The Wild have a coach. What’s next?

So, Mike Yeo is the head coach of the Minnesota Wild. That begs the question – what now?

Over the next two weeks, we have two events that will begin to mold this franchise into what Yeo and Chuck Fletcher want it to be. First, there’s the draft, where Fletcher will continue to stock the Wild’s war chest, so to speak. After two drafts that would likely be considered quite successful in doing so, Fletcher is going to have another chance to keep building the franchise the right way.

After the draft comes free agency – a period that is probably going to be difficult for Wild fans to swallow for reasons I’ll explain in a bit. But first…

The Draft

The Wild have the tenth pick in the NHL draft and, despite what some might think, there is some top-end talent to be had at that pick. Some are predicting that Drummondville center Sean Couturier will fall that fall, some are saying that it could be defensemen Ryan Murphy or Nathan Beaulieu. All would be great picks and, should Couturier be available, he is the natural pick.

But, I don’t think that Couturier is going to be available at the tenth pick, and the Wild don’t have a whole lot of need for another young defenseman at the moment.

What they do have need for, however, are some skilled forwards.

Players like Mika Zibanejad and Sven Bartschi are two players that most certainly fit the bill and are likely to be available around the tenth pick. There are also players like Mark McNeill, Ty Rattie and Tomas Jurco that could be had later in the round too.

The Wild have a lot of options for skilled forwards in this draft and I certainly think that they can find someone to fill their needs.

Free Agency

Now, free agency is going to be a difficult time of the off season for Wild fans.

Why, you ask?

Well, quite frankly, because the Wild shouldn’t do a thing.

Sure, they could go after some of the big fish, maybe get lucky and grab someone like an Alex Tanguay, but where would they be? Would they be any better off?

I submit that they wouldn’t.

The Wild need to stop spending millions on players that are nothing more than third or fourth liners. They need to save that money for their own players and for players that will actually make a difference in the line up.

This isn’t to say that Matt Cullen isn’t a great player, or that he isn’t an important part of the Wild’s line up. He most certainly is. But a $3.5 million player, he is not.

That is the type of contract that the Wild must avoid to avoid making third-liners the sixth highest player on their squad.

If Minnesota can find players of good value, that’s one thing. But, if not, they need to just stand pat and let their young players get some playing time. They need to develop, they need to get younger and they need to (here comes the dreaded word) rebuild.

They’re not starting from the ground up. They have a good foundation that players like Mikko Koivu, Nick Schultz and Pierre-Marc Bouchard are a part of. They’ve supplemented these players with players like Martin Havlat and Greg Zanon.

But now, the fans need to be understanding. Understanding that it might take a few seasons to get to the point where the Wild are perennial contenders. Understanding that there will undoubtedly be growing pains. Understanding that it might not be fun, but also understanding that there is a plan in place to undo the damage that Doug Risebrough did to this organization.

Wild Nation’s No Longer Ridiculously Early Season Previews: The Northwest Division

It wasn’t long ago that the Northwest Division was one of the toughest divisions in the NHL.

The 2002-03 season saw four of its five teams qualify for the playoffs and, up until the 2008-09 season, the division qualified at least three of its teams for the playoffs every season.

The last two seasons, however, have seen an interesting disparity in the division begin to arise and it’s now become a matter of the haves versus the have-nots. Last season saw two teams pick in the top-10 and would have seen one more in the top-15 had Calgary not sold its soul to Phoenix for Olli Jokinen.

The season before saw both Minnesota and Edmonton starting out in the top-15 as well; needless to say, the division’s competitiveness is waning at the moment.

So how will they match up this season?

Calgary Flames – Flames General Manager Daryl Sutter is either going to be lauded as a genius or be burnt in effigy following this season.

Sutter has been largely ineffective at running the team in a salary cap world and has found himself forced up against the cap more often than not and has seen his team go from one that was one win away from winning the Stanley Cup to one that is struggling to keep their heads above water and is no longer a shoe-in to make the playoffs.

Sutter responded to missing the playoffs by bringing in two players that were largely ineffective in their previous stints in Calgary. First, there’s Olli Jokinen, who quickly feel out of favor after a solid stint with the team after being traded there but didn’t seem suited for the new system that Brent Sutter brought with him to the team. Then there’s Alex Tanguay who returns to the team after two seasons away. Tanguay was, again, effective in his first season with the Flames as a point-per-game player under Jim Playfair, but when Mike Keenan came in Tanguay just couldn’t find his stride.

