Wild lose again, time for a change?

Well, regression or not, it’s undeniable that the Wild are on a losing streak – big time.

I’ve been sick as a dog lately, so I taped last night’s tilt to watch this morning and, I’ll be honest – I fast forwarded through a good part of the game. It’s not that the Wild played bad, per se, but they didn’t play well, either.

At the end of the day, the Wild fell 2-0 to the Canucks and have now been shutout in three straight showings by Roberto Luongo. In fact, in their recent skid of 0-5-1 on the road, the Wild have scored just four goals.

I’ll let that sink in.

Four goals in their last six road games.

This is a team that needs offensive help – big time.

Now, per ye olde Wild scribe, Mike Russo, Chuck Fletcher is reportedly talking trade right now and rightfully so. This team needs a kick in the ass. They’ve gone from one of the top teams in the league to barely holding on to a playoff spot and a large reason why has been their inability to score goals.

And, let’s be very clear with this. Where the Wild are struggling isn’t their secondary scoring. Of the four players on their team that are in double digits for goals, three of those four players are “secondary scorers.”

This isn’t a failing by the Wild’s role players. This is a failing with their top-tier scorers.

The fact that Devin Setoguchi has played 12 games fewer than Dany Heatley, yet has just four fewer goals is absolutely inexcusable. The fact that he has just one less goal than Mikko Koivu, despite eight fewer games is ridiculous.

We can talk about the system and the goaltending and the upgraded offense until we’re blue in the face – the bottom line is that the offense hasn’t looked upgraded one bit this season.

So, if the Wild are going to make a trade, it can’t be for a “fringe” top-six player. I would even go so far as to say that it can’t be for anyone less than a top-three player. That’s how dire the Wild’s situation is at the moment. They need something to spark them.

There are no lack of those players available right now, either.

Anaheim has basically put a “For Sale” sign on their entire roster (though, Bob Murray has said that, for a core player like Getzlaf, Perry or Ryan a core player would be expected in return), Rick Nash has said that he would be willing to waive his no-trade clause if it were in the best interest of the Blue Jackets’ franchise to move him (which, it very well could be), Tampa Bay is in need of both a goaltender and defensive help (which, with the emergence of Matt Hackett, the Wild have both to spare).

These aren’t rumors, this isn’t any inside information – this is just to say that top-tier help could be available for the right price and, at this point in time, it’s looking like whatever the price the Wild need to pay for talent like that is the right price.

Chuck Fletcher Press Conference

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.

And So Starts the Off Season

This is going to be a pivotal off season for the Wild. Two seasons have now passed since Chuck Fletcher and Todd Richards took over as General Manager and Coach, respectively, and both of these seasons could be easily characterized by the extreme disappointment emanating from the Wild’s fan base (of which, Richards have already paid the price).

Part of this disappointment, I feel, is because of misplaced expectations and, ironically, mismanaged expectations.

That was the one thing that Doug Risebrough said he felt he didn’t do a good job of upon his exit from Minnesota – managing expectations. As in, he didn’t keep everyone’s expectations realistic (especially after the Wild’s miracle run to the Conference Finals in 2003) and, to some extent he was correct, but it wasn’t his only fault.

Right now, I think that’s the trap that Fletcher has found himself in.

He finds himself in a situation with a rabid fan base. We love our hockey and we desperately want the Wild to succeed because we know the pain that comes from having an underachieving franchise (see: Green, Norm). The greater part of the fan base viewed Fletcher as their knight in shining armor. He came in and he proclaimed that his goal was that this team was going to win the Stanley Cup.

But he failed to manage the fans’ expectations about this feat.

What needed to happen was that the team needed to get blown up, if not immediately, by the time their “mid-level” contracts were running out (i.e. the end of this season).

The killer for most mediocre teams are the amount of these $2M to $4M contracts. These are typically players that are second and third-liners or bottom four defensemen. Not bad players, by any means, but not the elite players that you would like to see playing in your top line. Unfortunately, that’s where the bulk of Minnesota’s talent laid.

And now it’s becoming clear that these players aren’t what the Wild need.

Over the next few articles, we’ll be taking a look at the Wild’s upcoming off season. In the first, we’re going to look at the needs of this team. The second in this series will be the players whose contracts are expiring and whether or not they meet these needs. The third will be looking at players that could find themselves on the move this off season, the fourth looking at potential free agent acquisitions and the fifth will be looking at the upcoming draft in St. Paul and what needs the team must fill through the draft.

