidlicky provide the points for the Wild, Nick Schultz is the team’s defensive anchor. The youngster provides Jacques Lemaire with a reliable defensive defenseman to play short-handed and even strength. Schultz can match up against opposing team’s scoring lines and will hit (101 hits last season) and block shots (147) as good as anyone on the team.
Along with Schultz, the Wild has the smooth skating Kim Johnsson. Johnsson was brought on board a few years back and even though he has not provided the offense originally expected, he is a good passer, logs over 20 minutes of ice time a game and can play in short-handed, even strength and power play situations. He does not stand out but that is not such a bad thing.
Rounding out the defense are Martin Skoula and Marc-Andre Bergeron. Let’s be straight, Skoula became a Wild fan whipping boy last season and does make errors at costly times. However, he still has his strengths and may flourish with less pressure and ice time this season. Now, if the Wild fans got down on Skoula, then they may be calling for Marc-Andre Bergeron’s head after Game 10 of the season. Bergeron is a great skater, has an absolute cannon of a shot but is pretty much dreadful defensively.
Overall the team’s defense is very, very solid and could be the main reason the Wild takes home the Northwest Division title.
Minnesota’s squad is very strong in between the pipes. Niklas Backstrom played very well last season, especially down the stretch and without his shoddy shootout performances (1 win and 6 losses) he would have had better stats to show for it. That said, the late-bloomer still logged 55+ games last season and had an impressive .920 save percentage. Backstrom’s biggest strength may be how well he plays the angles and that strength really helps him limit the other team’s scoring chances. Expect similar production from the Finnish netminder in 2008/09.
Behind Backstrom is the highly capable Josh Harding. The young southpaw was great during his time with Houston of the AHL and is very quick in the net. Sometimes he gets over aggressive and that can cost him but he has the physical tools to be a very good starting netminder one day. For now, he will continue to back up Backstrom and should improve on his G.A.A. (2.94) with another year of NHL action.
Ceiling: 3rd place in the Western Conference. The Wild can earn this slot by way of winning the Northwest Division and they are certainly capable of that. Unfortunately, they won’t be good enough to slot ahead of Detroit or either San Jose/Dallas.
Floor: 9th place in the Western Conference. This is unlikely but the West is still fairly deep and has non-playoff teams like Edmonton, Chicago and Columbus to go along with all the seven other playoff teams from last season.
The Wild should be an interesting team to follow next season.