It's that time of year! Training camp is underway, everyone is optimistic and looking forward to a new season on the ice. So, what does that mean for the folks at Hockey Wilderness? Well, it's season preview time again! Last season is in the rear-view and this season is laid out in front of us like a wide-open highway. The real question is, which path will you choose?
So, follow us, will you, as we look back at the season that was, who came and went and what we are looking forward to as the Wild take the ice in 2010-2011.
Bryan: In a season that would sooner be forgotten by the Wild and fans alike, the team would gain a new reputation. Replacing the old stoic defense is a reputation of a sloppy team that is confused, coughs up the puck easily, is weak in nearly every situation, and cannot defend their way out of a wet paper bag.
Constant struggles with where the defensemen should be in the new Todd Richards system haunted the team as they gave up more odd man rushes against that any other squad in team history. While the occasional odd man rush is inevitable, but giving up a record number of short handed goals against is not. The power play, when clicking, was deadly, so long as they kept the puck off of the opposition's sticks.
Injuries to Brent Burns led to a reliance on call ups on the blue-line, but Wild fans were treated to the vastly underrated Greg Zanon blocking shots on a broken ankle and making everyone look silly in the process. Nick Schultz was pushed to become part of the offense, rather than allowing him to be the shutdown d-man that he is, struggling to remain in position for most of the season. Marek Zidlicky anchored the offense from the blue line, as was expected, but did struggle with the defensive side of the game. At the deadline, Fletcher brought in Cam Barker in a trade with Chicago, adding some spark to the defensive corps that should carry over and improve in the next season.
All of this led to a poor season for both Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding. Harding struggled with hip injuries all season, which have still yet to fully recover. Backstrom suffered from a handful of missed games, and we were introduced to Anton Khudobin, who played lights out for his two games before being sent back to Houston. Chuck Fletcher was, once again, unable to trade Josh Harding, leading to yet another one year deal for the perennial back-up.
The forwards also struggled to find chemistry, as the big free agent signing, Martin Havlat did not last long with Mikko Koivu and was moved to an anemic second line. Havlat finally found some chemistry with the influx of Guillaume Latendresse. Lats lit up the board for the final 55 games of the season, giving hope that there may finally be a finisher for Havlat to work with.
The top line of Brunette-Koivu-Miettinen played their usual solid hockey, but Miettinen once again struggled to find the net despite having on of the best set up men in the league pivoting his line. Without another option due to Bouchard missing the entire season with concussion symptoms, Miettinen was allowed to struggle through the season without much competition for the top RW spot.
All-in-all, it was a brutal season of less than stellar on-ice production, highlighted by a handful of impressive showings, such as the five goal come back against the Hawks in January. For a couple months, it even looked as though the Wild had figured it out, and could make a playoff push, but then the wheels fell off, and the Wild finished with the 9th worst record in the league.
Off Season Moves: Who's In, Who's Out
Nathan: While not a massive overhaul, and the Wild really didn't have a major departure, aside from not re-signing Owen Nolan (which still bothers me), the team did endeavor on the mission of addition by subtraction. With the insanity in New York as the Rangers gave $4700/minute of TOI to Derek Boogaard, and the Chicago Blackhawks started their Stanley Cup defense with the massive signing of John Scott, the Wild found themselves able to bring in competent fourth liners in Eric Nystrom and Brad Staubitz and attempted to close the revolving door of centermen with the signing of Matt Cullen to anchor the second line and John Madden to do the same for the third, and provide shutdown defense. The Cullen signing is a big deal, as he is expected to bring veteran leadership and stability to the second line, something the Wild have lacked as Pierre-Marc Bouchard fought injury and bouncing between center and wing, and James Sheppard was less than adequate.
Another positive step this off-season comes in the building of depth in Houston and the incoming kids. Casey Wellman, Cody Almond, Jarod Palmer, Joel Broda and Warren Peters will all fight for top line playing time in Houston, and may push to make the big club out of the gate.
1. Mikko Koivu - Koivu is the one constant throughout the time-line of this club. He plays a consistent, solid, two-way game that landed him a seven year contract extension this summer. The captain of the team, even when there was a rotating captaincy, Koivu continues to hold this franchise together, and continues to sell tickets. He is the all-around package a team needs to build around, and Chuck Fletcher knew that.
2. The Second Line - If Martin Havlat, Matt Cullen, and Guillaume Latendresse can find chemistry (which it appears they are), this line could be dangerous. Havlat and Latendresse have already shown they can put the puck in the net, and now with a bona fide center between them, this line will create havoc for the opposition, because if they choose to shut down this line, they leave Koivu out against weaker defenders. That only works in favor of the Wild.