IF these two players can find their form with the Flames and Jarome Iginla can prove that last season’s 69 point performance was an aberration, this could be an effective team. But these two players have been in decline over the past few seasons leaving many to question whether or not their best days are behind them.

On defense, the Flames are anchored by Jay Bouwmeester and Robyn Regher. Bouwmeester, last season, seemed to not be able to cope with the added pressure of being in a hockey-crazed town such as Calgary but will have a big opportunity to rebound with his first full season as Calgary’s top defenseman with Dion Phaneuf now in Toronto.

Regher, meanwhile, will provide the same thing that he always has – a hard-nosed, gritty defenseman. He’s not going to put up the gaudy numbers of Mike Green, but he’s the type of heart and soul guy that can really help a team out.

Past Bouwmeester and Regher, the Flames can turn to Mark Giordano and Ian White, both of whom had terrific seasons with the Flames last season and are looking to build on their solid seasons. Giordano put up career highs in nearly every statistical category and proved that he was capable of being the defenseman that the Flames thought he could be when they signed him in 2004. White, meanwhile, was probably the best cog that the Flames received in their trade for Phaneuf. White put up 12 points in 27 games en route to a career season split between the Leafs and the Flames. If he can continue that performance in 2010, there’s no doubt the Flames could have a formidable blueline.

In net, the Flames will again rest their hopes squarely on the shoulders of Miikka Kiprusoff.

Since coming over from San Jose, Kipper has been a mainstay in net for the Flames and seemed to return to form last season after two subpar years. While Kipper may have led the league in losses last season, it certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying as his goals against average and save percentage were the best they’d been since the ’06-’07 season.

What the Flames have to manage, though, is whether or not Kipper is able to handle the amount of games that he’ll be getting in net. Behind him will be Henrik Karlsson, who the team signed in the off season. Karlsson played marvelously for Farjestad last season and the hope is that he’ll provide a better back up option than Vesa Toskala.

The pieces are all ready for the Flames this season and the hope is that they will all fall into place. If they do, they could be contending for the Division crown once again. But, if they don’t as many fear that they won’t, they’ll be a bubble team for the playoffs once again.

Colorado Avalanche – There are a lot of questions surrounding the Colorado Avalanche this season.

First and foremost is whether or not last season’s run to the playoffs was a fluke or whether this team is the real deal.

The team returns every single one of their key players from their playoff run last year and, with $18 million in cap space, has a lot of wiggle room to improve their roster throughout the season.

The forward crew will again be quite young and inexperienced, though not as inexperienced as last season. The big question marks will be whether or not their key forwards can replicate their impressive seasons that they had last year.

Chris Stewart is freshly signed and looking to build on his breakout season, which is the first extremely impressive season of his pro career. The fact that 17 of his 28 goals came in the second half of the season, however, is very promising and he’s certainly going to get his share of ice time.

In addition to Stewart, both Paul Stastny and Matt Duchene should continue to improve, though Stastny will be looked upon to set up some of the team’s goal scorers more than he’ll be expected to score himself. Look for Duchene, however, to take his next step towards being one of the league’s top superstars heading into his sophomore season. He likely won’t be as explosive as Steve Stamkos was in his second year, but Duchene will certainly get the job done for the Avs.

Peter Mueller is likely not as productive as his 20 points in 15 games last season suggests, but it does show that he is as explosive as they come. If he can carry a hot streak through a good part of the season, he could have a productive season for the Avs and give them another scoring threat.

On defense, the team has two kinds of defensemen — either ones who are extremely mobile or ones who are barely able to take the ice without the use of a walker.

All kidding aside, the Avs have a couple defensemen that are certainly either starting or in the waning of their career in Scott Hannan and Adam Foote. The good news, though, is that these two are both character players and both able to impart good leadership and good knowledge on the younger players of the team.

Past them, they have John-Michael Liles, who is good for 30-plus points and also good for a headache for any fan of the team watching. Players like Kyle Quincey and Kyle Cumiskey are still growing and are looking like they could turn into top flight defensemen for the organization.

