This week is Northwest Division week here on Bleacher Report for the Season Previews.
That's like "Shark Week" on the Discovery Channel, just without ridiculously powerful/cool/scary animals or a narrator with a mysterious, sexy voice.
On second thought: Next year, BT's 2010/11 NHL Previews—The book on tape narrated by Alyssa Milano.
Finally...I can be lazy, yet feel enlightened.
In the meantime, yesterday was the Colorado Avalanche as we move up the Northwest ladder.
2008/09 Record: 40-33-9, 89 points, 9th in West
Additions: Greg Zanon—D (3 years/$5.8 million), Martin Havlat—F (6 years/$30 million), Shane Hnidy—D (1 year/$750k), Kyle Brodziak—F (Trade w/Edmonton), Wade Dubielewicz—G (FA)
Subtractions: Marc-Andre Bergeron—D (FA), Martin Skoula—D (FA), Dan Fritsche—F (FA), Kurtis Foster—D (FA), Marian Gaborik—F (FA), Stepane Veilleux—F (FA)
For years, the Wild were the little team with the big trap: Sure, they didn’t have the top-end scoring talent of other teams, but with a dependable goaltending duo and a defense that was cheap and effective, they didn’t need to win games 5-4 or 6-5.
However, with Jacques Lemaire out of the picture, the Wild are looking to instill a wide open style of play which will feature a full-on offensive attack.
Things are definitely going to be looking a little different in Minnesota this season.
With a "Strom-Back" you can certainly accomplish a lot…
A big reason for the Wild’s ninth place finish last year was the play of goaltender Niklas Backstrom.
A personal favorite of mine for the Vezina last year, Backstrom was bettered only by Boston’s Tim Thomas in save percentage and goals-against average of goalies with 35 wins or more, as he became the first-ever goalie in Wild history to play more than 60 games in a season (71).
For a team that survived on the tandem goaltender system for so long, finding that one constant between the pipes will undoubtedly help them move forward. It helps even more when that one constant has the skill of Backstrom, who will be a constant Vezina threat for the foreseeable future.
Backing up Backstrom (For right now at least) is Josh Harding, who is no slouch.
Although Harding’s 3-9-1 record does little to impress, consider the fact that Harding was able to polish off a 2.21 goals-against and a .929 save percentage in 19 games. The Regina-native posted another impressive stat, as in just five of his 19 games played, he allowed three goals or more after facing at least 30 shots.
Although Harding will not get the Lion’s share of the work in Minny while Backstrom steals headlines and hearts, Harding will continue to put that skill on display that once had him pegged as Minnesota’s goalie of the future.
His longevity in Wild Country is beginning to sound as if it is on its last legs, as with the acquisition of backup Wade Dubielewicz, Harding becomes a valuable, tradable commodity.
Whether he played six, 16, or 60 games, there’s no doubt that Marian Gaborik was talented, and that the Minnesota Wild are going to miss his offensive gifts.
Despite being as fragile as an ice cream cone, Gaborik brought with him undeniable skill, with no more proof necessary than his 18 points over the final 11 games of last season.
Saddled with the job of replacing him will be recent acquisition Martin Havlat. While Havlat’s offensive gifts were on full display in Chicago this past season (In—surprise surprise—a contract year) he’s another star-crossed wonder who has not only had trouble staying healthy, but meeting expectations as well.
Before Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane came along to the Windy city, Havlat was supposed to be “the guy.” Due to a variety of injuries, Havlat never evolved into “the guy.”
With the expectations much the same in Minnesota, it’ll be interesting to see how Havlat reacts.
The biggest building block currently for the Wild is Mikko Koivu, as the younger Koivu brother put up a career-best 67 points last year.
Although the replication of those totals becomes a little easier with a wide-open style (And while Havlat can’t match Gaborik in pure skill, he surely is no slouch talent-wise), Koivu will need more help than just Havlat going forward.
Pierre-Marc Bouchard is a player who owns the creativity and the skill set to thrive in the new culture, but the big question for him revolves around his health.