3. Four Lines Deep - For the first time in franchise history, the Wild have four lines that can roll. Forwards like John Madden, Eric Nystrom, Brad Staubitz, Cal Clutterbuck, and Kyle Brodziak are going to have opposing teams frustrated and sore. Whether it be a big hit or taking the puck out of the corner, these forwards are not going to back down from anyone.
The new defensive guys also take most of the shut-down pressure off of Koivu, allowing him to focus on being the top line center rather than being the top line center, the PP leader, the PK leader, the shut down center.... If you've noticed a theme, it is on purpose. When Chuck Fletcher says he built the team around Koivu, he meant it. The second line removes some of the opposition shut down pressure from Koivu, and the fourth line now takes the defensive role off of Koivu. This should allow him to change his game and become a whole new kind of dangerous.
This team still lacks that 40-50 goal guy, unless Latendresse can play for an entire season at the pace he did upon arrival in Minnesota or Havlat is able to rebound from a less than impressive season and really provide some punch. Even last year, under a new "offensive" system, the Wild scored exactly as many goals as they did the previous year, yet provided far less defense and gave up a ridiculous amount of goals both in full-strength play and on the power play. Yes. The power play, which leads me to ...
2. Special Teams
We all know that the Wild have been known as a team against whom it was almost impossible to score with the man advantage. That vanished last year and was replaced by a system in which the team gave up more shorthanded goals than they scored on the power play (ok, not really, but it felt like it). 54 power play goals scored last season, which left them in the bottom of the NHL. If this doesn't improve and the team doesn't find a quarterback and pack it in with the man down, they could be hurting again. Much of the failings of the power play comes down to ...
3. Offense from defense
Sure, Marek Zidlicky had 37 assists last year, which was decent, but the Wild blueliners only scored 20 goals all season and provided 118 helpers. These numbers must absolutely increase if the Wild can solve their #1 issue. Sure, we all hear how important it is to have a puck-moving defenseman, but when you look at the roster and you see only Burns, Zidlicky and Barker as potential providers of offense, and even that is minimal at best, things look awfully scary back there.
The lines should shape up something like this:
Brunette - Koivu - Miettinen
Havlat - Cullen - Latendresse
Clutterbuck - Brodziak - Kobasew
Staubitz - Madden - Nystrom
Bouchard will take Miettinen's spot on the top line after being walked back into the system. This should push Miettinen to the third line, creating some competition between forwards for playing time on the third and fourth line. The question of who will be the extra forward has yet to be answered, with Casey Wellman, Cody Almond, Colton Gilles and others all battling for that spot. Of course, James Sheppard is injured, and could return to that role, but that seems doubtful.
This is where the fun starts. No one knows how the line-ups may shape up, but is could be interesting to say the least.
Zidlicky - Zanon
Burns - Barker
Schultz - Stoner
I go with these pairings not because I have special insight, but because Burns and Barker played well together at the end of last season, and create an interesting pairing of two semi-responsible d-men with a flare for the offense. Also, because if Barker is on the third pairing, his value drops significantly. Schultz and Stoner create a solid shut down pairing that would be good to see on the ice.
As for the seventh d-man, there is fierce competition for that role, but the top candidates may still end up in Houston to guarantee them playing time. Tyler Cuma, Nate Prosser, Maxim Noreau, and Justin Falk are the likely leaders, with an edge to Falk as he is more of a shut-down type with grit and size. Prosser is his biggest competition in reality, as the others likely return to top roles with the Aeros.
Nathan: I am not as sold on this team as many others. Sure, I'm excited to see some of the new guys step in, and I think another camp will only help Havlat and Latendresse, not to mention to help the team get a better feel for the new system, but even then, look around the division and conference. Teams are improving (aside from Calgary), and it can't be said that the Wild have maintained that level of improvement ... yet.
Can they make the playoffs? Sure, if they get 70+ points from Havlat and Latendresse, if Koivu steps up his production again and nears 85 points and if Niklas Backstrom finds himself again. Yet, even then, they'll be lucky to crack the seventh place.
What do I really think will happen? They'll get out slow, pick up speed after Thanksgiving and play catch-up, only to fall back to the 10th spot and miss the playoffs and miss the chance at a great draft choice. But ... I hope I'm wrong.
Bryan: My bold prediction is going to remain the same as with everyone who has asked. The Wild will make the playoffs, but by a razor thin margin. They will take second place in the division, edging out the Avs by two, may three points. This is the same margin they will make the playoffs by, and they will lose in the first round in six games.
The team is going to play much, much better hockey, and the injury bug is going to back off of them a bit. Latendresse will score 35 goals this season, and Koivu will score 30 for the first time in his career. Havlat finds his old form and puts up 70 to 75 points. John Madden scores three shorties this season.