In net, it’s pretty safe to say that Craig Anderson has answered all questions about his ability to perform. Last season was really his coming out party, as he finally had success in a full time starter’s role. That success will likely continue on into this season as the team has had barely any turnover from last season.

If Anderson can stay healthy and their young players can continue their progression and don’t have any major steps backwards, it’s safe to say that the Avs could once again be in the thick of things in the playoff race.

Edmonton Oilers – Well, there’s good news on the horizon for Edmonton fans.

The Oilers can only get better, because they certainly can’t get much worse.

To say that last season was a disaster for Edmonton would be an understatement, to say the least. The franchise had their lowest point total since the 1992-93 season and their lowest point percentage total since the 1980-81 season.

Suffice it to say, it was a bad year.

I’m sorry to say that this season probably won’t be much better, but I can say that it will be better.

Young guns Taylor Hall, Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson and Jordan Eberle will be on the roster this season and will get plenty of time to show what they can do. Will any of the there be rookie sensations the like of Crosby or Ovechkin? Probably not. But they will be upgrades over what the Oilers had last season and that is something that fans should take heart in.

In addition to their big three, the Oilers will also get a full season from Ales Hemsky, which likely would have helped them tremendously last season. Hemsky, Sam Gagner and Gilbert Brule all missed time due to injuries last season which likely would have made a serious impact on the team. With Hemsky fully healthy and playing on Gagner’s wing, and likely across from Dustin Penner, the forward unit will be a much improved unit over last season’s.

On defense the team is still looking to move the albatross contract of Sheldon Souray, but the good news is that they have a serviceable defensive unit behind him.

Ryan Whitney and newcomer (and underrated free agency signing) Kurtis Foster will find themselves manning the point on the powerplay and players like Jim Vandermeer and Tom Gilbert add a bit of character to the blueline. Ladislav Smid and Jason Strudwick also provide a bit of oomph on the back end, but the unit will have to get better at limiting opponents scoring chances, on a whole, if the team is going to climb from the cellar.

One of the biggest questions will be in net.

Namely, will Nikolai Khabibulin be healthy enough (or free enough) to reclaim his duty as starting goaltender and give the team some stability in net.

If he is it gives the team somewhat of a luxury that they haven’t had in recent years – the ability to relax and know that their goaltender will be there and, at times, be able to bail them out.

If he’s not, however, the team is back to the uncertainty of a goalie tandem of Jeff Deslauriers and Devan Dubnyk – something that I don’t imagine any fan is looking forward to.

As I said previously, this season isn’t going to be great for the Oilers. They still have a way to go to get back to the level of an elite team. But it will be a great improvement over last season – and that’s a start.

Minnesota Wild – How much longer will the State of Hockey tolerate a sub-par team on the ice?

Well, if things don’t go well this season, owner Craig Leipold may very well find out.

Last season was an unbelievable disappointment for Wild fans and the fact that the team had a point percentage of above .500% for the eighth straight season was little consolation.

But, the good news is that the old regime’s players are beginning to cycle through and be replaced by players that are more conducive to the new style of play that the team is aspiring towards.

Added to the roster are Matt Cullen, Eric Nystrom and John Madden – three players that are both talented and gritty. Cullen will be expected to fill in the ever elusive second-line center role that the team has been searching for now for years and will likely be slotted in between Guillaume Latendresse and Martin Havlat.

Now the team’s lack of success isn’t to say that they don’t have talent up front, but there are far too many question marks to be able to concretely say that they are going to be a top team.

If Latendresse can continue to perform like he did last season (25 goals in 55 games for Minnesota) and if Havlat can find the form that caused Minnesota to sign him to a lucrative free agency contract, it’s certainly going to be a welcome addition.

On top of these two, the biggest question mark up front lies on the performance of Pierre-Marc Bouchard. When healthy, Bouchard can be one of the game’s elite playmakers, but he has struggled with injuries for the last season and a quarter and his production has not been up to par because of that. Last season, he missed the entire year with a concussion, but he has been scrimmaging at pro camps leading up to training camp and he will likely play at some point this season, though it is not known when.

If he can come back and play his game, he will certainly be a difference maker on the ice.

