The Minnesota Wild Trade Deadline Primer

The Olympics are just a few days from being over, and the Minnesota Wild have hit the ice once more, practicing together for the first time since the Olympic freeze on Wednesday. 

Looking at the standings, the Wild have a daunting task ahead of them.  With 21 games remaining, they sit five points out of the playoff race and, seeing Kim Johnsson shipped out to Chicago, are looking more and more like they will be sellers at the March 3 trade deadline. 

As Hockey Reference shows, the Wild’s chances of making the playoffs are slipping drastically. 

The bottom line remains that the Wild simply are not consistent enough to be in the playoff picture this season.  They cannot sustain any sort of solid effort on the ice in a single game, much less in a stretch of games. 

Keeping that in mind, here is a look at the players that the Wild could potentially move and what their going rate might be. 

Owen Nolan: After Johnsson, Nolan is probably the next “big ticket” item that the Wild have to offer. 

I know what you’re thinking.  14 goals, 28 points?  How is Nolan a big ticket item? 

I’ll tell you how. 

65 playoff games. 

He’s been there and done that, plain and simple.  At the trade deadline, playoff contenders are typically looking at two things.  Veteran leadership and either defensive help or scoring punch (depending on the team’s needs). 

Nolan brings both veteran leadership and the ability to score clutch and timely goals.  He has been a key part of the Wild’s locker room this season and a great number of Wild fans will be extremely sad to see him go; however, he is a player that the Wild could get some good assets for the future for. 

Estimated Cap Hit: $598K 

Expected Return: Prospects and/or picks 

Eric Belanger: Belanger is having one of the best seasons of his career.  He’s just two points off of his career high in points and assists and he’s been a huge asset defensively for the Wild. 

He also has something else that playoff teams tend to look for. 

He can win faceoffs. 

If there’s a big draw to be taken, Belanger will be in on it.  He’s been a large part of many of the Wild’s successful runs this season and has also started showing a bit of a gritty side to his game. 

As a penalty killer, he’s one of the better ones on the Wild’s squad and has started to exhibit that he has the hands to be a threat on the offensive side of things as well. 

In addition, Belanger has the added upside of still being relatively young (or, at least compared to Nolan).  If the fit is good enough, there’s the potential for the team to get a couple more solid years from him after the trade. 

Estimated Cap Hit: $390K 

Expected Return: Depth roster player and/or pick(s) 

James Sheppard: Wild fans will attest to the fact that Sheppard’s stock has fallen like a rock this season. 

Sheppard has gone from the asking price for Olli Jokinen to being less tradable than Benoit Pouliot (which, in Wild fans eyes, was saying quite a bit).  

If there’s one thing that Chuck Fletcher has proven, though, it’s that he’s more than willing to move a player that might need a change of scenery and Sheppard could use just that. 

I’m firm in my belief that he can be successful somewhere—I just don’t think that somewhere is in Minnesota. 

Sheppard was touted as the “next big thing” for the Wild, and he certainly hasn’t turned into that.  Fans have begun to tire of seeing him on the ice, to the point where many would rather see Derek Boogaard get Sheppard’s ice time. 

The bottom line is that Sheppard needs to play somewhere where the expectations facing him are tempered, and that place isn’t in Minnesota. 

Estimated Cap Hit: $312K 

Expected Return: Struggling young roster player 

Derek Boogaard: I’m putting Boogaard on this list because there is the chance that he could get moved, but I’ll say this right now. 

The chance is slim-to-none. 

Boogaard is one of the most feared enforcers in the game on a team that lacks a suitable replacement and is earning ice time this season. 

While it’s a possibility, it certainly isn’t probable. 

Estimated Cap Hit: $212K 

Expected Return: Late round draft pick 

Shane Hnidy: The Sherriff has been an excellent addition to the Wild’s blueline this season, but two facts remain. 

One, he’s been an excellent addition, meaning that he would be an excellent and cheap addition to a team needing defensive help and two, what he brings to the team can be done by either a) Clayton Stoner or b) Jaime Sifers. 

If any team is looking for an injury filler or depth on the blueline, Hnidy can certainly fill that need and fill it quite well. 

In addition, he has gotten more playing time this season on the offensive side of things (more notably, on the powerplay) and has exhibited an extremely heavy (if not very accurate) shot from the point. 

While the return for Hnidy probably wouldn’t be great, he could be a low risk, high reward pick up for someone in need of a d-man. 