Wild Down Oilers…Again

Well, so far the Wild have decided “No Koivu? No problem.”

Granted, offense is coming much, much harder and their power play looks a bit disconnected, but this team is determined.

Last night in St. Paul, the Wild came out and put on yet another terrific performance, this time downing the Edmonton Oilers 4-1 in what is becoming quite a heated rivalry between the two squads.

I’ll save you the bland rundown of what happened, but here are my thoughts on last night’s game:

  • Jared Spurgeon finally got rewarded for all of his hard work and terrific play, scoring his first career goal. Let me tell you, this kid is going to be a good defenseman in the NHL for a long, long time. I love his positional game, I love his defensive game, but the fact that he has that vision to make that first breakout pass in a way that the Wild have struggled with ever since they traded Kim Johnsson. After all of their searching for a puck-moving defenseman, after all of their attempts at trades and signings, they found one that was within their own organization. That, above everything else, bodes well for the Wild. I know, I know. It’s hard to believe, but they actually filled a pressing need from within their organization. Guess what? For all of you people whining that Chuck Fletcher hasn’t done enough to improve the organization, start drinking the Kool Aid because it’s working. It’s not going to be a quick fix. It might even be four or five years before they Wild have the type of organizational depth that they aspire to, but they’re heading in the right direction.
  • Pierre-Marc Bouchard was terrific last night. I know I sound like a broken record, but he looks more and more like his old self with each game. He’s gotten some sick chemistry with Martin Havlat that could prove interesting once Guillaume Latendresse returns to action. A line with three players with that sort of chemistry? That could be a scary good line for Minnesota.
  • There was enough good last night that I feel the need to point out one of the things that really is bothering me about this team. I’ve mentioned it before, but this game could honestly have been (and should have been) about 6-1 or 7-1 with all of Minnesota’s missed chances. The reason why this team is having such a hard time scoring, with all of the offensive chances that the get from game-to-game is simply because they don’t have that offensive juggernaut of a player that can pick up a loose puck and bury it. Yes, Latendresse is hurt and he is arguably their best goal scorer. But they’re going to need more than just him if they want to compete against the top teams in the West. The difference between Detroit and Edmonton was clear last night. You can afford to not convert on these scoring chances against a team like Edmonton and still get two points. But miss scoring chances like we did against Detroit and you wind up with a loss.
  • Martin Havlat was again very good for the Wild and, frankly, I’m starting to get a little sick of some of the criticism surrounding the dynamic winger. I was speaking with a friend of mine the other day and the guy made mention that he wished Havlat would do more to get engaged in the game. At first glance, sure. Every player can look a little listless from time to time. Everyone has their off games, so I made mention of that – that the game he was watching, Havlat just was having an off game. But that wasn’t what he was talking about. He went on to say how Havlat was a 100-point talent playing 70-point hockey. How Havlat doesn’t get involved in any of the physical stuff on the ice. He doesn’t go hard into corners after the puck, he doesn’t block shots etc.

First of all, is Havlat a 100-point talent playing 70-point hockey? Maybe. But you also have to consider the players around him. Havlat is a playmaker, plain and simple. He feeds off of the players on his line and, for a lot of this season, he’s been playing with Kyle Brodziak and Cal Clutterbuck – neither of whom are known for their offense. So yeah, maybe he’s having a mediocre season this year, but how much of that is due to who he’s been playing with?

Next, the fact that Havlat doesn’t play the physical brand of hockey that my friend (and many others from what I’ve gathered) would like. Okay. So you want our leading scorer taking chances on laying hits on people, taking himself out of opportunities where he can get the puck and putting himself in harm’s way in terms of injuries? That sure makes a lot of sense. The physical part isn’t part of Havlat’s game. That’s not to say that he shouldn’t be a little more physical from time to time. There are times when he looks soft, sure. But I’d rather have him look like that and be in position to get the puck when it comes loose than go barreling into players willy nilly.

