Over the next few weeks, leading up to training camp, I have decided to do team previews for each team in the Northwest. First will be the Minnesota Wild.
Key Acquisitions: F - Eric Belanger, D - Sean Hill, F - Petr Kalus
Key Losses: G - Manny Fernandez, F - Todd White
The forward squad will, essentially, be the same as last year; possibly with different line combinations. The loss of White turned into a wash with the signing of Belanger, who will bring most of the same skill set that White brought to the table with a bit more grittiness than White. It appears as if Matt Foy is ready to crack the line up after a couple limited call ups last year, and he should see time on the fourth line. If healthy, Marian Gaborik will crack the 100 point mark for the first time in his career and contend for the Art Ross trophy; especially if Demitra remains healthy the entire season. Demitra, Rolston and Bouchard are all in contract years and I would expect big numbers from all of them. Rolston will, likely, see less minutes this year than in the past two, as he has had great seasons the past two seasons, but tapered off towards the end of each.
Gaborik's groin. As I said, if he's healthy, he'll be one of the best forwards in the game this year. He's improved in the defensive zone and the new rule set of the NHL really favors him. His groin is a question mark, however. He has not played a full season since before his holdout and has not been in the shape the Wild have needed him in since then. Last year, with Gaborik healthy the whole year, the Wild would have been contending for the President's Trophy. This is the difference he makes on this team.
The 4th line center. After acquiring Dominic Moore from the Pittsburgh Penguins at the trade deadline last year, he was pushed on the backburner. I find it hard to believe that the Wild would turn to him as a 4th line center, however their options are limited with Serge Payer and Steve Kelly as the only two viable 4th liners behind him. There is a chance that James Sheppard would make the team and, if this happens, we may not see much of Dominic Moore this season.
Up and Comers:
Look for Matt Foy to get more playing time this year, as it appears that there is finally a spot on the roster for him. This is, of course, barring any superb camps from Pouliot, Volshenko, Olvecky or Kalus. Out of the four listed there, I think that Kalus is the most NHL ready of the bunch. Pouliot, Volshenko and Olvecky all need to prove that they can produce on a regular basis before they will be considered ready for a call up. Also, an outside shot at making the squad, is Morten Madsen. Madsen has really impressed the Wild's coaching staff and front offices with his adaptation to the North American style game and could surprise a lot of people in camp this year.
As with the forwards, the defensive squad will essentially be unchanged from last year. The only change will, most likely, occur 19 games into the season, when Sean Hill returns from his suspension. The Wild's defensive unit was good last year, and this year should be no different. I'm sure that I'm in the majority of Wild fans that really likes the acquisition of Hill. He brings a presence that our blueline hasn't had since Andy Sutton and Sean O'Donnell. Last year, had he been on the Wild, he would have led in both hits and blocked shots by a long margin. This is something that the Wild lacked severely last year. The Wild now have a very solid core of d-men in place, with Schultz, Burns, Carney, Johnsson and Skoula (whom, though many don't like, was very statistically effective last year) and that 6th spot in the lineup is up for grabs. Petteri Nummelin, who impressed in the couple playoff games he played as well as in the World Championships this summer, could have a slight edge over Kurtis Foster, who seemed to end up in Lemaire's doghouse towards the end of last season. It will be interesting to see how the Wild manage their d-men, especially now that they have 8 NHL seasoned defensemen at their fingertips.
Sean Hill. How will he respond to coming into the line up with the season in full swing. From everything I've heard of Hill, he's a hard worker, and should have no problem getting plugged into the Wild's system. It will be interesting to see how he responds after this suspension as well, and how he plays could very well be the determining factor of whether or not the team makes the playoffs.
Martin Skoula. Much to the disappointment of many Wild fans (admittedly, myself included), the Wild re-signed Skoula this off season. Skoula is an enigma of sorts, providing solid stats with less than solid play. He has earned the confidence of Lemaire and should see a lot of ice time once more. The big question revolving around him is who will he be paired with? When on the 3rd defensive pairing with Foster or Nummelin, he was much less than impressive. When paired with a top tier d-man, however, he looked decent and, at times, solid. How he responds to his new contract will go a long way in deciding how the team does as well.
Up and Comers:
The Wild's d-men are slowly, but surely developing. Shawn Belle is the one name that really sticks out this year as someone who could step in if needed. He played in limited time last season and looked pretty impressive for a rookie. Also, waiting in the wings, are Eric Reitz and Clayton Stoner. Both have been in Houston for a few years and could be looking to get some ice time with the big squad if anyone goes down with injuries. A wildcard here is the off season acquisition of Andre Lakos. Before the signing of Hill, Lakos sounded like he could contend for a roster spot right out of camp. Now that our defense is set, for the most part, Lakos may spend time down in Houston right away. It will take a performance in camp that shows the second coming of Paul Coffey for anyone outside of the top eight d-men to make the squad.
Keep in mind that this grade is based solely on the goaltending numbers of the Wild's new duo from last year. Niklas Backstrom stepped up into the echelon of the NHL's elite goalies last year, posting the only GAA in the league under 2.0. He struggled early in the season (when Bob Mason was fiddling with his goaltending style) but showed amazing adaptability as he improved to the point of winning the permenant starting job for this season. Despite the Wild's early exit in the playoffs, he was fantastic and gave them an opportunity to win each game. Backstrom is much more mentally sound than Fernandez was and has an amazing amount of patience in the crease. Because of this, he's rarely out of position and it takes a lot to beat him. On the other side of the coin, Josh Harding is the goalie of the future. Signed to a new one-way contract, he will have no worries about being sent down and will get at least 15-20 starts this year behind Backstrom. Between the two of them, they should prove to be a lethal one-two punch the likes of which the Wild had during their first playoff run, in Roloson and Fernandez. Harding couldn't ask for a better mentor, as Backstrom is much more of a team oriented player than Fernandez was, and Harding will learn a lot from the Fin, as he will continue to develop into the goalie of the future.
NHL Experience. Backstrom has plenty of experience and has succeeded at every level he's played at, but he doesn't even have a whole season of NHL experience under his belt, as he didn't even get his first start until 6 weeks into the season last year. Harding has only played a handful of games in the NHL and, though he has been successful, has yet to be up with the big squad for a whole season. While I believe that last year was not a fluke and both of these players will be fine, it is a question mark nonetheless.
Health. At separate points during last season, both Backstrom and Fernandez were down with injuries. Last year, this could be afforded, as we had a certain depth in net that most teams don't enjoy. This year, however, we are not so lucky. Both Backstrom and Harding must remain healthy throughout the season for the Wild to enjoy the type of success that they enjoyed last year.
Up and Comers:
The Up and Comers in the Wild's system are somewhat enigmatic. Nolan Schaefer has had an abysmal AHL career, however he has had an absolutely phenomenal NHL career. While playing for the Sharks, he led the team to a 5-1-0 record in the absence of their starters. On the other hand, there is Miroslav Kiprova. This season, it is time for Kiprova to step up or shut up. He has not been impressive in the least in his tenure with the Wild organization, and it is obvious that he has a long way to go yet.
The Wild have not improved much over last year's team; however, last year's team could have contended for the Presidents' Cup if not for the injuries to star forward, Marian Gaborik. This year should be more of the same. Despite their question marks in net, I feel that Backstrom and Harding can provide the solid backstops that this team needs for an extended playoff run. I also think that last season was a lesson well learned, as the Wild now have a better idea of what it takes for playoff success. Should Gaborik remain healthy the entire season this year, the Wild should contend for the divison crown in a very tight division.
Projected Finish: 2nd in the Division; 4th in the West