Estimated Cap Hit: $167K 

Expected Return: Mid-to-late round draft pick 

John Scott: Let’s face it.  Scottie won’t be on the team next season. 

He’s regressed this season in terms of the ability that he brought to the table that had the Wild keep him around, but he’s moved forward in his enforcer ability—something that teams may be looking for. 

He brings toughness and he can play solid defense, if you don’t take into account his lack of skating ability. 

Scott is the more likely of the two “big men” that the Wild have to be moved, as he quickly became expendable on the blueline—even moreso with the emergence of Stoner. 

Scott could easily be a boon to a team looking to increase its toughness heading into the playoffs. 

Estimated Cap Hit: $123K 

Expected Return: Late round draft pick 

Josh Harding: Harding is the player that he Wild will likely look to shop the hardest, especially with the emergence of Anton Khudobin this season. 

Hards had a tough start to the season, but has rebounded nicely and if there is one thing that teams love heading into the playoffs, it’s a capable, young backup that can take over in the case of injury (see: Cam Ward). 

Harding can provide that for a team and deserves the chance to be someone’s goaltender of the future because, with Backstrom planted in net for the Wild and Khudobin and Matthew Hackett coming up behind up, the Wild’s net is starting to get a little crowded. 

Harding is a restricted free agent this coming off season and would be a tremendous pick up for just about any team looking to improve in net. 

Estimated Cap Hit: $245K 

Expected Return: Roster player and/or prospects or picks

The Draft Picks/Prospects: Fletcher has said that he’s not interesting in trading picks or prospects for players; however, he will be willing to part with picks or prospects if the price is right. 

If he can get a good, young player that can have a future on this club, he will not hesitate to pull the trigger, even if it involves a pick or a prospect. 

While it may be maddening to some, it is a stark contrast to the strategy of Doug Risebrough, and ultimately leads to the line… 

In Chuck We Trust.

Gameday Thread – Game 59 – ‘Yotes @ Wild

It seems like forever since I’ve written one of these, so I may be a bit rusty, but bear with me — this could be a game that you’re going to want to watch if you’re a Wild fan. 

Over the last couple years the Wild have, to use a Mike Milbury-ism, been the Coyotes’ daddy.  Prior to this season, the Wild were a stunning 9-1-0 against the Glendale Canines, and were firmly in control of the match up. 

Funny how an off season can change things. 

With new coaches, the two teams began to take on different styles of play and the Coyotes were no longer the doormat that the Wild were used to. 

Long story short, this season has been a largely different story in the series, with the Coyotes taking the first three games of the season series by a combined score of 11-6. 

Soooooooo, what does this mean exactly? 

Well, this means one of two things.  Either the Coyotes will continue their dominance of the boys in Iron Range Red tonight or, gosh darnit, the Wild are due. 

The Wild come into this game five points out of playoff contention with 24 games to play.  Not insurmountable odds, but a harrowing task indeed. They also come into this game having gotten 42 of their 62 points at the Xcel Energy Center—where tonight’s game is being played. 

A look in the infirmary shows that the Wild are slowly but surely starting to get healthy again.  Niklas Backstrom could return to action tonight and Andrew Brunette, who has sat out the team’s last two practices for maintenance issues, will be a go tonight.  “Sherriff” Shane Hnidy is going to be a game time decision tonight, as he missed practice yesterday with an illness, and Anton Khudobin will likely be the second goaltender in place of Josh Harding. 

Lineup(s) 

With the M*A*S*H unit that has been the Wild’s lineup this season, it’s hard to tell who might be in, but after last game’s physical tone I would expect Richards to counter with a physical lineup tonight. 

Brunette-Koivu-Miettinen
Latendresse-Brodziak-Havlat
Nolan-Belanger-Clutterbuck
Boogaard-Ebbett-Earl 

The physical lineup means that James Sheppard will again be sitting up in the press box, observing.  

Now I don’t like to speculate too often, but one has got to wonder if Sheppard will be shopped around much like Benoit Pouliot was.  Contrary to his stats, Sheppard is a talented player—he just seems to need a fresh start.  I doubt that the return for Shep would be all that great right now, but he could be a useful piece to add on to a deal. 

On defense, I’m guessing that Hnidy will be ready to go, as he’s what is commonly referred to as a warrior, so our defense shouldn’t change. 

Zanon-Zidlicky
Johnsson-Schultz
Burns-Hnidy 

And finally, the six-million dollar question.  Who starts in net? 

