The Wild pre-season is coming to an end. The problem: trimming the roster. Today we cover who goes where and most importantly, why. This post will cover the forwards, including the exciting additions of Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi and the anticipated returns of Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Guillaume Latendresse.
Right now, the Wild are sitting at 28 players on the roster. By the time the puck drops for the regular season, the Wild will need to trim down to 23. I can only imagine Chuck Fletcher and Mike Yeo are swallowing asprin on a regular basis when pondering this problem. While the Wild has plenty of roster locks, the team is young and has a good amount of bubble players. This is not your typical pre-season in which most players know their fate at the beginning of training camp. The locker room has to have that eerie silence among some, knowing that the next few days might mean the difference between an NHL paycheck and the fulfillment of a lifelong dream or a sympathy card and (for some) another season grinding it out in Houston.
So without further ado...
We'll start with the roster LOCKS:
Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi: There shouldn't really be any questions regarding Koivu's job security. Koivu's expectations will be heavier than ever as the team's captain, franchise player and center of gravity in the locker room. As everyone knows by now, he'll be surrounded by fresh, new scoring talent in the likes of Heatley and Setoguchi. The top line (which I'm now officially labelling the "FINADIAN LINE") will be expected to carry some serious weight in delivering something to Minnesota that has been all but a whisper of a wish on the tongues of Wild fans: OFFENSE. Koivu, one of the most underrated playmakers in the league will finally have capable linemates to dish the puck.
Heatley's name was somewhat reduced to superstar bubble status the last couple seasons due to injuries and mediocre (and by mediocre I mean a 64 point campaign). Heatley will be counted on to pot plenty of goals indeed, but people often seem to forget he's no slouch in setting up his linemates, with two 50+ assist seasons (both with the Ottawa Senators).
Setoguchi is also a capable sniper looking to turn his game up a notch. Setoguchi slumped a year later than most in his third season with the Sharks, but has one 30 goal season to go along with back to back 20 goal outings. Worst case scenario (other than awful chemistry): Heatley continues his mediocre play and Setoguchi goes belly-up and the three combine for 150 points. Best case scenario: Koivu posts a career, point-per-game season. Heatley rejuvenates his game and scores 50. Setoguchi continues his upward trend and nets 30. The trio combines for 225 points.
Matt Cullen / Kyle Brodziak, Guillaume Latendresse, Pierre-Marc Bouchard: If there's anything close to a wild card in the Wild's deck (no pun intended), the second line is it. Matt Cullen is coming off a slightly disappointing season, notching only 39 points and (probobly the biggest eyebrow riser) posting a forgettable -14. Cullen was brought on to be another all-situations go-to center to lighten Koivu's load a little. Cullen's expecations will be higher this season and he knows it, after losing his job to Kyle Brodziak last season.
Brodziak has been a pleasant surprise for the Wild, though his performance when looking at his stat line, prove he's met his expectations rather than exceeded them. Brodziak, however, is an interesting study. During his entire career leading to the NHL, Brodziak showed plenty of characteristics of an offensive, top six player. His well-rounded abilities, willingness to play a team game, size and faceoff skills landed him a secure job as a bottom-six player. Shake all this up and you have a third-line center with second-line upside. Given ice time, the right linemates and a boost in confidence, Brodziak very well could be a 40-50 point center, a performance most would consider "servicable" for most second liners. Given Cullen's age and fairly predictable statline due to numerous 40-ish point seasons, I give Brodziak the edge as a potential late bloomer.
Latendresse and Bouchard complete the other half the of what will be the Wild's mystery flavor. Their performance may very well determine if that flavor is good or bad. Both are working to overcome injury with Bouchard's costing him a season and a half and Latendresse lacing up for a mere 11 games due to groin injuries (Gaborik flashbacks). Both Latty and Butch have shown in previous campaigns they are very capable of creating plenty of offense. Latty has 25 strong arguments to his case, which he made in only 55 games two seasons ago. Bouchard, who suffered the long-term effects of a concussion, returned to his first stint of real regular season action, only to be shut down again. During his return it was obvious he had to re-adjust to the speed of the game. Bouchard will look to repeat his 63-point, 50-assist season from 07-08. Worst case scenario: The line falters. Latty fails to perform, Bouchard's concussion proves to be longer term than predicted, both centers fail to meet expectations. Line combines for 100 points. Best case scenario: Brodziak proves to be a late bloomer and has a career season. Bouchard plays less like last season and more along the lines of Ales Hemsky, dishing plenty of pucks to Latty who eclipses the 30 goal mark. The line combines for 180 points.
Darroll Powe and Cal Clutterbuck: Well first and foremost, this could be the Wild's opportunity to rejuvenate some serious PR like the old promos of the late Derek Boogaard (RIP) and Cal Clutterbuck. I'm taking this opportunity to name them "CLUTTER & POWE POWE," sort of in the "Pebbles and Bam Bam" light of humor. (They don't pay me to be funny, in fact I don't get paid at all...) I'm actually extremely excited to see these two go to work. Both are physical, hard hitting defensive forwards. Powe reminds me slightly of former Wild spark plug Stephane Veilleux, except Powe is just a better all-around hockey player who has a pretty secure job and future whereas Veilleux spends plenty of time thinking where his next contract is coming from.
Clutter and Powe Powe will be tapped on heavily to check the opposition's top players and remind them who they played, even if they took the win. Clutterbuck is a fun player to hypothesize. Clutter showed last season he is a capable goal scorer, notching 19 goals in just his third full season in the league. His offensive skills may have untapped potential, however his business he conducts in the neutral and defensive zone leave little room for negotiation. At this point you weigh your options... do you place him on the second line and hope for a 20 goal, 40 point campaign or keep him on the checking line where he can complete assignments of bruising the opposition while talking a little smack? The latter is definately a more secure place.
