Five Things the Minnesota Wild Need To Do To Get Back into Playoffs
With the Stanley Cup Finals concluding, hockey fans in Minnesota must look focus the NHL Entry Draft, free agent signings, and other off-season activities as the Wild look, to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since winning the Northwest Division in 2007.
The Wild organization did not sit on their hands last year, improving their team by trading for Guillaume Latendresse and Cam Barker, and signing collegiate draftee Casey Wellman.
In addition, they also were able to get value for older players like Kim Johnsson and Eric Belanger who presumably were going to leave through free agency after the year concluded.
On the other hand, players like Brent Burns and James Sheppard — who were expected to have breakout years with Todd Richards new system — were disappointing.
Always aggressive and productive when on the ice, Burns only played 47 games because of injury.
A first round draft pick four years ago, Sheppard — who jumped from the juniors straight to the NHL — was often scratched towards the end of the year and only had six points in 64 games, down from 24 points in 82 games the previous year.
The Wild have reportedly had perfect attendance since entering the league in 2000, but came extremely close to losing that record last year when they came out out of the gates slowly, burying themselves too far beneath the Western Conference to ever secure a spot in the playoffs.
Another poor season and the team's popularity may plummet, especially with the recent success of the Twins and Vikings and the notion that the organization is not rewarding faithful hockey enthusiasts in Minnesota by putting a winning team on the ice.
Koivu Must Continue to Improve
Deserving of captaincy because of his ability to create plays on the ice and improve everyone who is on the ice around him, the sixth overall pick in 2001 took a while to develop into a 20-goal scoring, 70-point player.
Placed on the first line with veterans Andrew Brunette and Antti Miettinen, Koivu was able to push both of the aging wingers to their potential.
Miettinen was never consistent, but when he was on the same page as Koivu he looked brilliant.
Brunette came into the year with questions about his ability to keep up with younger players in the game, but was a solid winger on Koivu's line.
It would be interesting to see him with Martin Havlat, who needs score more in order to justify his contract, and Guillaume Latendresse, who has performed well since coming over from Montreal.
With increased talent around him Koivu should be awarded for his hard work behind the net and increase his point total from last year.
Sheppard Needs to Play Like a First-Rounder
The ninth overall selection in 2006, Sheppard has the tools and mentality to become an impact player in the NHL.
The Wild have given the 22-year-old pivot the opportunity to develop, placing him on their NHL roster in September of 2007 after he finished his stint with Cape Breton of the QMJHL.
Although he has never donned a Houston Aeros jersey, Sheppard was placed in Richard's doghouse towards the end of a six-point season last year.
Standing 6'2" and weighing 210 pounds, Sheppard should be a menace standing in front of goaltenders. At times he appears scrappy: driving to the front, fighting for position near the crease, and occasionally mixing it up with opponents, but Sheppard needs to be consistently aggressive in order to stay with the Wild.
A 30-goal, 80+plus point player at the junior level, Sheppard great upside. However, Peter Mueller — an under-performing player who was drafted one spot ahead of Sheppard — was traded from Phoenix to Colorado because of his lack of production.
Sheppard may be moved as well if his play is not up to par.
Havlat Must Live Up to His Contract
Following his 29-goal, 77-point season that merited him a team MVP award in Chicago, Havlat signed a six-year, 30 million dollars contract with Minnesota.
Expected to put up similar numbers under Richards, Havlat flopped.
After a slow start Havlat managed to net 18 goals and named an alternate captain, but he fell well shy of expectations.
Along with Cam Barker, who came in a mid-season trade for aging Kim Johnsson and Minnesota-native prospect Nick Leddy, Havlat was groomed in Chicago's defense-first system.
Havlat has five more years to prove himself worthy of his expensive contract and there is no doubt that a player like Marty — gritty, willing to get his nose dirty to make a play — can become a fan-favorite in Minnesota if he plays like he did in Chicago and Ottawa.
Burns Needs to Stay Healthy
A right wing standout in Brampton (OHL) Burns was converted to a defenseman after being drafted 20th overall in the talent-rich 2003 Draft.
Burns was a major factor in the Wild's division-championship-winning 2007 season, when he tallied 15 goals and 43 points in 82 games.
Since then he has played less than 60 games and never had more than 30 points.
Expected to break out with the departure of defensive-minded coach Jacques Lemaire, Burns instead spent most of the season on the IR.
The Wild's defensive corps is well-constructed, with well-developed former Blackhawk Cam Barker, Marek Zidlicky and his blazing slap shot, and unsung hero Nick Shultz. Expect Burns to replace Havlat on the powerplay and, if he is healthy, a big season from a player who can readily contribute on the rush.
Consider Keeping Harding Rather Than Backstrom
If anything was learned this year it was that teams with a good defense can carry a standard goalie.
Philadelphia advanced to the finals behind perennial backups Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton.
Montreal's Jaroslav Halak replaced fan-favorite and presumed No. one net-minder Carey Price, leading the Habs to the Western Conference Finals. Chicago's Antti Niemi brought the Hawks their first cup in 49 years.
Minnesota has great defensemen and a good defensive system. Although the Wild are not as defensively-savvy as they were in the Lemaire era, Richards still demands that his players concentrate on limiting shots and cutting down angles.
Late-bloomer Niklas Backstrom has been a blessing for the Wild, but he is also a product of great defense.
The media speaks about Harding as a trade piece, but with the emergence of Wade Dubielewicz as a young, steady backup the Wild could go with youth in net rather than 32-year-old Backstrom.
Backstrom is was a Vezina Trophy runner-up in 2009 and seen as an outstanding goaltender in the NHL, making his trade value high. He may be difficult to move, however, because he signed a four-year, $24 million deal in 2009.
Moving him would free up cap space and possibly bring a dynamic scorer to Minnesota — a much needed piece if the Wild are to take it to the next level.
Mentioned are only five things that must happen for the Wild to get back into the playoffs next year.
The Wild should be keeping an eye on key free agents and need to either re-sign Owen Nolan or find a replacement for him.
Fans must do their part too. The constant sellouts have motivated players to compete, regardless of Minnesota's place in the standings, and allowed management to spend on the team to keep the core together.
In turn, the team must reward its loyal fans by producing a playoff team this year. If the team remains lackluster it will lose the perfect attendance record.
Once the surface tension is broken there is likely to be an ugly fallout. The Vikings and Twins are successful and the latter has a great new stadium to attend.
Hockey always has a spot in the heart of Minnesotans, but — as evidenced by the North Stars before 1993 — the professional team is not a utility, but rather is a service to the state.
The Wild represent many things in the State of Hockey: the child who can barely walk but is already tying on their skates, the adolescent who is looking to make their Bantam team, the high-schooler struggling to make the varsity team, the young man venturing from home to make a name for themselves in junior or college hockey, and the many adults trying to live the dream.
They have serviced the successful business man who renews his season tickets year-in and year-out, the corporations who buy boxes at the suite level, a group of friends who spend their allowance to go to a game, and the parents who save up to bring their young children to see the greatest players skate live in person.
If this team fails to perform and loses its attendance record it will remove the stitches of a beautiful element of the fabric of hockey in Minnesota.