As the pre-season winds down, here are some things to look out for regarding the Minnesota Wild.
1) Benoit Pouliot centers Gaborik and Demitra. After the last two games, the job could be his to lose. Pouliot will definitely get more chances to impress the coaching staff, but he may have found his niche on the team, and it could be between two of the more talented players in the league, in Demitra and Gaborik. Not a bad niche to have for a rookie looking to play his first full season in the NHL. The other candidates for the job are Eric Belanger, Mikko Koivu and Dominic Moore. Belanger has had success playing with Bouchard and Rolston, and I wouldn't expect Lemaire to break this line up. Koivu and Parrish have obvious chemistry together and provide good size for a line. The only problem with this line is finding a competant wing to flank the other side of Koivu but, again, I wouldn't expect Lemaire to break this duo up, especially seeing as how he likes to spread the scoring out between lines. Moore is really the other realistic candidate, as he's shown in the past that he is capable of centering the two. Pouliot has really made a push, however, and has the potential to be a top line player, while Moore's potential for success is much more limited. All in all, my prediction is that Pouliot makes the team and is the top line center for Gaborik and Demitra, leaving the forward line combinations looking like this.
Extra: Moore, Foy
2) Kurtis Foster will not be with team past game 19. Foster fell into disfavor with Lemaire towards the end of last year's playoffs, and struggle for a good portion of the season last year. He did not show any of the flashes of brilliance that he showed during his rookie season with us and I would expect this year to be much more of the same. Mistakes in, not only our own end, but the offensive end will ultimately cost him his role on the team once Sean Hill returns from his suspension. One thing that the Wild has been lacking is a solid, puck-moving defenseman; and Petteri Nummelin gives us that. Nummelin had a less than stellar season last year, but I feel like putting him with a solid, stay at home defenseman (as opposed to Skoula or Foster) would greatly benefit him and allow him to play the style of game that he's used to. In all, Foster will be gone after game 19 and the Wild's defensive lines will look like this.
3) The Wild's offense will finally emerge. After numerous injury-plagued seasons, Marian Gaborik is finally healthy. He's finally emerging as a superstar player in the NHL and he's finally showing that he can make everyone on the team better as well. The Wild were a much better team with him than without him last year (winning 75% of the games in which he dressed versus not even winning 50% when he didn't) and should have the Slovakian sensation dressed more often than not this year. Gaborik as well as the Wild management are both confident that his groin problems are behind him and that he is in the best shape of his career. With Gaborik healthy, that means a couple of things. First, Demitra will be more productive. A healthy Gaborik gives Demitra a solid target to pass to every time down the ice. Second, Rolston will have a slightly lightened workload. The last two years, Brian Rolston has tapered off towards the end of the season because of being needed to be the number one scorer for the team. With Gaborik healthy, this takes the load off of Rolston's shoulders. He won't necessarily play much less, but enough so that he won't be worn down by the end of the season. Also, Mikko Koivu is coming off of a sophomore explosion, easily being the most improved player on the Wild last year. I would look for him to improve even more. Bouchard is in a contract year. He's going to want to prove that he's worth the big bucks, whether it be from Minnesota or elsewhere. I would look for him to finally have the breakout season that the Wild have been waiting on. Overall, the Wild's offense will emerge next year and, I think, be in the top half of the league.
4) Young kids will impress in Houston. Most notably Tyler Hirsch, Petr Kalus and Shawn Belle. Hirsch, before his meltdown at the University of Minnesota, was one of the best college players in the nation. He's exactly what the Wild could use; a top-line caliber, play making center with a scoring touch. If he is stable and if he can handle the pressure and the spotlight, he will make an impact in the AHL and could be up with the big club if any injuries strike at center. Kalus has been impressive during the pre-season, but has lost his scoring touch. He's created many chances but has looked as if he couldn't hit the open net from the top of the crease, at times. One more year in the AHL should be beneficial to this youngster, as I would also look for him to be a mid-season call up if injuries strike. Belle will be a lot different from the other two. He is, without a doubt, NHL ready now. He could play and make an impact with the Wild starting at the beginning of this season. The only problem is that the Wild have 8 NHL defensemen able to play. Belle will only get his shot this year if the injury bug hits the Wild and hits them hard.
5) Backstrom will surprise many this year. The surprise will only be to those outside of the Wild organization, however. Backstrom will not have a "sophomore slump" this season and will once again be the backbone of the defense. If you look at his career statistics, he has played outstanding with every team he has been with. Goalies typically don't hit the "prime" of their career until their late 20s and early 30s and Backstrom will turn 30 this season. Goaltending will, once again, be the Wild's strong point and will help spearhead a strong effort to win their first division championship.