I’m gonna go with my gut on this one and say that Khudobin starts with Backstrom backing up.  I say this for two reasons.  One, Backstrom has sit out the last six games and should get a little more than just a few practices before he is tossed to the wolves and two, why not ride the hot hand?  Khudobin has two wins (one in relief) in his NHL career and has given up just one goal.  That could earn him another shot. 

What to Watch For 

The last meeting between these two teams ended with some fairly heated exchanges and what looked to be some bad blood. 

Now, with Minnesota on the outside looking in and Phoenix playing extremely good hockey right now, I’d look for this to carry over.  The Wild will need a spark at the start of this game and will look to come out with energy and with physical play and, let’s be honest, in terms of this stuff a lot of hockey player have long memories. 

As far as Phoenix is concerned, keep an eye on Matthew Lombardi. 

Lombardi had his first career five-point game on Monday night and is riding high after being moved from center to wing.  Playing with Robert Lang and Shane Doan, look for him to continue to be an integral part of their offense. 

For Minnesota, they need to find a way to get to Ilya Bryzgalov.  Bryz has historically not had a whole lot of success against Minnesota, but this season has played lights out against the Wild. 

Minnesota needs to figure out how to recapture their success against Bryz and against the Coyotes to gain any sort of momentum.  These last three games of their homestand are incredibly crucial to the direction of the team after the Olympic break, as they will have exactly two days to decide which direction they will take in regards to the trade deadline. 

Minnesota has not seriously flirted with the playoffs yet this season, but a strong last three games could put them in the position to do so and influence general manager Chuck Fletcher’s moves going forward. 

Key(s) to the Game 

Honestly?  Open the scoring before the second period.  If Minnesota can do that, they’re already part-way towards success against Phoenix. 

Getting on the board early and getting their confidence will be key against a Phoenix team that has not given them much to be confident about this season. 

Past that, just coming out and playing a solid, physical game. 

Minnesota is proving this season that they have a team that is capable of throwing their bodies around and are starting to turn into a very difficult team to play against. 

They’re playing against a Coyotes team that is riding high, and they need to be that difficult team to play against.  Play physical, send a message to Phoenix that they won’t be pushed around. 

It’s that simple.  If they can dictate the tempo by playing physical, they can come away with a victory in this one. 

The puck drops at 7pm CST and is broadcast on Fox Sports North.

Game 51 Post Mortem

Well, it’s official. 

Niklas Backstrom is pissed off, and he all but said so to the Star-Tribune following last night’s shootout loss to Detroit. 

“You look at the goals, we’re giving too much to the other team,” Backstrom said. “It seems we’re in the same spot we were at the beginning of the year, that we haven’t improved on a lot of things. We are 50 games deep. That’s frustrating. It seems every night the same things cost us the game.” 

So wait. 

You’re telling me that the team hasn’t yet realized that defense is a problem? 

Is there anyone that didn’t see that last month? 

But the big news to come from last night’s game is the injury to Josh Harding.  No word has been released yet on how serious the injury is, or how long the young netminder will be out, but any injury is bad news for the Wild at this point – especially with Niklas Backstrom’s confession that his confidence is wavering. 

On the upside, though, Backstrom was solid last night.  He gave up two goals on 18 shots and made some big saves in the breakaway competition at the end of the game.  While it wasn’t quite enough to get the win, he did show signs of righting the ship. 

What’s most troubling about last night’s loss, however, is that the Wild got off to another horrific start.  In ten games this month, the Wild have mustered just six first period goals – a troubling statistic, to be sure. 

In fact, in the four games since their two goal “outburst” in the first period against Vancouver, Minnesota hasn’t scored a first period goal. 

What is encouraging, however, is that Minnesota scratched an important point out of a game that, by all rights, shouldn’t have gone to a shootout.  They dug deep and came back from two goals down – again. 

On top of that, Brent Burns returned to the ice to play a little over 13 minutes of ice time – a return that Head Coach Todd Richards graded as “decent.” 

He played 13 minutes, 36 seconds, and coach Todd Richards called his return “decent.” Burns, who missed in the fifth round of the shootout, was on for two goals against and will receive some video work, Richards said. 

Essentially, what the Wild can take away from last night’s contest is this: 

It wasn’t a failure, but it certainly wasn’t a success either. 

Wild Nation’s Three Stars 

1)      Drew Miller – The unheralded of the Miller brothers (you know, the other being the one who’s won a few games this season for Buffalo) had a phenomenal game.  One goal on one shot, plus the shootout winner.