Then there’s the final part, about how Havlat doesn’t do the “little things” like go hard into corners or block shots and so on. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but having your $6 million player whom you pay to create offense getting in the way of a 100 mph slap shot on a regular basis seems kind of stupid, don’t you think? There’s a reason Havlat isn’t on the team’s penalty kill on a regular basis. Going hard into the corners, blocking shots, that stuff isn’t his role. His role is to be in a position to get the puck once we come out of those hard areas with it, or once it ricochets off of a defender’s shin pad. If Havlat is going hard into the corner after a puck, or blocking a shot, there is a significant problem with either his linemates or the defensemen because that is not what he’s supposed to be doing on the ice. That’s not to say that he shouldn’t be pursuing the puck, or trying to prevent goals, but he’s more useful to the Wild being in position to collect the puck after these things than being right in the center of things doing them.

  • Finally, there’s Niklas Backstrom. I know I probably sound like a broken record, but if the Wild make the playoffs it’s on his shoulders and, right now, his shoulders are as wide as the rink is long. If Backstrom is not getting any sort of Vezina consideration for the season that he’s having right now, it’s an absolute crime. He’s been one of the best goalies in the league all season long. He has had his share of stinkers, but he has also lost seven games in which he’s given up two or less goals this season. Seven! He’s made less than 90 percent of his saves just nine times in 37 games and has had to stop 35-plus shots eight times. He’s on, folks, and when he’s on there aren’t many in the game that are better than him. He’s given up just three goals in his last three games and the Wild are going to need to ride him for the rest of this season.

That’s that for this one. I’ll be back on Thursday with the gameday preview (sorry I missed yesterday’s) and gamer and on Friday with the Wild Nation Trade Deadline primer.

Wild Beat Ducks; Maybe Lose Koivu for Season

What a win that was. A costly win, but a win nonetheless.

I’m only going to focus on the game briefly, because I’m going to have another blog coming up about where the Wild is at without Mikko Koivu now, so let’s get to it.

The Wild played a terrific game last night against the Ducks, rebounding from a slow start that saw Corey Perry get a beautiful tip-in goal and turning it on to score five unanswered goals to turn away the Ducks 5-1.

Let’s see here. I don’t want to just run down the action, so here are some quick thoughts:

  • As I mentioned, the Wild will be without Koivu, who injured his hand blocking a shot in the first. Russo said that it sounds like it’s a finger injury, one bad enough that could require surgery, so it’s basically wait-and-see time for the Wild’s captain. According to Fletcher, an update won’t come until Monday at the earliest, so we can expect Mikko to be out for Sunday’s day game against Detroit at the very least.
  • How good was Kyle Brodziak last night? Brodziak was essentially filling in as the Wild’s number one center with Koivu out and played a good chunk of ice time and responded in a big way. All three of his points were on absolutely beautiful plays and Brodziak was on all night long. My personal favorite was his assist on Martin Havlat’s goal in the third period that was just a gorgeously executed touch pass back to Havlat who had fed the puck to Brodziak. I really can’t say enough good stuff about his game. He really answered the bell after being called upon to help fill the void left by Koivu’s absence.
  • I’ve really been impressed with Cam Barker lately. The last couple weeks, he’s been really engaged in the game both physically and mentally. He’s been physical, he’s been smart and he’s making the right plays at the right time and not really taking stupid penalties. Last night was more of the same and he’s making Todd Richards’ decision very hard about who to sit with Zidlicky back in the line up (though I’m guessing Spurgeon will draw the short straw for the time being.)
  • Backstrom looked back on his game again after giving up three goals on not too many shots against the Canucks. I don’t know what it is, but Backstrom seems to just have those games every once in a while and if that’s the price we have to pay to have him be as dazzling as he was last night, I’ll gladly take it.
  • You may not have noticed, but Pierre-Marc Bouchard has been really good lately. He’s doing all of the things that the Wild have expected him to do. He’s creating plays, he’s controlling the puck and he’s even shooting more often. It’s going to be a long road back before he’s as good as he was before his concussion, but he’s at least on the right track.

That’s it for the gamer. Stay tuned on the options for the Wild as they (possibly) go forward without Koivu.

Gillies Call Up Is Good News

In the wake of a bout of illnesses that the Wild have been dealing with, Minnesota has called up Colton Gillies from the Houston Aeros as either insurance or, potentially, a replacement for an ailing player.

