The story of the off-season in Minnesota was the upheavel in the coaching and management departments. After last season’s disappointing performance, Jacques Lemaire stepped down as coach of the team and subsequently Doug Risebrough was relieved of his duties. These two men have been replaced by new GM Chuck Fletcher and new coach Todd Richards. Will these moves off the ice change the team’s fortunes on the ice? Let’s take a look.
Under Jacques Lemaire’s trapping system, he emphasized the use of one forechecker pressuring the puck, while the other forwards focus on taking away passing lanes. Lemaire’s system is actually quite restrictive for centers, as he prefers that one of the two wingers forecheck and has the center stay high in the system virtually all the time (yes, even in the offensive zone).
Well, expect lots of change to the Wild’s forechecking and offensive zone strategy under new coach Todd Richards. The former head coach of Wilkes-Barre Scranton of the AHL, wants to push the pace of play (think Tortorella in Tampa and New York) and increase scoring in the land of 10,000 lakes. While his style is welcomed by many Wild fans, it may take sometime for the personnel to catch up with the systematic changes the team is currently undergoing.
The Wild’s top all-around forward is Mikko Koivu. Koivu has good size (6″2, 205 pounds”), skates really well, is strong positionally and has very good offensive instincts. He, as a center, was certainly restricted offensively by playing under Lemaire–granted he was a favorite of Lemaire’s for his two-way prowess. In any event, Koivu lead the Wild in scoring last season with 67 points and considering his age (26), expect his point totals to increase this season.
With the loss of Marian Gaborik (I’m sure Wild fans must be quietly smirking at word that Gaborik is already “sore” in Rangers camp), the team is hoping to replace his lost offense with that of Martin Havlat. I have to admit, I’m a Havlat fan. He has tremendous skill, is arguably a top-five NHL stickhandler, can shoot the puck and brings it when it matters most. Unfortunately, his biggest drawback, like Gaborik, is that he is injury prone (190 games played over the past four seasons). If he stays healthy, which he did last season in Chicago (although some would point to his pending free agent status as one reason for that), he can produce at a clip similar to that of Gaborik–especially at even strength where Gaborik’s loss was always so crippling to the Wild’s chances.
Koivu and Havlat and Pierre-Marc Bouchard are the team’s most dangerous offensive players. Bouchard (25 years old) is a diminutive player who possesses more offense talent than his numbers have indicated over the years. He can skate like the wind and has a terrific shot. Of course, his size is a detriment to his ability to battle for pucks, but his awareness should be able to sufficiently offset that drawback. Last season, Bouchard was in the first year of a new contract and struggled to return to his 2007/08 form. With a new more offensive coach and more ice-time as a result (he played under 17:00 minutes per contest last season), Bouchard could very easily exceed his previous career highs.
After the top three, the Wild’s roster is composed of a combination of veterans and unestablished youngsters.
The veterans include Andrew Brunette, Owen Nolan and Antti Miettinen. Brunette is getting up there (36 years old) but is still strong on the boards, can complement offensive players by playing a responsible two-way game and can throw in 20 goals for good measure. Additionally, his presence in the locker room should not be understated.
Nolan brings a different veteran presence to the table. He is rough around the edges, plays a mean game and has a terrific slap shot. The former number one overall pick has certainly lost a step over the years, but he was still the Wild’s fourth leading scoring at even strength last season.
Antti Miettinen was a nice off-season signing by the old regime last summer. He contributed on a line with Brunette and Koivu for a large part of last season and contributed some respectable offensive totals (15 goals). Unfortunately for Wild fans, Miettinen is more of a third line player than a top-six forward–the role in which he was primarily used last season–so, if the Wild is to have success, Miettinen’s role probably cannot be anymore than it was in 2008/09 (18:00+ minutes per game).
If the Wild is to make a step forward this season, the performances of James Sheppard, Colton Gillies and Cal Clutterbuck will have a lot to do with that.
Sheppard was drafted in the top ten of the 2006 Entry Draft and has yet to demonstrate (on a regular basis) why he was so highly regarded. He played in all 82 games last season and posted an ugly line of 24 points and a -14 rating. While he only played just over 15:00 minutes per game, he was given equal time on the penalty kill and the power play and was anything but productive at even strength. Luckily he is only 21 and has the offensive talent to far exceed last season’s totals; the 2009/10 season will be a big one for the former QMJHL star.
Colton Gillies came along last season and impressed many onlookers. He get much ice-time or post high point totals but for a 19 year old to crack a Lemaire coached team, you have to be doing something right. Gillies is big and uses his size to his advantage. Given time, he will turn into a very productive power forward, however, next season may be a little bit too early to predict a breakout season.
Cal Clutterbuck became a cult hero in Minnesota last season. The man is a wrecking ball and had a whopping 258 more hits than the next closest player on the Wild (no that was not a typo). Clutterbuck actually led the entire NHL in hits last season with 356 and contributed a respectable 11 goals, as well. He is only 21, so expect him to be a crowd favorite in Minnesota for a long time.
Among the veterans, let’s not forget Eric Belanger. He was second on the Wild in face-off percentage (52% win rate) and played significant time (over 2:00 minutes) of both power play and penalty kill time per game. At 31 years old and with the Wild in somewhat of a rebuilding mode, I expect Belanger’s ice-time to come down a bit from last season where he saw the ice more than 17:00 minute per game.