On defense, again, the team is faced with injury questions.

Brent Burns had a breakout season three seasons ago, but the last two years he has been mired with injury and inconsistency. If he can return to the player that he is capable of being, he will be a dangerous force on Minnesota’s blueline. If he doesn’t, though, he becomes little more than a defensive liability and a player that the team is reluctant to turn to when the going gets tough.

The Wild will also be hoping that defenseman Cam Barker can find his game again after a subpar performance last season. Barker is certainly better than his 21 point season indicated, but he will have to find that offensive mind frame and physical edge if he is to make an impact.

Also up in the air is the Wild’s sixth defensive spot.

Currently, it is thought that the spot will go to a younger defenseman – Clayton Stoner, Nate Prosser and Marco Scandella are all names that have been mentioned. The biggest concern, however, is that these three only have a handful of NHL games between them and, though they have performed well at times, none have the body of work that would lead one to think that they could handle a full season.

In net, the Wild are again looking at the familiar duo of Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding, but that is not to say that there are not questions there.

Harding started slow last season, but gained his legs late and helped steady the boat when Backstrom was underperforming. Backstrom, on the other hand, struggled much of last season and a lot of that is being attributed to the fact that the team’s system is no longer as goalie friendly as it once was.

I, for one, don’t believe that Backstrom is nearly as bad as he looked last season and, with a little help I believe he could be right back where he was in seasons past. He’s a good goaltender that was, unfortunately, not given much help last season and I would look for him to rebound with a better season this year.

Overall, I don’t see the Wild contending for a playoff spot this season. While they have talent, not all of the players are in place for them to make a playoff push. That being said, they do have talent and if everything falls into place I could easily be proved wrong.

Vancouver Canucks – It may be the pre season, but the hype machine is already in full swing for the ‘Nucks.

It started with Roberto Luongo stepping down as the team’s captain and, as training camps begin, the Canucks are again one of the front runners to make a move deep into the playoffs. But will they be able to shake the monkey off their backs and make it to the Stanley Cup Finals?

At forward, the mantra will likely be maintain.

The team returns most all of their key forwards from last season, but the biggest question will be whether or not their top three can keep it going. Henrik Sedin is one year removed from a remarkable career season, and his brother Daniel would have been right there with him were it not for injury. Ryan Kesler put up career numbers last season. Now, the question that needs to be answered is was that their ceiling or are they capable of repeating.

With the Sedins, I’d be tempted to say that they are very capable of repeating. The two have long been one of the most potent duos in the league and that isn’t likely to change. Will it be another 100-plus point season for one, or both of them? Probably not. But I don’t think that another very strong performance by the two is out of the question.

Kesler, however, may have hit his peak at 75 points – a respectable number, to be sure. The team is deep in scoring, but will need Mikael Samuelsson to continue his scoring ways, as he scored more than 20 goals for just the second time in his career. On top of that, they will look at Mason Raymond to take on an increased role and continue his development.

The addition of Manny Malhotra will help the team’s checking line and their penalty kill, but won’t be much more than that. But that’s also why he was brought in. He’s a reliable checker and a solid penalty killer, which will only help the Canucks this season.

On defense, the team addressed their significant lack of grit the last couple years by bringing in Keith Ballard and Dan Hamhuis. Along with Bieksa, Salo, Edler and Ehrhoff, the ‘Nucks top-six defensemen all make over $3 million and, with the team $3 million over the cap heading into the season, will likely need to move one of them.

But, that being said, Hamhuis and Ballard are a huge upgrade over their previous defensive unit and the team certainly is looking better on the blueline than they have in previous seasons. With that being a huge concern for the Canucks, their fans should no longer be worried. This is a defensive unit, regardless of whether or not a move is made, that can handle the physical play of clubs bigger and stronger than them and will help protect Roberto Luongo much better.

Speaking of Luongo, he’s once again in net for the Cancucks in potentially the most uninteresting portion of the team to talk about.

Luongo’s in net, Schnieder’s behind him. There’s no question about the performance of either of the two and there’s no uncertainty about anything that is going on here. The only thing that could derail them in net is injuries, but that isn’t typically a concern of Bobby Lou.

Overall, this is the easiest to call. The Canucks will be back in the playoffs, just like they will win the division again. There aren’t any questions about any of these things.