2)      Shane Hnidy – The Wild d-man had his first two-point game of his career, assisting on both tying Wild goals.  All that in just ten minutes of ice time.

3)      Todd Bertuzzi – Big Bert continued his resurgence with the Wings, scoring his 14th of the year in the first and notching just over 23 minutes in ice time against the team and fans that hate him so.

Gameday Thread – Game 39 – Wild @ Kings

It’s amazing how much difference a couple months time makes.

After a 3-9-0 start, the Wild were looking to be in the running for the Taylor Hall Sweepstakes. The turnaround that the team has made the season, however, has been nothing short of miraculous.

After their horrific start, the Wild are 16-7-3 and were 9-4-0 during the month of December and now are just four points back from the odds on favorite to win the Northwest Division this season, the Calgary Flames, and third place in the division.

More importantly, they are just four points back from a playoff spot.

The combination of new blood being injected into the system and the old blood learning the new system has proven to be a potent mix and the team is looking poised for a solid run at the Stanley Cup Playoffs after missing out last season.

They come into Los Angeles tonight with a record number of wins for the month of December and are looking to increase on that total against a very good and very surprising Los Angeles Kings team.

The Kings are third in the Pacific Division and fifth in the Western Conference despite slumping of late. A testament to how good the Pacific Division has gotten, the Kings dropped from first in the division to third after a stretch of two losses and eight games off in between.

Lineups
The Wild will be short one of their top checking players, as Chuck Kobasew is going to be on the shelf for about 4-to-6 weeks with a sprained MCL. While his injury will certainly hurt the team, it is possible that it may have opened up a spot for Petr Sykora to return to the lineup sooner than hoped.

Sykora is travelling with the team on their two-game road swing but has not yet gotten approval to play. If that changes, though, the Wild could see a big addition to their lineup.

Barring Sykora’s return, though, here are the forward lines for the Wild as predicted by Wild.com:

Brunette-Koivu-Miettinen
Nolan-Belanger-Clutterbuck
Latendresse-Ebbett-Havlat
Sheppard-Brodziak-Boogaard

Now, while Belanger’s line is listed as the team’s second line here, it’s important to note that the Kings will likely see a large dose of Ebbett’s line early and often. They have been one of the hotter lines on the team since Latendresse and Ebbett have both gotten healthy and that could bode well for the Wild. In addition, the injury to Kobasew might just give Sheppard yet another chance to prove himself. He’s played much better of late, but he needs to step his game up another level if he wants to continue to find playing time as players begin returning from injury.

On defense, Clayton Stoner has been an absolute revelation for the Wild and looks to have stolen John Scott’s spot from him. In his five games since being called up, Stoner has a pair of assists, an even rating, a couple fights and is averaging just under 13 minutes per game. His solid skating ability and his willingness to throw his body around has quickly endeared him to Wild fans.

Wild.com lists the defensive pairings as follows:

Zanon-Zidlicky
Stoner-Johnsson
Hnidy-Schultz

The one thing that I like the most about these pairings is that it gives the Wild a 100% legitimate shutdown pairing in Hnidy and Schultz. But what’s more is that the defensively responsible Stoner and Zanon give both Zidlicky and Johnsson chances to step up into the play a little bit more often—something that benefitted the Wild in their 4-3 defeat of the Blues on Saturday.

There was a break between the games, so in net we’re most likely going to see Niklas Backstrom again. Backstrom has been absolutely fantastic in his last eight games, with six wins and a 1.87 goals-against average.

What to Watch For
The Wild have forward on their team that is white hot right now, and he’s not who you’d think.

Guillaume Latendresse has notched four goals in his last four games and six in 13 games with the Wild. In addition, in those 13 games, the Wild is 11-2-0 and is 4-0-0 when he scores a goal.

You don’t believe me? Do the math yourself.

G-Lat has quickly become an important cog in the Wild’s offense and is continuing to get more and more ice time with Minnesota.

The other key is going to be Martin Havlat. He was largely invisible on Saturday night against St. Louis, but has really snapped out of his early season slump with nine points in his last eight games with a plus-six rating.

He is going to be very important to the continued success of the Wild and the continued success of both Latendresse and Ebbett. He has shown great chemistry with both and this looks to be as bona fide a second line as the Wild has had all season long.

If these three start clicking in a game, watch out…It can be scary good.

