Disclaimer: Before you jump all over me this is the first part of 2 articles looking at why the Wild will finish last and why they'll finish first.
Last season the Wild finished 13th, and only the Oilers kept them out of last in the Northwest division. So was last year an aberration or was it the start of a downward trend for the Wild?
Let's start by looking at the coaching. There is no doubt that Jacques Lemaire made average talent look great. It was his coaching and his system that kept the Wild in contention every year and masked the many bad decisions made by former GM Doug Risebrough. In his place the Wild brought in rookie coach Todd Richards. Richards who worked with GM Chuck Fletcher in Pittsburgh was the perfect choice to implement the style of play Fletcher desired, however the results were far less than perfect. In his first season at the helm Richards often looked lost. The Wild's dismal road record reflected that. Even in the great comeback game against Chicago, Richards admitted that he "forgot" he had Owen Nolan, who has been successful in the shootout. His handling of Petr Sykora also raises serious questions. While not every coach and player will mesh, and no one knows for certain what all was going on behind the scenes, Richards shares at least some of the blame for that signing not working out. So can Richards improve in year 2? The easy answer is yes because he can't get much worse. But, he will need a big improvement if the Wild are to compete.
Next let's take a look at the Top 6. Russo has his depth chart as follows:
Mikko Koivu is a rock. He has been healthy and has improved every season, with 07-8 when his leg was broken by Mattias Ohlund, being the only exception. However to his left and right are some big question marks. Andrew Brunette is 37, but has aged like fine wine, and speed has never been a part of his game anyway. But every year he gets closer to the end of his career and at some point his game will suffer, could this be that year? On the other side is Bouchard. Butch missed all but 1 game last season and while the indication is that he will be back there is no guarantee he will return to form. And, even when healthy Butch was often criticized by Lemaire for not showing up every game. If he is gone who takes his spot? Miettinen? Mittens is great for 20 goals in 15 games, but is useless the rest of the season.
It is hoped that the addition of Cullen to the 2nd line will help the already productive pairing of Latendresse and Havlat get even better. Cullen has been solid and played in 81 games last season but missed 36 games over the previous 2 seasons and is not getting any younger. Havlat had 77 points 2 seasons ago but only 18 goals and 54 points last year. Health has always been an issue with him. Latendresse was one of the highlights of last season scoring 25 goals in 55 games for the Wild. But can he match and exceed that this season? History is not on his side and seems likely his stats will slide this year and pick up again next year when he is in his contract year.
The bottom six might be the area of biggest improvement for the WIld. Clutterbuck, Kobasew, Miettinen, and Sheppard will be joined by newcomers Madden, Nystrom, and Staubitz. Youngster Wellman will also be fighting for a spot. It will be interesting to see what these lines can do without having to carry Boogaard.
The defense is pretty much the same as last year which doesn't bode well for the Wild. The only changes will be having Barker for a full season and the youngster/yet to be signed player that replaces Hnidy. Burns was terrible at times last year. Barker and Zidlicky have to step up on the powerplay without hurting the team defensively. Schultz looked out of place last season and it will be interesting to see if the coaching staff continues to push him into the more offensive role or allows him to play the defensive role he's been successful with. There are still a lot of question marks on defense for a team that gave up a lot of goals last season.
Goaltending, which had always been a strength, took a step back last season. This was not unexpected with the new style. However the combination of the new style with the defense often hanging him out to dry led to a drop from a .923 sv% to .903. Backstrom is too competitive to have another bad season, but if the defense in front of him doesn't improve, there may not be much he can do. Harding, for now, returns as the backup. He had good and bad moments last season, but will be an UFA next summer. The extra motivation could push him to a better season.
Summary- Last season the Wild went in with a lot of questions: How will they adapt to the new style? Can Havlat replace Gaborik? Can PMB be the 2nd line C? Will Backstrom be as good with Lemaire's style? This season there seems to be just as many questions: How will Wild do in year 2 of the new style? Can Havlat bounce back from his bad year? Can PMB be the 1st line RW? Will PMB play at all? Can Backstrom bounce back from his bad season? Can Burns and the rest of the D bounce back? For the Wild to be competitive the answer to all those questions has to be on the positive side, and that just isn't likely. Some players may improve, but others will take a step back. Overall there are just too many questions to believe the Wild will finish anywhere but the bottom of the league. Really only another terrible season by Edmonton will keep them out of the cellar.