Predictions

Alright. Here we go. This is how I think the Northwest will shape up:

1) Vancouver Canucks
2) Calgary Flames
3) Colorado Avalanche
4) Minnesota Wild
5) Edmonton Oilers

To be honest, the only for sure playoff team in this division is the Canucks. Both the Flames and Avs are bubble teams, though I could see both making the playoffs if everything aligns.

Up Next: The Pacific Division

The Dreaded Season Preview

 So the pre season is nearing an end and teams are beginning to take shape and look like what they might actually look like in the regular season.  In some cases, it’s scary good.  In others, it’s scary bad.  Either way, it’s the time of the year when you can start hearing the sounds and seeing the sights.

Camp is just around the corner.

I was going to get ambitious and do a full 30-team preview of this season…But that will be covered by our father site, Hockey Primetime, so I’ll leave that to them.

Meanwhile, the Wild have been linked to both Alex Tanguay and Mike Comrie in the rumor mill.  The Tanguay rumors have since been substantiated, but the Comrie rumors are still just that — rumors.  With Tanguay, if the Wild are to sign him, they will likely have to unload some salary via a trade.  Despite the fact that Tanguay will likely be looking at a pay cut from last season’s salary, the Wild still would need to make some moves to fit him under the cap.

Comrie is an entirely different animal.  He’s been spotty, at best, throughout his NHL career, but when he’s on, he’s a terrific talent.  It’s just a matter of whether or not he’s on.  He can put up numbers when he’s on, but when he’s off he can be horrible.  That said, he could be a bargain that the Wild could use.

In any event, the Wild are mostly done with their off season and moving towards the pre-season.  With that in mind, here is our season preview, here at Wild Nation.

Key Additions: RW – Martin Havlat, C – Kyle Brodziak, D – Shane Hnidy, D – Greg Zanon

Key Losses: RW – Marian Gaborik, LW – Stephane Veilleux, D – Kurtis Foster, D – Marc-Andre Bergeron, D – Martin Skoula

Overview: This off season saw the Wild receive a complete make over.  The only thing that was missing was Ty Pennington standing outside of the Xcel Energy Center, shouting “Move that bus!”  Immediately after the season ended, the only head coach in team history, Jacques Lemaire, stepped down leaving an enormous void for the team to fill.  A short time later, owner Craig Leipold decided that it was time for the team to switch directions and let General Manager Doug Risebrough go as well.  The General Manager search was punctuated by the hiring of wunderkind GM-in-training Chuck Fletcher signing on the dotted line.  The Wild got their man, now it’s time for the team to put the rubber to the road and see what they can accomplish.

Richards looks to bring a new style of play to the team.

Richards looks to bring a new style of play to the team.

Coaching: One of Fletcher’s first moves was to bring in Todd Richards as coach for the team.  Richards was, honestly, the team’s first choice and an easy hire for Fletcher to make.  The difficult part will be once the season starts.  With coaching candidates such as Peter Laviolette and Guy Carbonneau that were passed up for Richards, he will be expected to pay dividends immediately.  Having promised an aggressive, up-tempo style of play, Richards will be expected to get the most out of players like Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Benoit Pouliot and James Sheppard, who struggled mightily in Jacques Lemaire’s system.  Truthfully, I have never thought that Lemaire’s system was the problem with these players — but that will be put to the test this season.  The biggest problem for Richards is going to be experience.  He is going into the season with the prospect of facing the lion’s share of their games against their division rivals, most who have coaches that have a good amount of experience winning at the NHL level.  As Dan Bylsma and Bruce Boudreau have both proven, that isn’t necessarily worth anything more than the paper it’s printed on.  At the same time, however, a new face coming into a new team could pose problems for Richards early.  Look for him to rely heavily on the experience of Mike Ramsay behind the bench early on in the season.  Grade: C+ 

The Wild will look to Havlat to replace departed Marian Gaborik.

The Wild will look to Havlat to replace departed Marian Gaborik.