If you recall, last season Gillies failed to make the squad right out of camp and was assigned to the Aeros of the AHL. Gillies was disappointed about his re-assignment, but took it in stride and did everything he was asked, despite being told that there was no opportunity that he would be recalled and, indeed, despite all of the Wild’s injury troubles, Gillies was never once one of their call ups.

Gillies struggled with injuries last season and scored just 20 points in 72 games, but has a goal and an assist in two games this season and this call up seems to be as much of a reward to his dedication as to his strong play this season.

But this call up is more of a testament to the new developmental philosophy of the Minnesota Wild under Chuck Fletcher – one of the largest changes between this regime and the previous management.

Player development.

When Gillies and James Sheppard were brought in to the organization, they stuck with the squad for “developmental” purposes.

It was thought that the players would learn more from Head Coach Jacques Lemaire than they would from their junior coaches and they were too young to play in the AHL at that time.

But here’s the rub. When Sheppard and Gillies were called upon by the Wild, they weren’t getting the playing time they would have in juniors, or even in the AHL.

They were players used to playing top-line minutes that were now being asked to be checkers and, instead of playing 17-20 minutes per night were playing 7-10 minutes per night – believe me when I say that 10 minutes of ice time makes a big difference, especially when players are developing.

Players like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin – players that can enter the NHL and make an immediate impact and have the skill level necessary to play immediately on the top lines – are very rare. Even players like Steve Stamkos and John Tavares – players expected to be top, impact players in this league – experience some sort of learning curve.

If players like Crosby and Ovechkin are rare, players like Sheppard and Gillies are the norm.

These are players that need development to succeed, and that is one of the hardest calls to make for a general manager.

For every Crosby and Ovechkin, there is a Bobby Ryan or a Jonathan Toews that are elite talents, but might not be ready for the NHL the day that they’re drafted. The difference between the Ryan’s and the Toews’s and the Sheppard’s and the Gillies’s are not necessarily the ceiling of their talents (though, admittedly Ryan and Toews may have a higher ceiling than Sheppard and Gillies) but the fact that Ryan and Toews were not thrust into the NHL spotlight immediately.

Ryan and Toews were allowed to develop in situations where they were the man. They didn’t have to fight for ice time; they didn’t have to wonder whether or not they’d even be playing on a nightly basis.

Meanwhile, Sheppard and Gillies had to struggle for ice time. They didn’t get to develop their games in game situations – instead, they were forced to develop their games in practice, playing on lines with players like Derek Boogaard or Aaron Voros; players who are good at what they do, but not necessarily the players you want to use in order to help develop your young players.

The best example of this that the Wild has, right now, is Mikko Koivu.

Koivu was drafted in 2001 when he was 17 years old. He made his NHL debut when he was 22, after playing three seasons with TPS Turku and one more with the Houston Aeros. Even in his first couple seasons he wasn’t the elite center that he has turned into, but his time spent being the go-to guy in other leagues helped mold him into the player that he is today.

Sheppard has never had that opportunity and, until last season, neither did Colton Gillies.

Gillies is 21 years old now and may not yet be the impact player that many hope he will become, but if you consider that Koivu wasn’t an NHL regular until he was 22, it’s certain that he’s not done developing yet.

But right now, he’s certainly closer to being a productive NHLer than he was at this time last season.

Wild Crush My Optimism; Drop a Pair in Helsinki

With the Helsinki games done, the Wild head back to St. Paul with a measly one point out of four available.

The Wild have looked very good, in spurts, but overall showed that they have a long, long way to go to join the ranks of the league’s elite.

I will say that today’s game had the Wild looking much, much better but still was not a consistent effort for a team that desperately needed one.

The Wild came out very, very flat in yesterday’s game and had many mental and defensive lapses. They showed many of the same weaknesses that they showed last season – leaving pucks free in front of the net, leaving the slot open and making poor outlet passes and difficulties exiting their own zone.

Today’s game was much better, in that fashion. The Wild didn’t necessarily have the mental lapses that they were prone to and their defensive zone coverage was much better. When a puck was free in front of the net, it was quickly shuffled to the perimeter – either down to the corner or to the sideboards. When a man was in the slot, he was quickly shadowed and tied up when the puck came to him. To that end, the Wild have got to be very happy with their performance today.