Filling out the team’s fourth line will be newly acquired Kyle Brodziak who played the last few seasons with the Edmonton Oilers. Brodziak is your typical fourth line center, he won over 50% of his face-offs in 2008/09 (51.6%), plays a responsible two-way game and is fairly limited offensively.
Along with Brodziak, the Wild has arguably the most intimidating fighter in the NHL in Derek Boogaard. The Saskatoon native is 6″8, 257 pounds and plays bigger than that. Seriously, he may hit harder than anyone I have ever seen and his presence on the ice is evident in the way opposing skill players play when he is around on the boards.
The Wild is also hoping for Benoit Pouliot to prove his worth, as he, like Sheppard, was once upon a time a top ten draft selection. Pouliot did not really see eye-to-eye with the old regime, so maybe the new cast in town will instill a breath of fresh air into the skilled forward.
Finally, the Wild has just recently brought in Petr Sykora on a tryout contract, but Michael Russo of the Star-Tribune says it is basically a done deal that Sykora signs on for a one-year deal. If so, Sykora should add a nice scoring element to the Wild’s forwards. He is not especially fast but is a smart player with a good shot. His addition should help the power play, but anything more than 16-20 goals should not be expected.
All in all the Wild boasts a respectable forward group; however, it is nothing spectacular and is probably going to be the reason that the Wild misses the playoffs again this season.
After talking up Brent Burns all last summer, the multi-talented defenseman went through a rough 2008/09 season making me look a tad foolish. After a prolonged stint at forward (still do not understand that) and concussion issues, Burns had a very difficult season. Coming into this season, he appears refreshed and ready to once again take over as the Wild’s go-to defenseman. When healthy, Burns can be a shutdown defenseman because of his skating and defensive awareness. Additionally, he has the ability to alter the course of a game with his offensive skill. In fact, if he starts off the season well, I would not be surprised at all to see him make Team Canada 2010.
Joining Burns on the back-end is another puck-mover in Marek Zidlicky. The smooth-skating former Predators defenseman had a bit of an up-and-down transition to Minnesota in 2008/09. At times he looked great and others he looked lost. Overall, he logged over 22:00 minutes a night and was a key member of the team’s power play. His offensive skills are evident, he led the Wild defense with 42 points in 76 games last season (17 at even strength) and makes a terrific first pass. Unfortunately, he has his drawbacks in his own zone, as he can get caught out of position at times and his size sometimes allows him to be pushed around in the corners.
Along with the two offensive defensemen listed above, the Wild has stay-at-home defenseman Nick Schultz to play against the other team’s top offensive players. Schultz is limited offensively, but is physical (led the team’s defensemen with 78 hits), blocks shots (led the team’s defensemen with 152 blocked shots) and can log over 20:00 minutes per game (3:20 per game on the penalty kill). Schultz is a very important cog and is a leader for this group, as well.
So far, three Wild defensemen have been listed, yet the team’s leader in ice-time last season, Kim Johnsson, has yet to be discussed. Johnsson skates extremely well and can play in all game situations (24:00+ minutes per game). His offensive game isn’t what it once was when he played in Philadelphia and New York but he still added a respectable 24 points in 2008/09 (16 of which were at even strength). Also, his ability to make a strong first pass helps the Wild’s transition game.
The aforementioned four defensemen were obviously with the team last season, so Greg Zanon is the first newcomer we will breakdown. Zanon is one of my favorites. He logged over 20:00 minutes per game on a very deep Nashville defense last season. Moreover, he blocked shots, laid hits and was an underrated presence on the Nashville back-end. At $1.7 million this season, Wild fans will grow to love Zanon as a real bargain.
Fighting for the team’s final starting defense spot will be the likes of John Scott and Shane Hnidy, although with the depth listed above (all five aforementioned defensemen played over 20:00 minutes per game last season) this spot isn’t overly significant.
As a group, I really think the Wild is strong on the back-end. There is a good mix of veterans and players in their primes. If the team is to make the playoffs, these defensemen need to contribute at both ends of the ice and stay relatively healthy.
The Wild has no issues in between the pipes. Niklas Backstrom had a .923 save percentage last season and was nominated for the Vezina Trophy. The Finnish netminder is a stalwart for the Wild back there and posted an impressive eight shutouts last season. Barring a poor decision by Finnish hockey, Backstrom should be starting for his home country in the 2010 Olympics. Also, if you are concerned that Backstrom is a one year wonder, don’t be; he posted a .920 save percentage in 2007/08 and .929 save percentage in 2006/07. Yes, he is really that good.
Backing up Backstrom is Josh Harding. Harding would be a starter on most other NHL teams but unfortunately for the Ontario native he is locked in behind Backstrom. Harding will most likely see himself traded–once the Wild receives what Fletcher believes to be a fair market offer–because Backstrom just signed a new four-year, $24 million deal. So, Harding and his .929 save percentage and 2.21 G.A.A. is probably not long for Minnesota.
Ceiling: The Wild gets stellar goaltending as per usual, stays healthy on defense and adjusts well to the new coach. 3rd place in the Northwest Division and 8th place in the Western Conference.
Floor: The Wild still cannot score on a consistent basis, doesn’t play razor tight defense like they did under Lemaire and struggle at special teams (were 9th in power play last season and 2nd in penalty kill). 4th place in the Northwest Divsion and 13th in the Western Conference.