Forwards: This season is going to see the Wild look drastically different up front.  Not necessarily because of the loss of Marian Gaborik (Wild fans were plenty used to not seeing him on the ice during his tenure with the team), but because of the changes that could come with a new coach.  The undersized Bouchard may no longer be relegated to the wing and may get a chance to play his natural position once again.  James Sheppard will likely get an increased role in the team, as will resident bowling ball, Cal Clutterbuck.  The team will roll into camp with seven players on the camp roster that can legitimately play center — something that is quite odd for a team that has struggled at depth at that position.  If a second-line center is not acquired before camp, look for Bouchard to fill that role.  Either way, though, the team is lacking a sixth legitimate top-six forward.  This isn’t to say that they don’t have players that have the talent to step up into that role, but the players that they have that are capable don’t have the best track record at doing so.  Where the team really excels is in their bottom-six forwards.  Clutterbuck, Kyle Brodziak, Eric Belanger and Antti Miettinen are all experienced checking forwards and can all be part of a line that is capable of shutting the other team down.  Factor in tough guy Derek Boogaard and prospects Pouliot, Sheppard and Colton Gillies and you have a bottom-six that could be pretty imposing to play against.  Overall, the team is certainly not top heavy at forward and will likely look to their role players to again play a significant part of their scoring.  The addition of a healthy Havlat will likely help the team significantly but, unless another top-six forward is acquired, the fans of Minnesota could again be looking at a low-scoring season.  Grade: B-

Brent Burns will be expected to rebound from a disappointing 2008 season.

Brent Burns will be expected to rebound from a disappointing 2008 season.

Defense: This could, yet again, be the team’s strong suit.  They have defensemen that are capable of stepping up and joining the rush in Brent Burns and Marek Zidlicky, but now have four defensemen that are more than capable in a stay-at-home role, including two that will be given increased offensive responsibilities as well.  Nick Schultz is one of the most under rated defensive defensemen in the game and, under Richards’ new system, I would look for him to flourish and have a tremendous year.  Schultz has the tools to be a fantastic two-way defenseman and now will get to use his offensive tools a little more, as Fletcher has asked him to take more of an offensive responsibility as well.  Kim Johnsson is a former 40-point scorer on the blueline that will likely be given all of the tools to return to that stature.  After concussion problems sidelined him with the Flyers, the Wild took a chance on him and got one of their more reliable defensemen over the past few years.  The biggest change in the blueline, however, is the sandpaper added through Greg Zanon, Shane Hnidy and John Scott.  These three will likely share minutes as the fifth and sixth defensemen for the team and add a great deal of grit to the line up.  All three love to hit and all three are solid, stay-at-home defensemen that can be paired with either Burns or Zidlicky to give the Wild a presence behind them when they pinch in.  As for Burns and Zidlicky, a new system gives them the opportunity to showcase their offensive abilities.  Burns had a rough season last year, switching back and forth between wing and defense and struggling with injuries and fans can expect him to rebound this season.  As for Zidlicky, you can expect more of the same.  Poor decisions punctuated by fantastic offensive moments.  Zidlicky will likely find himself paired with either Johnsson or Schultz most of the time and will be looked at to contribute heavily on the powerplay.  Overall, I feel that this is still one of the strengths of the team and the addition of the grit will easily make them better.  Despite playing in a new system, expect stalwart defensemen Johnsson, Burns and Schultz to continue to practice what they learned under the tutelage of Jacques Lemaire and don’t expect this unit to give up many chances.  Grade: A-

Backstrom will once again be the backbone of the team.

Backstrom will once again be the backbone of the team.

Goaltending: Let’s get one thing out of the way right now.  Niklas Backstrom is actually this good.  The system certainly helped him but, when he’s on, he’s one of the top five goalies in the league — easily.  Last season, Backstrom was one of the biggest reasons why the Wild were even in the playoff hunt and this season it will likely be the same story if they are to be there again.  He will likely face a few more quality chances per game, but I wouldn’t expect that to change the results much.  Behind him, barring a trade will be Josh Harding.  For Wild fans, that is great news.  Harding was slated to be the Wild’s heir apparent in net before the emergence of Backstrom, and he has evolved into quite the goaltender.  This is again a case of the Wild having a 1A and 1B goaltender, as Harding can easily slide in and the Wild won’t miss a beat.  If Harding is traded, the Wild picked up New York Islanders folk hero, Wade Dubielewicz as an insurance policy.  While Dubie is nowhere near the goaltender that Harding is, he is more than a sufficient back up and has proven that he is capable of winning games at the NHL level.  Overall, goaltending will again be the strongest part of the team and will again be the backbone of any playoff push that the Wild hopes to make this season.  Grade: A+

