With much disappointment surrounding the Minnesota Wild season, the team of 18,000 should be looking forward to a much stronger next season.
It is hard for everyone in the State of Hockey, both players and fans alike, to miss the thrill of the playoffs for the second season in a row. However, there is a bright light on the horizon and now that will be worth the wait.
Minnesota finished this season tied with the same record they had in 2005-06 with 84 points, fourth in the Northwest division and 13th in the Western Conference.
It was a year of change for the Minnesota Wild as they said goodbye to the old, and hello to the new.
A new coach, a new GM, and a bounty of new players were added before and throughout the season. It was a case of struggling identity for a team trying to change the way it played the game.
The beginning was the roughest for the Wild, where Minnesota lost eight straight games on the road, while at home the team was magical.
The first new spark came in November with the addition of Quebec native Guillaume Latendresse.
A player who was overrun with media scrutiny and an inability to generate points, which many thought he would do early in his career.
In 23 games with the Canadiens, Latendresse put up only two goals and one assist, but after the trade to Minnesota he showed the offense everyone knew he had, racking up 25 goals and 12 assists in 55 games.
A restricted free agent now, it would be both in Minnesota's and his best interest to sign a deal to keep him with the Wild for some period of time.
There were many other additions to the Wild roster, including Cam Barker, Chuck Kobasew, Andrew Ebbett, and finally a young man named Casey Wellman.
One of the more prized free agent college players, Wellman showed his value every game with his speed, aggressiveness, and play-making ability.
Wellman is a young man who was born in northern California who then moved to Michigan at age 14 to pursue his dream of playing professional hockey.
When just about every NHL team was seeking Wellman, Casey called a man by the name of Chris Chelios, who lived near him in Michigan, for advice.
Wellman was told that Chuck Fletcher knew what he was doing, and to go with him and the Wild.
Although still a young player, Wellman has shown some great potential to develop into the speedy and tenacious forward Minnesota is looking for.
On the other side of the equation, some players who fans thought were going to be the new face of the franchise turned out to be just another grain of sand.
Martin Havlat had just come off a career year in Chicago, and when the Blackhawks decided they would not extend Havlat's contract Minnesota jumped all over him.
It was expected Havlat would be the new offensive powerhouse after the tragic loss of Marian Gaborik to the Rangers meant Minnesota was lean in offense.
Havlat notched 77 points last year, but this year he remained quiet, only putting up 54 points.
Most disappointing was his goal scoring. A year ago Havlat was a touch under 30 goals at 29; this season he managed only 18.
James Sheppard, who was supposed to break out the last couple of years, made fans believe again he would—and he didn't.
During spring training, I asked Sheppard about the team expecting more from him, and he replied simply that he wanted a bigger role and was going to hopefully put up some more points this season.
The only thing Sheppard saw more this season was the press box.
Sheppard was a consistent healthy scratch after he produced little offensive numbers and didn't play to expectations.
Although with injuries to other players in the last part of the season, Sheppard got a second chance to prove he is worth keeping around.
He played much better and after every game got praise from the media and the coaching staff, but once again he failed to provide much offense. Now, with his contract expired, it will be interesting to see what his future holds.
As for the Wild, the overall future is bright. Minnesota will select ninth overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft and with many good prospects up for grabs, it will be exciting to see who the Wild go after.
As for the offseason, don't expect it to be a quiet one. With a new system comes questions answered, and some new ones created.
Minnesota, now one year into the new system, has a better idea of what it needs to be more successful. With Chuck Fletcher calling the shots, Wild fans should be excited for the team's near future.
Fans should expect a busy summer with many player transactions, both old and new.
Fans should also expect a much better start to next season, especially on the road. If there is one point the coaching staff and the players will make about last season, it's the horrible road start.
Fans should also expect a younger team next season. Not only is it the overall direction GM Chuck Fletcher wants to take, but Minnesota has a lot of young talent emerging in their system with more to be added in this year's Entry Draft.
As far as the challenges for next year? Consistent play will be the key.
Minnesota showed at times over the season they could play very well and be a very good team, then the next night they showed the complete opposite.
Consistency was the major flaw, but hopefully with some changes and continued adoption and perfection of the new system, Minnesota will hopefully see the thrill of the playoffs in the next few years.
Thank you Minnesota for an exciting year. The fans are already ready for a bigger and better next year, where the Wild will open in Helsinki, Finland on October 7, with the "NHL Premiere" week against the Carolina Hurricanes.
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