Key(s) to the Game
Shoot the puck.

Both teams have great records when outshooting their opponents and tonight should be no different.

For the Wild, LA’s Jonathan Quick is a goalie that thrives on confidence. If they can get to him early, they can have success. But Quick gets better as the game goes on and as he gets more confidence, so hitting him early and often will be paramount for a Wild win.

For the Wild, stopping Anze Kopitar will also be a huge task. Kopitar is one of two Kings players in double digits for goals this season and is the only one who is active (Jarrett Stoll is out with a groin injury). If the Wild can stop Kopitar, they’re that much closer to stopping the Kings.

Kopitar, however, is not the only player that the Wild need to focus on. Ryan Smyth quickly asserted his presence in the Kings’ lineup this season before getting injured and has since returned to the lineup and will provide a huge boost for a Kings team playing without Stoll and Justin Williams.

The puck drops tonight at 9:30 CST and will be broadcast on Fox Sports North.

Opening Day Eve — What’s Under the Tree?

It’s Opening Night Eve for the Wild, and it’s looking a lot like Christmas Eve.  We’ve got the presents sitting underneath the tree, wrapped up beautifully with a bow on the top, and we’re left spending all day anticipating what they’re going to turn into. 

I’m going to be brutally honest here.  I’m a Minnesota sports fan.  I’m bitterly used to disappointment. 

But this season, for whatever reason, I’m cautiously optimistic.

For whatever reason, I’m cautiously optimistic that the small box sitting to the side of the tree might be keys to a new car as opposed to a set of cuff links.  I’m cautiously optimistic that the shirt-sized box might just be a couple new video games as opposed to a dress shirt. 

There is a lot of cause for both optimism and trepidation this season with the Wild.  The team’s average age is roughly 28 years old.  Consider, though, that they have gray beards Andrew Brunette and Owen Nolan on the roster, and you start to see the picture.  We have an exceedingly young team.  Seven of our players are 25 or younger and all of those seven players will play a large role as to whether or not our team succeeds.  

That said, here are some of my predictions for the Wild this season. 

Breakout Player: James Sheppard.  Shep is finally in a role where he will get to play the type of game he’s comfortable with.  He has no more excuses and he has had a very impressive pre-season.  Playing on a line with Antti Miettinen and Cal Clutterbuck, they have found a little chemistry and Sheppard finally looks like he’s comfortable in his role with the team.  He is definitely capable of putting up big numbers, but I would say that anything less than a 20-goal, 50-point season would be considered a disappointment for this youngster this season. 

Biggest Surprise: Benoit Pouliot.  A few weeks back, I posted an article ragging on Benny Poo, saying that it was time for the team to cut bait.  I’ve reconsidered my stance since then, and I think that Pouliot could thrive for us under the right circumstances.  He still takes shifts off every once in a while and he still has a lot that he needs to work on and to learn to be an effective, every day player in this league, but the flashes he has shown this pre-season have been far bigger flashes than in previous years.  He could be poised to try to make an impact on the team, especially knowing that it is likely do-or-die time for him. 

Best Addition(s): Greg Zanon and Shane Hnidy.  I know what you’re thinking.  “But Blake, what about Martin Havlat?  What about Petr Sykora?”  Don’t get me wrong.  Havlat and Sykora are going to do great things with this team this season.  They’re huge additions and they’re going to help us in many different ways.  But Zanon and Hnidy give us a blueline that is distinctly different than it was last season.  Last season, our blueline was a point machine.  Behind Marek Zidlicky and Marc-Andre Bergeron, our blueline could put up points like nothing else.  But our defensemen lacked grit and in a big way.  Adding Zanon and Hnidy, along with keeping Scott and Sifers on the roster, should give us some much needed grit on our blueline and help protect Niklas Backstrom a bit more. 

Key to Success: Staying healthy.  This may sound like a no-brainer, but the injury bug has hit Minnesota hard over the last few years.  This pre season was no different.  This is definitely a team that can make some noise if they stay healthy.  If they don’t, however, we could be looking at a frustrating season much like last year.  A healthy Martin Havlat and Petry Sykora should easily replace the void (or lack thereof) left by Marian Gaborik’s departure.  Our full line up is certainly capable of beating any team in the league — it’s just a matter of staying healthy now. 