But a general lack of intensity was plainly clear after the first period and the Wild looked listless for long stretches during the game after coming out and dominating early. Whether it was the length of the trip wearing on them or whether it was a lack of motivation, I don’t know, but the Wild clearly have to find that intensity if they want to be successful.

Again, however, I hate to beat a dead horse but this all goes back to the coach.

The Wild came out like gangbusters early in today’s game. They had intensity and they were playing aggressive, angry hockey. They looked ready, plain and simple. But they couldn’t sustain that intensity. Just like the pre-season and last season – they had it, then they went into the locker room and left it in there.

Plain and simple, either these players aren’t buying into what Richards is preaching, or he’s not getting through to them – either way, something is lacking behind the bench.

It’s like what my fellow Hockey Primetime Colleague, Justin Bourne, said in his Puck Daddy Column today:

The first games on the schedule are more important, because positive momentum is paramount in a hockey dressing room. Once that snowball gets rolling in either direction, it’s tough to turn around.

It’s how a team like the Phoenix Coyotes can come from nowhere last year to become one of the more formidable opponents in the West.

They got a few early wins, started to believe in Coach Dave Tippett, and bought into the systems. If they start 0-3, the little behind-the-scenes pot-shots start (along with creeping doubt), and maybe the train never gets on the tracks. Instead, they had a fantastic start to 2009-10 — a 6-3 win in Los Angeles — and that makes a guy eager to get back to the rink and do it again. Winning is addictive.

Plain and simple, it happened last season and it’s happening again this season and you’ve got to wonder how much longer Fletcher will continue to let it happen before he makes a change.

But enough about that, for now. The Wild looked good on the ice today, lack of intensity aside. They showed good presence in the defensive zone, keeping players out of the slot and clearing pucks away from the front of the net and Backstrom rewarded them with a spectacular performance. Even in the post-game skills competition, Backstrom looked sharp, only getting beat on what was a spectacular move by Jeff Skinner.

Offensively, the Wild looked good in spurts and, were it not for a spectacular performance by Cam Ward, they could have easily skated away with four or five when it was all said and done.

So there are a lot of positives that can be taken from this game but, in the end, the Wild are 0-1-1 heading back to St. Paul and that is definitely not what they wanted.

Some random thoughts about tonight’s game:

  • I love me some Cal Clutterbuck, but honestly I can’t understand Richards’ insistence that he play on the second line with Havlat and Cullen. For the second straight game, Clutterbuck looked out of place (in my opinion) on the second line while Latendresse looked like he was being wasted on the fourth line. Indeed, Latendresse created more chances than all but a handful of the Wild’s roster while only playing 12 minutes, while Clutterbuck was largely ineffective. Both Latendresse and Wellman played great in limited ice time and it is baffling to me how they were not used more in a game that desperately needed the Wild to generate some sort of offense.
  • How great was Backstrom tonight? Other than his little brain fart on Jeff Skinner’s breakaway, Backstrom was the Wild’s best player all night long. He made 36 saves and he was the reason why the game even got to a shootout. Even in the shootout, he was solid and the lone goal that beat him was just a dandy.
  • Two games down and two losses. I know a lot of people are saying that Richards has more job security than Denis Savard did a couple seasons ago, but at this point I can’t imagine that he’s got that much more – especially not with Michel Therien now on the team’s payroll. I know, I get it. Therien was brought in as a scout and I truly believe that he was. But what his presence does is give the Wild options. If they decide it’s time to make a move, they have a former NHL coach that they can just insert right in. That’s heartening for Wild fans and could be a little disheartening for Richards.
  • It was nice to see Burns and Schultz have a solid game. These two should easily be the Wild’s top defensive pairing. Schultz is one of the most under-rated shutdown defensemen in the league, while Burns is looking like he’s figured out that he doesn’t have to do it all in order to be effective. Burns had a stellar game today, creating chance after chance and other than a couple penalties (one of which was a terrible call, in my opinion) Schultz did as well.
  • On the topic of defensemen, Cam Barker was better today, but not great. He’s got to, got to, got to, got to move his feet better. Too often he gets caught flat footed, and that’s where he gets caught taking bad penalties. You can tell he’s got all the tools to be a really good defenseman in the NHL – he just needs to start using them.

Breaking News: Wild Sign G Theodore

In a not quite so unexpected move, the Minnesota Wild have found themselves their second goaltender, and one that should prove to make a formidable tandem in net in the absence of Josh Harding, who tore his ACL and MCL in a pre-season game against the St. Louis Blues.

