The Minnesota Wild, the state's seemingly only competitive team this year (I mean, let's be honest, who actually didn't expect the Twins to not break our hearts like they do every October) is off to an expected solid start at 10-6-2 and third place in the Northwest division.
Expected start? Yes, it was highly publicized that the normally good home team would have eight of their first eleven contests in the friendly confines of St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center, where they typically win 60% of their games or more.
We've also historically seen this team jump out of the gate to 6-0-1, 7-0 starts where they'd have something like 14 points in the first two weeks during the Marian Gaborik years. I had a friend say once when we struggled last year, "Good, maybe instead of choking it away at the end of the season, we can go in reverse"--- and like clockwork, the Wild fell the usual 3-5 points shy of the playoffs despite not-quite-good-enough talent.
But this year can and will be different.
Why? Besides the title of the article, there are several reasons:
1. Size and speed: While watching the first two games of the season from Helsinki, the announcers kept talking about how much more aggressive the Wild were than last year's club. In year's past the Wild would have one enforcer like Matt Johnson or Derek Boogaard (who was more of a giant than an actual enforcer in my opinion, PIM aside) try and fill the role. Last year we had to painfully watch Shane Hnidy do his best at filling this role.
This year we gave up a fifth round pick for a player with this purpose in Brad Staubitz, and we also picked up Eric Nystrom just for fun.
"But the days of the 'goon squad' NHL are over" I can hear you saying. While this may be true, you still need this element of guys that aren't afraid to drop the gloves and do what needs to be done, otherwise you'll have vanilla players like Gaborik doing his best like he did last year vs. Philadelphia's Brad Costello.
Also, we need the size in order for our usual small lineup to create chances for them, which is coming in the form of face-offs and face-offs won. According to ESPN.com Mikko Koivu is currently ninth in the league in face-offs won with 53.1% success rate. This much was evident by the Helsinki games when the announcers kept raving about this stat, at a 61% team clip. But it doesn't stop there--- as a testament to the team's new depth (more on that later), new teammate John Madden is 34th with a 53.8% clip of his own.
2. Quality depth; Remember when we were playing people on lines they didn't belong? Center Kyle Brodziak on the second line when really he's a fourth liner at best? Now our lines go: Koivu-Cullen-Madden-and Brodziak with intriguing prospect Casey Wellman thrown in just for a fun luxury. John Madden on the third line? What are we, the New Jersey Devils from whence he came and for whom he won two of his three Cups solidifying himself as a proven winner? We've never had that kind of depth at a position formerly of annual need.
Why does this matter? These are all centers, the one position that controls face-offs and thus sets up everyone else. If the Wild are able to get anywhere from the third seed (winning the division) to sixth through eighth (just sneaking in), Madden and his four goals already are going to be a big reason and I can't imagine what big plays (and game-winners) this winner is going to do in an overtime game. He's going to have an impact--- book it. Getting him has all the feel of a "tweak" or finishing-touch move the established teams like Chicago (where he came from) or Detroit do every off-season; not a stretch, unorthodox move the seemingly inept Wild do every year. For once, they got it right in a surprise, but welcome move.
3. Career years from unlikely sources, 20 goal scorers galore! While he didn't score 20 goals last year after a putrid first two months with the team, Martin Havlat got hot in the final half and just missed out with 18 goals but to rally for 53 points.
Amazing considering the oft-injured (but well paid) Havlat had 11 points-two goals and nine assists on December 5th.
That means in his team's final 61 games (74.2% of the season) he got 16 goals and 24 assists (40 points). While it doesn't seem like much production for a guy getting paid $5 million a year for the next 4.5 years, it was sorely lacking and he'd been on pace for eight goals and 36 assists (44 pts). 18 goals is easier to swallow.
This year, two G, 14A, Havlat 9G, 64A is on pace for 73 points which would be the 2nd highest total of his career. But the way he's going of late--- 10 pts in nine games---he'd surely pass that.
Next, look at the surprising stats from 25 year old-assumed bust Brent Burns who many, including myself wanted traded. At 6G, 4A already for 10pts through 16 games and on pace for 27G and 18A, those 45 points would be a career high and the 27G would blow out his career high of 15. Oh, and did I mention he plays defense? In the formerly passive Jacques Lemaire defense-first system, any points by a Wild defenseman were seen as a bonus. (Like Nick Punto with the Twins).
22-year old Cal Clutterbuck, an original Wild draft pick and easily our best young player, is only on pace for a career high 32 goals after scoring one in five of his past eight games. While he has no assists, if he keeps crashing the net (at a pace I don't think he can sustain), those will come as he's already half way to his career high of 13 goals.
Continuing the blueprint of mixing youth with experience (and last year had way too much youth) the Wild brought home the Virginia, MN native and highly coveted free agent Matt Cullen in what could prove to be the 2nd best free agent signing in club history with special recognition to my favorite player Andrew "Last goal ever scored on Hall of Fame goalie Patrick Roy" Brunette who, prior to this year, you could just about pencil in 50-54 points during his time here.
Even while struggling, Brunette's 3G 7A 10 pts remains on pace for 14G, 27A (41 pts). If Cullen can help him by winning a face-off or two (should he get demoted from the top line to get his game in order for a few shifts or periods), then adding Cullen, whose production is about the same, is really a coup.
Still, like Madden, the playoff-tested (and Stanley Cup winning) Cullen's promise will be shown in the playoffs if the team can simply make it. That's where he comes up big.
Now if only my second favorite player, Guillaume Latendresse could get better (and back to his 20+ goal self), it would make the pain of having disappointing Chuck Kobasew and his $2.7 million salary (which will be shed this off-season along with mercifully Pierre Marc-Brousard's cap-crippling $4.2 million) go away.
Who knows, maybe we can actually use that money ($6.9M) on actual players (another 20G forward?) to replace those stiffs--- and probably, sadly Brunette himself and his $2.5 million salary.
Maybe re-signing free-agent-to-be Antti Miettinen, who scored 20G last year and is on pace for 23G, or swapping the disappointing Nick Shultz for a Marek Zdlicky-like scoring defenseman?
Time will tell but I have no doubt that active GM Chuck Fletcher will do what he has to do--- especially if the team goes South, like they did during last year's sluggish start. Re-signing Miettinen would be a nice start. Finding another 20 goal scorer (or creating one from within) wouldn't hurt either.
Information and statistics from The Minneapolis Star Tribune, Wikipedia, and ESPN.com directly contributed to the content to this article.