Mike Russo of the Star-Tribune has predicted that the Wild will miss the playoffs this season, finishing much as they did last season, and it’s hard to fault him on that.  The top five spots in the West are fairly easy to predict — it’s the bottom three in the playoff picture that will cause problems.  Anyone in the bottom of the conference (yes, even Phoenix) is capable of making a push for the playoffs.  I’m not going to waver with my prediction that the Wild will make the playoffs this season and, while I think that the Northwest will be a close division again, I think that the Wild are going to be firmly entrenched in second in our division. 

But it’s almost time to drop the puck on this season for the Wild.  Christmas Day for Wild fans is almost here!

Wild Signs and Waives Hilbert; Game Notes

Unless there is a new rule in the NHL, you can’t place tryout players on waivers. 

So I guess that means that Andy Hilbert has officially been signed to a two-way contract by the Minnesota Wild, as was the rumor. 

I really like this move by Fletcher, as it gives the Wild a veteran that it can turn to if a mid-season call up is needed.  As I mentioned before, Hilbert is a pretty vanilla player, but the good thing about him is that he does everything good enough to compete in the NHL.  The problem has been that he doesn’t necessarily do anything well enough to stand out. 

That said, in the form of a call up, he could be a pretty useful player. 

Richards has talked a lot about the team’s “compete factor,” and Hilbert definitely has that.  He’ll play his rear end off each and every night for you, so he’s got that going for him…Which is good. 

Some thoughts on last night’s shootout victory: 

  • My God does the Wild have a potent shootout line up.  Last night, they ran with Koivu, Havlat, Sykora and Miettinen as their top four.  That leaves Burns, Bouchard, Sheppard, Nolan, Brunette and Zidlicky left before it even starts to get remotely sticky.  A nice luxury to have in the era of the post-overtime skills competition.
  • Wild fans can rest easy.  Backstrom played much, much better than the 4 goals allowed last night signified.  I’d say that this was more of the 34-save performance than the giving up 4-goals kind.  He was absolutely dazzling at times.  The first goal, however, was the kind that has become Steady Nik’s kryptonite over the past few years.  A deflection off of the stick of our own player.  He could have and probably should have had it, but he just misjudged it.  It happens, and hopefully it will happen a lot less with players blocking shots with their bodies as opposed to their sticks.
  • Braydon Coburn sure picked the wrong person to piss off last night.  I don’t quite want to quote Chris Tucker, but he sure got knocked down a few pegs by Cowboy.
  • Clutterbuck had yet another fantastic game.  I’d look for this guy to have a huge season this year, as Richards absolutely loves him and he’s really earning a lot more looks.
  • Sheppard had another steady night.  He’s poised for a breakout season (finally!) and he should impress this year.
  • Our D looks really rough.  Zanon and Hnidy were really the only ones who looked comfortable out there.  I wouldn’t worry, though.  We’ve still got a world class defensive unit…They’ll come around. 

Look back here in the coming days for a preview of our season opener against the Columbus Blue Jackets this weekend!

Game Recap: Wild Fall to St. Louis 3-1

Despite outshooting the St. Louis Blues by a margin of 34-21 the Minnesota Wild were unable to skate away with a victory on Tuesday night, falling by a score of 3-1.

The Wild, skating just nine skaters with any significant NHL experience, were outmatched by the Blues for most of the night despite the shots margin.

Anton Khudobin stopped 15 of 17 shots for the Wild.

Anton Khudobin stopped 15 of 17 shots for the Wild.

The Blues made the most of their scoring opportunities, however, with Paul Kariya and Chris Porter notching goals 29 seconds apart to lead them to victory.

“We didn’t have the players that they had, the experience that they had in certain positions, but we competed,” Coach Todd Richards told reporters after the game.  “I’m real proud of that.”

Richards also admitted that it was an exhibition game for the coaches as well, needing to work off a little rust behind the bench.  He had high praise for veteran defensemen Greg Zanon and Shane Hnidy, as well as the game of Wild holdover John Scott.

He had some pointed words for Benoit Pouliot, however.

“Pouliot has flashes that really excite you as a coach and there’s still some things that we need to fix to make him better.”

The difference, however, seems to be that Richards is willing to work with Pouliot to fix those deficiencies in his game, while former coach Jacques Lemaire was not.

In all, the game went much as it was expected to go, with the Wild only having a handful of players with any experience at the NHL level at all.  The players that are expected to be regulars did show some flashes, however, as Kyle Brodziak won 13 of 16 draws (an area in which the Wild desperately need help) and had six shots.

The Wild’s next game is this Friday, at home against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

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.