Mikko Koivu has quietly become the heart and soul of the Minnesota Wild.
As part of a continuing series, writer Benjamin Benya will be previewing all 30 NHL teams over the next two weeks in preparation for the 2010-2011 regular season.
With great depth in the West, the next team, the Minnesota Wild, could surprise a few people this year.
Key Additions: C Matt Cullen, LW Eric Nystrom, C John Madden.
Key Subtractions: LW Derek Boogaard, LW Andrew Ebbett, RW Owen Nolan.
For the Minnesota Wild, life in the National Hockey League hasn’t always gone as planned. The Wild made the playoffs light years before any of their expansion comrades, and what’s more, they are still the most successful of those teams. But after one appearance in the Western Conference Finals, Minnesota found themselves in a holding pattern of injuries and inequity.
Once Marian Gaborik made the inevitable decision to leave the Wild, fans were hopeful that the team could prosper with a new model minus the Slovakian star. Gaborik’s departure was just one part of a massive identity overhaul that included the departure of head coach Jacques Lemaire as well. Now, with GM Chuck Fletcher calling the shots, the Wild have taken an ultra-conservative approach to rebuilding a winner.
After signing another explosive yet injury-prone star to replace Gaborik in Martin Havlat one year ago, the Wild wasted little time this off-season in acquiring the correct role players to fill key positions. Matt Cullen is looking to get a fresh start and produce loads of points playing in Minnesota while John Madden is an intangible player that has just won another Stanley Cup, his first without the New Jersey Devils.
On offense, the buck starts and stops with Captain Mikko Koivu and supposed top winger Havlat. Koivu has been an electric force for the Wild year-in and year-out and is expected to be so for the next decade. Havlat, meanwhile, stumbled out of the gate last year and struggled to recover for a long while. He played an almost entirely healthy season but his numbers tailed off dramatically, mostly because of the slow start.
If Havlat isn’t up to it, several other Wild teammates on the wing are ready to make big plays. Guillaume Latendresse jump started his career after being traded to Minnesota last year, and wingers Antti Miettenen and Andrew Brunette performed surprisingly well last season. Both are expected to duplicate their numbers considering they are entering a contract year.
A key factor in the Minnesota offense this year will be whether or not center Pierre-Marc Bouchard can recover in time from his post-concussion symptoms that kept him out of all but one game last season. Bouchard is a born playmaker who was recently given the okay to resume practice, but the signing of Matt Cullen indicates that the Wild are not taking any chances.
Defensively, the Wild were benefactors of good fortune when they swept up Cam Barker in a trade from the Chicago Blackhawks last season. Though his numbers were off last year, Barker should command a ton of power play time next to his fellow defender Marek Zidlicky. Both are strong two-way defensemen who will be pivotal keys to Minnesota’s success.
The Wild are returning several players on defense, making very few changes overall with Brent Burns, Greg Zanon, and Nick Schultz all expected to reclaim their roster spots. Though none are certified A-list defensemen, they are neither classifiable slouches. With Todd Richards coaching the team behind the bench, they are less reliant on the trap, allowing for these guys to open up the play with a little more risk involved.
When it comes to goaltending, the Wild find themselves in an all-too familiar position yet again. After signing a star up and comer to a long-term deal (Niklas Backstrom), the Wild found yet another in their system capable of taking over (Josh Harding). Backstrom has certainly established himself as a quality starter, but that didn’t stop former head coach Jacques Lemaire from rolling out Harding at the first sign of trouble.
Neither was up to snuff last season, forcing the team to include Wade Dubielewicz in the shuffle briefly. But Backstrom’s 37-win performance two seasons ago, the same season Harding went an epic 3-9-1, leaves little doubt as to who can lead this team in between the pipes. Despite it being his worst season since landing the full-time gig, Backstrom still managed to keep his goals against average under 3, keeping the team in the game most nights.
While the majority of Minnesota’s defense is the same as it was last year, a technical rookie with three games experience under his belt could embrace the moment and shine in the upcoming year. Nate Prosser will likely sneak into the sixth defensemen’s position by the start of the season, leaving little doubt that the 24-year-old has the skill and strength to make a difference on the blueline in the years to come.
Picking Minnesota to finish this low in the conference is something of an anomaly. The Wild are nowhere close to being as bad as the bottom of the conference would indicate, and, in fact, they may surprise by earning a playoff berth out West. But the overall team is still finding its rhythm and identity since the two most important figures in franchise history departed. Fourth in the Northwest, 13th in the Western Conference.