Thursday, August 12, 2004
Can Wild make the cut?
By Tom Wheatley
Special to ESPN.com
It's too bad for the great hockey state of Minnesota that hockey isn't golf.
The Wild could have used a mulligan on the first month of the 2004 season, which was a huge letdown after the third-year team's spirited run to the Western Conference finals the previous spring.
Young snipers Marian Gaborik and Pascal Dupuis were salary holdouts last fall and never made up for missed time. They each wanted more dough after combining for 50 goals, 30 by Gaborik, while missing just three games between them. After finally checking in last season, they mustered just 29 goals -- 18 by Gaborik -- in 40 fewer games.
For the goal-starved Wild, those 21 fewer goals were especially dear.
Once the playoffs became a mirage, general manager Doug Risebrough pruned six stalwart veterans from the roster.
Instead of crippling the operation, coach Jacques Lemaire jockeyed his team into a strong finishing kick. The Wild wound up breaking .500 at 30-29-20-3.
In the offseason, Minnesota said goodbye to another charter member when left wing Antti Laaksonen signed with Colorado. But the Wild more than replaced him by stepping outside their tight budget to lure center Brian Rolston from Boston to anchor their first line and run the power play.
Goalie Manny Fernandez, a restricted free agent, signed quickly to team again with All-Star Dwayne Roloson, keeping the backbone intact for one of the league's stingiest defenses.
Tom Thompson, starting his third year as the Wild's assistant general manager, explained the team's game plan to ESPN.com's Tom Wheatley.
ESPN.com: Can you briefly assess last season for us, please?
"Internally, some of our top offensive players were not with us at the start. And they had some struggles when they came back.
"We had the ninth oldest club in the league. As the season went on, we realized that we were not going to get much better with that team. A lot of publications like yours said we had a lot of young talent.
"So as we got close to the trade deadline, we traded six people on our club and got nobody back. That might have been a first. We got draft picks. That let us put our young people in to finish the season.
"And in our last 14 games, without (defenseman Filip) Kuba and (winger Wes) Walz, who were hurt, we went 9-3-1-1. We ended up with 83 points, which was not a long way off 95 -- and with a very poor start of the season.
"Overall, we're still with the program we established when we started the hockey club. I think we've got a good skating club, hard working, with good goaltending and good defense.
"With our goaltending and our group on defense that we're very pleased with, for all the trouble we had last year, we still were in a lot of games because we were difficult to score on.
"When you look at our defense -- Kuba, Willie Mitchell, Andrei Zyuzin, Nick Schultz, Alex Henry, who we got from Washington -- is there an Al MacInnis or Rob Blake in there? Probably not. But most teams don't have that."
"We had a tough start last year, no doubt about it. What happened the year before was not a fluke. Our guys earned every bit of what they got when they made it to the conference finals.
ESPN.com: Which player made the biggest strides?
"And guys like Andrew Brunette continued to score (15 goals, 49 points). Wes Walz struggled with injuries and only played 57 games but still did a very good job. He's one of the great skaters and best-conditioned guys you can find."
"I think you have to look at Alexandre Daigle. People didn't know if he still had it, or what his commitment was going to be. He was good for us (team-high 20 goals and 51 points).
ESPN.com: Which players need to take the next big step or to bounce back?
"As far as bouncing back, both Marian Gaborik and Pascal Dupuis -- I don't want to use that as a crutch for how the whole team played -- but odds are they'll be better this year."
"Every one of our younger guys who hasn't had the opportunity to be a go-to guy has the opportunity to show what he can do.
ESPN.com: Who in the system is ready for the NHL?
"There are three forwards off our Houston club in the AHL which won the Calder Cup -- (center) Rickard Wallin, (right wing) Kyle Wanvig and (left
wing), Stephane Veilleux.
"And Mikko Koivu, our first pick in '01 (sixth overall), has a good chance. He played in the Finnish League, and he's looked good at our summer camp. People want me to compare him to Gaborik, and I say it's like baking cakes. Some cakes take longer to bake, but they can both be good cakes. When we drafted Koivu, he was 6-foot-3 and built like Ichabod Crane."
(Gaborik is starting his fourth NHL season at age 22, one year older than Koivu, the younger brother of Montreal captain Saku Koivu.)
"And we think (right winger) Brent Burns has a chance to play regularly. So that's a lot of people there. And these are guys who have proven their worth. We're not grabbing at straws here. We're hoping we can add some of these guys to the Brunettes and Daigles up front."
"We're looking for (winger) Pierre-Marc Bouchard to play a major role. He was such a good player for us down the stretch.
ESPN.com: What's the organization's top priority?
"I don't want to put too much pressure on Brian Rolston, but we needed another center. We needed a point man on the power play. And we got both of them in Brian. He provides some of what we're looking for. Not to carry the hockey club, but to complement what we've got.
"Because we skate so well, we draw power plays because teams have to hook us and hold us. We're going to get opportunities. We need to do a better job (after ranking 28th in power-play conversion rate at 13.6 percent).
"Like I tell people, if hockey's a tic-tac-toe game, we're much better on the tic and the tac than we are on the toe."
"We need some help offensively, especially the power play. So we added a key person like Brian Rolston. He's a big guy who can skate, take faceoffs and play both specialty teams. Jacques had a background with him in New Jersey when they won a Stanley Cup. They have a lot of mutual respect.
ESPN.com: What was your favorite moment last season?
"Those ovations we kept getting, it was like the fans were saying, 'We're with you! We appreciate what you're doing!' They knew we finished 9-3-1-1 with two of our veterans out and using a lot of young kids.
"You like to end on a positive note, and we certainly did."
"I honestly think it was the last game of the season. We beat St. Louis 3-nothing in an afternoon game at home, and the fans were legitimately so happy at the way the season finished.
ESPN.com: And your least favorite moment?
"Hockey's bittersweet. I knew it was the right thing. Some of the media here bugged me about it. I remember, we were in San Jose, and some of them were moaning about it. I said, 'How many games do we have left?' They said, 'Fourteen.'
"I said, 'I guarantee we'll play better than we have been. I have no idea what the results will be, but I know we'll play better.'
"That result was borne out with that 9-3-1-1 finish. But still, that was tough."
"No doubt about that, it was at the trade deadline when we were trading these veteran players who had been so good for our club. In no particular order, they were Jim Dowd, Darby Hendrickson, Sergei Zholtok, Jason Marshall, Brad Brown and Brad Bombardir.
ESPN.com: What activity or destination will take you furthest away from hockey this summer?
"My dad had never been back until now. We couldn't get there on June 6 but we went in July. The French were giving Freedom medals to any of these troops who came over then. It was just unbelievable to be over there with him.
"He's 84 now. And to this day he golfs three times a week and curls twice a week."
"I went over with my father, Jack Thompson, to France. They were celebrating the 60th anniversary of D-Day. My dad was in the lead group that landed on Juneau Beach. He was a sergeant in charge of a mortar crew in the Royal Winnipeg Rifles. Their landing craft got hit and they were tossed into the water. They landed without their mortar.
Tom Wheatley is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He is the co-author of Bob Plager's "Tales from the Blues Bench" and "The Memoirs of Bing Devine," both available from Sports Publishing LLC.