The Wild, after a lackluster pre-season, have made the decision to fill the void left by Harding’s injury and sign free agent goaltender Jose Theodore to a one-year, $1.1 million contract.

Theodore, who won 30 games in 47 appearances last season, is a former Hart and Vezina Trophy winner and provides the Wild some more stability in net.

While there are certainly some question marks surrounding Theodore’s ability to perform at an elite level in the NHL, there is no doubt that he will provide a solid back up to Niklas Backstrom this season.

“Jose’s a veteran who’s won 245 games in the NHL,” General Manager Chuck Fletcher said while in Helsinki. “We’re fortunate he was still available. He makes us a deeper team and we have a terrific one-two punch again.”

I’ll be honest, I like this signing.

While I have the utmost faith in Niklas Backstrom returning to form this season, Theodore gives the Wild a veteran option behind him should he falter, as well as some healthy competition behind the veteran goalie. His cap hit of $1.1 million is basically the same as Harding’s, which they are now allowed to spend above the cap with Harding on the Long Term Injured Reserve.

Theodore posted a 2.81 goals against average and a .911 save percentage last season with the Washington Capitals and will start the season in the AHL to get back into shape and face some shots before swapping places with Anton Khudobin on the Wild’s roster.

Wild Scratch Koivu’s 7-Year Itch; Sign Center to Blockbuster Extension

The last remaining drama of the Minnesota Wild’s off season is over.

The Wild have signed their franchise player, captain Mikko Koivu to a seven-year contract worth $6.75 million per season, plus a bunch of signing bonuses that add up to be about the GNP of a third-world country and a full no-trade clause.

I’ll be completely honest with my assessment here—I love this deal with the exception of the term.

As many of you know, I’m not a huge long-term contract type of guy. I would have preferred to see the Wild sign Koivu for four or five years as opposed to the seven that he got.

That being said, you won’t hear me complain one bit.

Here’s the deal. The Wild were going to have to pay to keep Koivu around.

Yes, he wanted to be here. Yes, he was convinced that the Wild are headed in the right direction. But the Wild still were going to have to pay.

But the thing is that this deal isn’t actually as outlandish as many are portraying it as.

Yes, Koivu has a larger cap hit than Pavel Datsyuk, Nicklas Backstrom, Jonathan Toews and Henrik Sedin. Yes, his stats may not necessarily define him as a “superstar” type player but, then again, neither have Toews’.

In fact, Koivu has put up better numbers than Toews over the last few seasons with less talent surrounding him—something that likely was at the forefront of these discussions when comparables were involved.

What Koivu brings to the squad, however, is so much more than just numbers-based value.

The fact of the matter is that the Wild would be lost without their captain. Koivu is the cornerstone of their team at even strength, on the penalty kill and on the powerplay.

The Wild’s offense not only runs through Koivu, but their forecheck and backcheck does as well.

As Fletcher said on his conference call, “To define Mikko by his statistics is to miss the point of what he’s all about.”

That is one-hundred percent true.

Of course, there are certain expectations that the Wild and their fans will likely have from Koivu that have to do with numbers.

He’s been the team’s best player over the last two years and has made huge steps in his development each year—something that will be expected to continue.

But, it’s not all sunshine and roses for the Wild after this signing.

The team is now faced with the stark reality that, with Koivu’s new contract in tow, Minnesota has just under $9 million in cap space heading into the 2011-12 season and just 17 players under contract.

Looking at their expiring contracts for next season, there are likely only two players that they’re going to want to look at retaining, both of whom are restricted free agents, but either way Chuck Fletcher will have to work some of his magic to improve the Wild—something that he’s quite familiar with from last season.

When it comes down to it, the Wild did what needed to be done to keep Koivu.

His camp wanted seven years, they gave him seven years. His camp wanted $7 million per year, they gave him $6.75 million per year. What’s more is that they got this contract done before the season started, not allowing the distraction of contract talks to loom over what will likely already be a difficult season for the team.

Keeping that in mind, it’s easy to see why the negotiations between the two sides were as amicable as they were all the way through.

Just like his brother, Mikko Koivu is a captain through and through and, apart from being one heck of a hockey player, is one-hundred percent pure class.

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