So the preseason has ended and teams’ rosters are set for the regular season. In some cases, it’s scary good. In others, it’s scary bad. Either way, it’s the time of year when you can start hearing the sounds and seeing the sights of hockey season.
This article was initially posted a few weeks back on my blog, Wild Nation, but I have updated it a tad for the sake of relevancy and decided to run it again here.
In any event, the Wild are done with the preseason and ready for the regular season to start on Saturday. With that in mind, here is my season preview for the Minnesota Wild.
Key Additions: RW—Martin Havlat, C—Kyle Brodziak, D—Shane Hnidy, D—Greg Zanon, RW—Petr Sykora
Key Losses: RW—Marian Gaborik, LW—Stephane Veilleux, D—Kurtis Foster, D—Marc-Andre Bergeron, D—Martin Skoula
Overview: This off-season saw the Wild receive a complete make over. The only thing that was missing was Ty Pennington standing outside of the Xcel Energy Center, shouting “Move that bus!”, immediately after the season ended. The only head coach in team history, Jacques Lemaire, stepped down, leaving an enormous void for the team to fill. A short-time later, owner Craig Leipold decided that it was time for the team to switch directions and let General Manager Doug Risebrough go. The General Manager search was punctuated by the hiring of wunderkind GM-in-training Chuck Fletcher signing on the dotted line. The Wild got their man, now it’s time for the team to put the rubber to the road and see what it can accomplish.
Coaching: One of Fletcher’s first moves was to bring in Todd Richards as head coach. Richards was, honestly, the team’s first choice and an easy hire for Fletcher to make.
The difficult part will be once the season starts.
With coaching candidates such as Peter Laviolette and Guy Carbonneau being passed up for Richards, he will be expected to pay dividends immediately. Having promised an aggressive, up-tempo style of play, Richards will be expected to get the most out of players like Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Benoit Pouliot, and James Sheppard, who struggled mightily in Jacques Lemaire’s system.
Truthfully, I have never thought that Lemaire’s system was the problem with these players, but that will be put to the test this season.
The biggest problem for Richards is going to be experience. He is going into the season with the prospect of facing the lion’s share of their games against their division rivals, most whom have coaches with a good amount of experience winning at the NHL level.
As Dan Bylsma and Bruce Boudreau have both proven, that isn’t necessarily worth anything more than the paper it’s printed on. At the same time, a new face coming into a new team could pose problems for Richards early. Look for him to rely heavily on the experience of Mike Ramsay behind the bench early on in the season. Grade: C+
Forwards: This season is going to see the Wild look drastically different up front. Not necessarily because of the loss of Marian Gaborik (Wild fans were plenty used to not seeing him on the ice during his tenure with the team), but because of the changes that could come with a new coach.
The undersized Bouchard may no longer be relegated to the wing and might get a chance to play his natural position once again. James Sheppard will likely get an increased role on the team, as will resident bowling ball, Cal Clutterbuck. The team will roll into the season with five players on the roster that can legitimately play center, something that is a welcomed change for a team that has struggled at depth at that position.
Bouchard looks to be filling the role of the team’s second-line center for the time being. He will have the opportunity to feed the puck to one of the most consistent snipers in the game, Petr Sykora.
The signing of Sykora late in training camp gave the team one thing that it desperately needed, a legitimate secondary scoring threat. Sykora has tallied 20 or more goals in 10 straight seasons and, with Bouchard feeding him the puck, there is hope that he will continue that streak wearing the Iron Range Red.
Where the team really excels is in its bottom-six forwards.
Clutterbuck, Kyle Brodziak, Eric Belanger and Antti Miettinen are all experienced checking forwards and can all be part of a line that is capable of shutting other teams down. Factor in prospects Benoit Pouliot and James Sheppard, as well as injured tough guy Derek Boogaard, and you’ve got a pretty imposing bottom-six. In addition to those three, look for John Scott to get some looks at forward this season, especially if Boogaard’s concussion lingers.
Overall, the team is still not very top heavy at forward and will likely look to its role players again to provide a significant part of its scoring. The addition of a healthy Havlat and of Sykora will help this team greatly and if all the pieces fit together this season, Wild fans could be looking at a team capable of putting up some goals in a hurry. Grade: B
Defense: This could, yet again, be the team’s strong suit. They have defensemen capable of stepping up and joining the rush in Brent Burns and Marek Zidlicky, but now have four defensemen that are more than capable in a stay-at-home role, including two that will be given increased offensive responsibilities.
Nick Schultz is one of the most underrated defensemen in the game and, under Richards’ new system, I would look for him to flourish and have a tremendous year. Schultz has the tools to be a fantastic two-way defenseman, and now will get to use his offensive tools a little more because Fletcher has asked him to take more of an offensive responsibility.