Line Combinations: This will likely be changed throughout the season, but here is what I would expect the Wild’s line combos to look like:

Forward
Andrew Brunette/Mikko Koivu/Martin Havlat
Owen Nolan/Pierre-Marc Bouchard/Cal Clutterbuck
Antti Miettinen/James Sheppard/Colton Gillies
Derek Boogaard/Eric Belanger/Kyle Brodziak

Extras: Craig Weller, Benoit Pouliot

Defense
Brent Burns/Nick Schultz
Marek Zidlicky/Kim Johnsson
Greg Zanon/Shane Hnidy

Extra: John Scott

Goaltending
Niklas Backstrom
Josh Harding

Nolan is a leader on and off the ice.

Nolan is a leader on and off the ice.

Captain: One of the biggest question marks this season is “who will the captain be?”  The odds on favorite, most likely, is Mikko Koivu.  He captained the team for most of last season and emerged as both a leader on the ice and in the locker room.

If I’m Richards, however, I look to one person and one person only.  The man they call Cowboy — Owen Nolan.

Nolan is one of the most respected and feared veterans in the league and commands respect wherever he goes.  Giving him the ‘C’ will give legitimacy to what is, once again, a young team searching for their identity and sends a message to all of the players in the locker room:

This is the standard expected of you.

The team was abysmal without Nolan on the ice last season and his dedication to the team shone through in the way he carried himself.  He is to this team what Wes Walz was when he was playing.  He is the type of player that will lead this team regardless of whether or not he has the ‘C.’

So why not make it official?  Slap the ‘C’ on number 11’s chest and watch it all unfold.

Expected Finish: Honestly, this is my expectation.  If the team is healthy (Havlat, Burns, Nolan etc.), this team is a playoff team.  They were a few points from the playoffs last season without their top scorer — there’s no reason to think that they can’t make it this season if they’re healthy.  To go one step farther…If this team is healthy, they can win the division.  Vancouver failed to improve this off season, while Calgary got better on the back end, but worse up front.  The two powers of this division are ripe for the picking and, the Wild are the best team for the job.  Realistically, I think this team can have a shot at the division crown once again — but things will have to go their way.  On this one, though, I’ll split the difference.  2nd in the Northwest, 6th in the West.

The Depth Chart and Other Randomness

Depth Chart
Earlier today, Mike Russo of the Star-Tribune posted what will be the Wild’s depth chart if it starts the season with the way the roster is now:

Goalie
Niklas Backstrom
Josh Harding
Barry Brust
Anton Khudobin

LD-RD
Kim Johnsson-Brent Burns
Nick Schultz-Marek Zidlicky
Greg Zanon-Shane Hnidy
John Scott-Jaime Sifers
Tyler Cuma-Justin Falk
Clayton Stoner-Jamie Fraser
Marco Scandella-Maxim Noreau

LW-C-RW
Andrew Brunette-Mikko Koivu-Martin Havlat
Owen Nolan-James Sheppard-Pierre-Marc Bouchard (RW until training camp)
Antti Miettinen-Eric Belanger-Cal Clutterbuck
Colton Gillies-Kyle Brodziak-Derek Boogaard
Petr Kalus-Benoit Pouliot-Craig Weller
Robbie Earl-Morten Madsen-Danny Irmen
Matt Kassian-Cody Almond-Carson McMillan

First of all, if you haven’t checked out Mike Russo’s blog and you’re a Wild fan, shame on you.  It’s one of the best resources for all things Wild out there.  Click here to go there.  Bookmark it, scour it daily and above all thank him for his amazing coverage of the Wild!

Anyway, off my soapbox for the moment.

Looking at this depth chart, the thing that immediately jumps out at me is not the center position.  A lot has been made of our depth (or lack thereof) down the middle.  In looking at the team, however, we’ve got five potential pivots on our roster, and that’s not including Colton Gillies, Owen Nolan or Benoit Pouliot.  Throw those two into the mix and we could have as many as eight players on the opening day that could be capable of anchoring a line in the middle.