Powe has outstanding defensive instincts, and like Clutter, loves to play mean. His offensive skills leave a lot to be desired, but has almost no offensive expectations. So long as Powe keeps the opposition honest and the puck away from the net, he's probobly one of the better additions to the Wild this season. Worst case scenario: Clutter's 19 goal performance was a fluke and he ends up heavy on the minus side of +/-. Powe slumps and proves to be little more than a depth forward. Best case scenario: Clutter and Powe Powe dominate opposing forwards, draw some good penalties and drive everyone on the other bench absolutely nuts.
Eric Nystrom, Nick Johnson, Brad Staubitz and Colton Gillies: The last of the forwards to round out the bottom of the bunch. First off, returning from last season comes Eric Nystrom. Nystrom can be described in many ways, industrious, energetic and hard working. Unfortunately, skilled is not something that can be described when it comes to Nystrom. The word that probably best describes him and keeps him on an NHL payroll is "versatile." Nystrom is capable of lining up on either wing and center and tends to hold his own fairly well. He has the ability to pot a goal or two here and there and isn't a slouch on either end of the ice.
Brad Staubitz makes his return from last season as the team policeman. He'll serve a suspension to begin the season, so until his return, Matt Kassian is a fair candidate to take his roster position. Staubitz is a capable tough guy, and while not quite the intimidator and pugilist Derek Boogaard (rest his soul) was to the Wild, you also have to consider the fact the guy rang up 4 goals last season in 71 contests, one more than Boogaard had in his career. In the end, as an enforcer, Staubitzis quite average but his popularity with his teammates and the addition of new star players on the roster gets him an NHL paycheck.
Nick Johnson is the newest addition to the Wild, and I predict he'll be a welcome one to the big squad. Johnson will never be a first line, point-per-game scoring forward but you cannot deny he still has top six potential as a possible late bloomer. He suited up for four games with the Penguins last season and managed to notch three points. Hardly a good empirical cross section, but you can however, see that he was effective in the AHL, notching 20 goals in 48 games. Johnson to me, is a no-brainer to keep as a fourth liner and an on-deck top-six fill in for injuries. Of all the bottom six forwards, Johnson easily has the best makeup to give a scoring assignment.
Colton Gillies makes the final roster spot for the forwards. It's do or die time for Gillies, who was a first round selection back in 2007. His junior career was nothing spectacular but to call it a disappointment would be a little too harsh. Gillies was drafted as a project player, which is something the Wild seem to have a thing for from time to time (Brent Burns and Brett Bulmer being prime examples). Gillies has the physical makeup and fundamentals to suggest he could be a very serviceable power forward, but has yet to put it all together. Gillies makes this roster purely due to the fact that not only is he the only LW left to keep, he seemed to be putting the puzzle pieces together under Mike Yeo last season with the Aeros. The Wild may benefit giving him one more shot in the pros with his former coach who seemed to be bringing him closer to success. All in all, Gillies makes the roster not because he's the better choice, but it's the better choice for a project player who has time invested and a 1st round selection used.
Ladies and gentlemen... your 2011-2012 Houston Aeros:
Cody Almond and Casey Wellman: If anybody is going to take this hard, it's going to be Almond, who has fought tooth and nail for ice time in minor leagues and bled for respect from Wild fans. In contrast to Gillies, Almond staying in the big club probably would have been the better overall choice for the '11-'12 Wild, but not in Almond's best interest as a developing player. Almond will benefit from another year of seasoning in the AHL and the Wild will continue to develop him as a capable, energetic and physical checking forward. Almond putting together a career season in Houston would only be bullet point crediting his work ethic, making it that much more impossible to cut him next season. Good luck Cody!
Well... Wellman isn't anything close to being labelled a permanent AHL forward, but present indications weigh slightly in favor of that. Wellman is an offensive forward, with good skills and you can't deny he has NHL potential for the top six. However, it was made clear last season that Wellman isn't quite ready for the speed and grind which comes at the NHL level, and needs to prove he can drive his skills to the next level to use his offensive skills in the NHL. The good news is that he is only two seasons removed from a very respectable NCAA stint and he is far from the "write off" section of the Wild's depth chart. Wellman lacks the defensive skills and physical aptitude to be considered for checking duty, so he'll head back to Houston as the Aero's number one center with lot's of offensive expectations and plenty of hopes for his future.
...and for the Kelowna Rockets... (No, I did not forget)
Brett Bulmer: Bulmer has been a pleasant surprise for the Wild this training camp and pre-season. He's proved to be a hard worker, a team-first player and reminded the management why he was drafted 39th overall last year. Unfortunately, Bulmer does not have a permanent roster spot at the NHL level and is not old enough to assign to Houston. Bulmer's current placement on the Wild's pre-season roster is indeed credited to his work ethic, lazy players do not make it far in Wild training camp (Kris Foucault can tell you a story from a couple seasons ago to attest), but the grand scheme has him returning to Kelowna. Bulmer, a project player, is envisioned to be a good power forward in the Wild's future. He has the fundamentals and habits of an NHL power forward, but has yet to attain the overall skills and size. For a player like Bulmer, it takes careful planning. Bulmer will receive the full extent of training camp, the pre-season and possibly (though unlikely) a couple regular season games. The Wild will administer this to give him a taste, or an appetizer, if you will of the NHL and send him back with wild hopes and dreams (again, no pun intended) to motivate him to improve further. Bulmer has indeed impressed, but when reality kicks in, he needs to put on size and improve his skills to maximize his potential. Here's to the future Brett! Good luck!
Well there you have it. NEXT POST: Defensemen! More bubble players, disappointing meetings with the coach & GM and more long plane rides to Houston.