Kim Johnsson is a former 40-point scorer on the blueline that will likely be given all of the tools to return to that stature. After concussion problems sidelined him with the Flyers, the Wild took a chance on him and got one of their more reliable defensemen over the past few years.
The biggest change in the blueline, however, is the sandpaper added through Greg Zanon, Shane Hnidy, Jamie Sifers and John Scott. These four will likely share minutes as the fifth and sixth defensemen for the team and add a great deal of grit to the lineup. They all love to hit and are solid, stay-at-home defensemen that can be paired with either Burns or Zidlicky to give the Wild a presence behind them when they pinch in.
As for Burns and Zidlicky, a new system gives them the opportunity to showcase their offensive abilities. Burns had a rough season last year, switching back and forth between wing and defense, he also struggled with injuries. Fans can expect him to rebound this season.
As for Zidlicky, you can expect more of the same. Poor decisions punctuated by fantastic offensive moments. Zidlicky will likely find himself paired with either Johnsson or Schultz most of the time and will be looked at to contribute heavily on the powerplay.
Overall, I feel that this is still one of the strengths of the team and the addition of the grit will easily make it better. Despite playing in a new system, expect stalwart defensemen Johnsson, Burns and Schultz to continue to practice what they learned under the tutelage of Jacques Lemaire, and don’t expect this unit to give up many chances. Grade: A-
Goaltending: Let’s get one thing out of the way right now. Niklas Backstrom is actually this good. The system certainly helped him, but when he’s on, he’s one of the top five goalies in the league. Easily.
Last season, Backstrom was one of the biggest reasons why the Wild were even in the playoff hunt and this season it will likely be the same story if they are to be there again. He will likely face a few more quality chances per game, but I wouldn’t expect that to change the results much.
Behind him, barring a trade, will be Josh Harding. For Wild fans, this is great news.
Harding was slated to be the Wild’s heir apparent in net before the emergence of Backstrom, and he has evolved into quite the goaltender. This is again a case of the Wild having a 1A and 1B goaltender, as Harding can easily slide in and the Wild won’t miss a beat.
If Harding is traded, the Wild picked up New York Islanders folk hero, Wade Dubielewicz as an insurance policy. While Dubie is nowhere near the goaltender that Harding is, he is more than a sufficient backup and has proven that he is capable of winning games at the NHL level.
Overall, goaltending will again be the strongest part of the team and will again be the backbone of any playoff push the Wild hopes to make this season. Grade: A+
Line Combinations: This will likely be changed throughout the season, but here is what I would expect the Wild’s line combos to look like:
Andrew Brunette/Mikko Koivu/Martin Havlat
Owen Nolan/Pierre-Marc Bouchard/Petr Sykora
Antti Miettinen/James Sheppard/Cal Clutterbuck
Derek Boogaard(injured)/Eric Belanger/Kyle Brodziak
Extras: Benoit Pouliot
Brent Burns/Nick Schultz
Marek Zidlicky/Kim Johnsson
Greg Zanon/Shane Hnidy
Extras: John Scott and Jamie Sifers
Captain: One of the biggest question marks this season is “who will the captain be?” The odds are on favorite, most likely, is Mikko Koivu. He captained the team for most of last season and emerged as both a leader on the ice and in the locker room.
If I’m Richards, however, I look to one person and one person only. The man they call Cowboy. Owen Nolan.
Nolan is one of the most respected and feared veterans in the league and commands respect wherever he goes. Giving him the ‘C’ will give legitimacy to what is, once again, a young team searching for its identity and sends the message "this is the standard expected of you," to all of the players in the locker room.
The team was abysmal without Nolan on the ice last season and his dedication to the team showed in the way he carried himself. He is to this team what Wes Walz was when he was playing. He is the type of player that will lead this team regardless of whether or not he has the ‘C.’
So why not make it official? Slap the ‘C’ on Number 11’s chest and watch it all unfold.
Expected Finish: If the team is healthy (Havlat, Burns, Nolan, etc.), this team is a playoff team.
The Wild were a few points from the playoffs last season, without their top scorer. There’s no reason to think that they can’t make it this season if they’re healthy.
To go one step further, if this team is healthy, it can win the division. Vancouver, despite having an impressive preseason, failed to improve much this offseason, while Calgary got better on the back end, but worse up front. The two powers of this division are ripe for the picking and the Wild are the best team for the job.
Realistically, I think this team can have a shot at the division crown once again. But things will have to go its way. On this one though, I’ll split the difference. 2nd in the Northwest, 6th in the West.