Another one of those “small forwards,” Bouchard can be dominated by the more physically imposing players on the ice, and his stature leaves him prone to more serious injuries...like the concussion that ended his season last year.
If he can stay healthy, Bouchard, Koivu, and Havlat make for a dangerous trio Minnesota can start with.
After that, the offense is really nothing special. Owen Nolan and Andrew Brunette represent two forwards who, although they can still put up a few points, have left their best years behind them.
More employed for their leadership, they’ll be expected to help bring along the younger forwards like Russian returnee Peter Kalus or Edmonton import Kyle Brodziak.
The Wild will look to James Sheppard for more of an improvement than the five points he bumped his totals up from last season (From 19 in 2007/08 to 24 in 2008/09), while Benoit Pouliot is really the other youngster worth seeing improvement from this season.
After that its depth options galore with Antti Miettinen, Eric Belanger, Derek Boogard, and Craig Weller, while bigger offensive contributions from Colton Gillies and Cal Clutterbuck certainly wouldn’t be turned down if they were provided.
Zanon the Cannon and the Zidlicky the...
Is it wrong that the only thing I can think of to rhyme with Zidlicky is dirty? Actually. There's no "PG" rating on these...I can do whatever I want!
Editor's Note: Bryan Thiel CANNOT do whatever he wants. The preceding paragraph was henceforth deleted.
For Minnesota, it’s important that power play quarterback Marek Zidlicky is back.
Zidlicky led all Wild defensemen in points last year with 42 and 10 of his 12 goals on the season came on the power play.
Despite his ice-time bouncing back and forth from the low twenties to just over 25 minutes per game throughout points in the season, Zidlicky is undoubtedly the veteran fall-back on this defense, and he’ll have to play like it this season.
Without Marc-Andre Bergeron (Who came up a goal and three points shy of tying his career-highs of 14 goals and 32 points last year), the Wild have an offensive hole that could be filled by Brent Burns.
The big question for Burns, who was in the middle of a career season, is how much he has recovered from the concussion that ended his season last year.
Since shifting to the back end, Burns has been a great source of offense for the Wild, as well as a responsible defensive player, but if the season-ending injury has taken anything off of his game, then the Wild have a big question on their minds moving forward.
Helping out defensively will be former Nashville Predator Greg Zanon who brings plenty of experience in a gritty, defensive role, while spending a lot of time on the penalty-kill last year. The Wild have both Kim Johnsson and Nick Schultz returning to the team as well, and the three defenders look to cement the already solid squad.
Both Johnsson and Schultz are very mobile in their own end of the ice (while Johnsson can also push the puck up the ice offensively), giving the Wild a solid three-man rotation on the penalty kill—a penalty kill that was second-best in the league last year.
The addition of Shane Hnidy is little more than a depth move, while the same can be said for John Scott, who brings little offense and will take some seasoning to keep up with the NHL.
The rookie that everyone talks about on the Wild’s defense is Tyler Cuma, but Cuma does have his work cut out for him. Although there’s some wiggle-room in the lower pairings of this defense, Cuma will have to prove that his offensive game can translate to the NHL quickly if he’s going to stick out of camp.
So What’s It All Mean…
The Wild will eventually benefit from the more open system being implemented, especially when some of their younger forwards are ready.
Right now there’s not a lot to work with and it’ll take the turnover of the veterans (Nolan, Brunette, etc.) and implementation of the quicker, younger talent to really get that system into place.
If Brent Burns can return from injury and show no ill-effects, the team has their stud defenseman back and can build for the future on the back end with Cuma and Burns.
Barring a huge year from the Koivu/Havlat tandem or a monumental return from Burns, the brightest spot will continue to be Nicklas Backstrom and the penalty kill.
Then again, when you’re beginning to build a system that’s going to feature more emphasis on the offense, having a great penalty kill and one of the best between the pipes is a great place to start.
Some teams can’t even get that far.
4th in Northwest
Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and an NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan, you can do so through his profile, or you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check out all of his previous work in his archives.
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