The thing that really jumps out at me is our lack of depth at left wing.  After Nolan, Andrew Brunette and Antti Miettinen, the talent level really drops off.  This isn’t a knock on Gillies; however, we have a serious lack of skill and depth on the left side and, honestly, on the wing in general.

To no one’s surprise, I’m sure, is our talent on defense and in nets.  Our top-six defensemen could be the best top-six that the team has had.  The additions of Zanon and Hnidy give the team two reliable, physical anchors on the blueline and will force opposing teams to keep their heads up.  Meanwhile, expect Scott and Sifers to compete for the seventh spot in camp, most likely with Scott winning the battle.  That’s not to say, however, that our youth could not come in and surprise.  With Cuma, Falk, Stoner and Scandella in the wings, there is a good chance that Scott and Sifers may not be foregone conclusions at the 7 and 8 slot.  It will take a lot for any of these four to make the squad, however.  Of the four, Stoner probably has the best shot as this could be his make it or break it year, but make no mistake — the Wild’s top 7 are pretty much set.

Olvecky Signs in Nashville
Joel Ward, Ryan Jones and now Olvecky?  Those Tennessee boys sure do like Wild prospects.

In all honesty, I think that Olvecky has a fantastic chance to make the Nashville squad next season right out of camp.  Olvecky is a big body with a lot of untapped talent to boot, and he performed admirably for the Wild in a limited role with the team in the handful of games he played for us last season.

He really started to come into his own last season and seems like he could be the type of player that Barry Trotz will really love.  For $600K and a two-way contract, I’d take Olvecky any day of the week.  A good depth pick up by the Preds.

Qualifying Offers Signed
The Wild had a few players of their own signed as well.

Restricted free agents Benoit Pouliot, Clayton Stoner, Danny Irmen and Robbie Earl all signed their qualifying offers and it seems as if the lot of them (with the exception of Pouliot) could see another year playing in the minors.  Earl and Irmen both have too many players in front of them to have a shot at making the squad (that is, barring a spectacular camp from either) and Stoner will have to do some serious damage in camp to work his way up the depth chart.

Injuries do happen, though, and we could very easily see one of them get a cup of coffee in the NHL and do what Cal Clutterbuck did last season and not let go.

In addition, Russo reports that the Wild could be close to signing Duncan Milroy and Joe DiSalvatore to plug some holes in their minor league system.

Fletcher Working Trade Market
There are a lot of people who are getting scared by the Wild’s seeming lack of movement this off season.

Those fans are the Chicken Littles of the fanbase.

While there are some quality players out there, there really aren’t any players that would meet any immediate needs for us.  I mentioned Mats Sundin, Robert Lang and Mike Comrie previously, but Sundin likely doesn’t have much more tread on his tires, Lang is rumored (or already has) to jump ship to the KHL and Comrie, well, let’s just say I don’t want to sign a player for his girlfriend.  In addition to those players, there are players such as Alex Tanguay and Petr Sykora left over.  Undoubtedly, these players could make an impact on the Wild roster, but would they really fit?

In the case of Tanguay, he’s a tremendous talent, but he’s also been pigeonholed as a playmaker — of which, the Wild have many.  Sykora would be a cheap, effective sniper, but do the Wild want to sink the money it would take to get him on an aging player?

Bottom line is that the best route for the team to improve, at this point, is the route that Fletcher is taking — trades.

There are many top flight forwards that have been presumed available via trade.  Phil Kessel of the Boston Bruins, Dany Heatley of the Ottawa Senators, Jonathan Cheechoo of the San Jose Sharks, even Chicago’s Patrick Sharp, Dustin Byfuglien and Patrick Kane have always been rumored to be available.

To be honest, the names remaining in free agency don’t even hold a candle to a lot of these names.  I’d much rather have a Kessel, Heatley, Sharp or Kane over any of those available — regardless of the assets we have to give up for them.

The bottom line is that the Wild are far from done, in my opinion.  But Fletcher has said all along that he’s not afraid to go late into the summer with a less than full roster to give himself the flexibility that he needs to get the players it takes to make this a winning team.

So…

Fear not Chicken Little.  The sky is not falling.  With a little patience, we could have a playoff team yet.