Wild: 10 Things You Need To Know
By Scott Burnside
What has happened to this franchise nestled in the heart of America's hockey country is a shame. Or rather what hasn't happened since the Minnesota Wild came into the NHL in 2000.
One brief, unexpected moment of glory in 2003, when the team advanced to the Western Conference finals. Beyond that? Pfffttt. No playoff series victories since, three straight seasons without a trip to the playoffs and a solid fan base making its first noises of disgruntlement.
Against that backdrop, GM Chuck Fletcher has rolled the dice on a number of fronts in the hopes of coaxing his team back into the playoffs and becoming a perennial player in a market that deserves one.
It may not happen overnight, but this season is crucial for the Wild to show they are finally headed in the right direction. "We've got a lot of work ahead of us," Fletcher told ESPN.com.
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Atlantic: NJD | NYI | NYR | PHI | PIT
NE: BOS | BUF | MTL | OTT | TOR
SE: CAR | FLA | TMB | WAS | WPG
Central: CHI | CMB | DET | NSH | STL
NW: CGY | COL | EDM | MIN | VAN
Pacific: ANA | DAL | LAK | PHX | SAN
1. The big move, Part I
People tend to look at the acquisitions of Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi from San Jose as one entity. They're actually two very distinct pieces and came for different reasons, which, in theory, will yield two different kinds of benefits.
The Wild needed scoring, and Setoguchi, 24, delivered 73 goals over three seasons for the Sharks. The Wild also acquired a first-round draft pick and top prospect Charlie Coyle, a big center playing college hockey who some observers believe may be the best player in the deal. And that's saying something given that the Wild had to give up puck-moving defenseman Brent Burns and a second-round pick in the deal. That creates a huge hole for the Wild (see below), but Fletcher thought it was worth the risk.
2. The big move, Part II
The trade that sent Martin Havlat to San Jose for Heatley is a little more straightforward and will be much easier to assess as the season moves along. The bottom line for the Wild was Havlat simply didn't fit with top center Mikko Koivu.
"It just didn't work out the way any of us had hoped," Fletcher said.
Havlat averaged 20 goals a season in his two years in Minnesota; that wasn't nearly enough for a player pulling down an average of $5 million annually through 2014-15. In acquiring Heatley, twice a 50-goal scorer, Fletcher is banking on a return to form for a player with lots of baggage and whose goal totals have slowly declined in the past three years.
Heatley had 26 goals last season, his lowest total for a full season since his rookie year. But Fletcher believes Heatley and his quick hands will mesh nicely with Koivu. The GM and coach Mike Yeo raved about Heatley's positive attitude during training camp.
3. The big line, and then ...
Yeo opted to load up his top line with Setoguchi, moving from his natural right winger position to the left side to join Heatley and Koivu. The potential for big numbers is significant, but it also puts added pressure on a second line that will likely start as Guillaume Latendresse, Matt Cullen and Pierre-Marc Bouchard to provide some balance. Looking for a bigger piece of the offensive pie will be center Kyle Brodziak.
4. Welcome back
The key to the Wild's offensive depth is Bouchard. The eighth overall pick in 2002 scored 20 goals in 2006-07, and that was under Jacques Lemaire's tutelage, so that's like 30 goals for any other team. But Bouchard missed 104 games (concussion) and finally returned after the start of last season. He had 12 goals in 59 games, but told ESPN.com that being able to have a full summer of training plus going through training camp has meant a return to peak conditioning. If he can get to the 25-goal mark or beyond, it may be the difference between making and missing the playoffs.
5. Finally fit
A year ago, the Wild got off to a rocky start in part because a number of key players either didn't come to camp in great shape or got nicked up early on. Marek Zidlicky got hurt right away. Latendresse was banged up early on, but there were also questions about his conditioning. Koivu was coming off a shoulder injury. Netminder Niklas Backstrom wasn't at full health.
"We weren't really able to become a team and it affected us," Fletcher said. "It was very difficult for the coaching staff."
This season, there were no red flags, and that should help Yeo implement his systems and find some cohesion among his forward lines and blue-line pairings.
6. About that blue line
Losing Burns (17 goals last season) is a big loss for a team that struggled to find the net (26th in goals per game). That's going to put a lot of pressure on Zidlicky to pick up the offensive slack, especially on the power play. Look for sophomore Jared Spurgeon to step into a bigger offensive role, too.
As for the rest of the crew, the Wild are looking for a defense by committee kind of arrangement. The Wild were 16th in goals allowed per game and they'll need to get closer to a top-10 team to sneak into the playoffs.
7. Niklas Backstrom
Speaking of better team defense, it starts and ends in goals. Last season, Backstrom was bothered by a hip injury and collected just two wins in his last 14 appearances. Backup Josh Harding signed a one-year deal at a reduced price this summer to return, but has never proved he has the ability to seize a No. 1 NHL goaltending job. If the playoffs are going to be a possibility, Backstrom needs to revert to the form that saw him win the William M. Jennings Trophy for the top save percentage (along with teammate Manny Fernandez) back in 2007.
8. The captain
Koivu reflects the Wild -- solid and understated. Statistics don't always tell the whole story of a player's value to a team. That is the case with Koivu, who is a terrific two-way player. Still, the fact remains he has never scored more than 22 goals and his top points total was 71. For a No. 1 center, those numbers don't quite add up. This season will be an interesting test for him given the offensive talent in Heatley and Setoguchi.
9. Depth chart
With all due respect to former GM Doug Risebrough, when Fletcher took over in the summer of 2009, the cupboard was pretty bare when it came to prospects and immediate farm help. Restocking doesn't happen overnight, although the Setoguchi deal is helpful. Fletcher is also optimistic that players like Zack Phillips and Mikael Granlund will develop into NHL material. Throw in Coyle and the Wild hope they have upped the skill factor significantly.
10. Under the radar
When you miss the playoffs for three straight seasons, it's understandable that teams may not hold you in high regard. Maybe that's a good thing for this remade Wild team. We watched Guy Boucher have great success last season coming off a short AHL career and molding Tampa Bay's lineup into a playoff contender. Yeo clearly has more tools at his disposal than was previously the case in Minnesota.
"I think this team will be better than many pundits around hockey feel we'll be," Fletcher said. "And there's nothing wrong with coming in under the radar."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Experience: Entering first NHL season
Stanley Cup titles: N/A
• We've got to give Chuck Fletcher marks for thinking outside the box when he went looking for Todd Richards' replacement this past offseason. The path of least resistance would have been to hire a proven NHL coach to get the Wild back on track. Instead, Fletcher went with his gut in hiring Mike Yeo, who worked with Fletcher in Pittsburgh.
Upbeat and outgoing, Yeo took the Wild's AHL affiliate in Houston to the Calder Cup finals last season. When he was hired, Yeo went to Finland to meet with Koivu in the offseason to talk about how he wanted to coach the team and what Koivu thought.
Training camp has been about implementing a system that makes it crystal clear where each player is supposed to be in any situation, anywhere on the ice. Having been an assistant coach in Pittsburgh when the Pens went to back-to-back Stanley Cup finals in 2008 and 2009 (winning the Cup that second year), Yeo said he knows the ingredients of a winner. He believes those ingredients are present in his locker room. -- Scott Burnside
Best bet: Dany Heatley
Heatley needed a refreshing change of scenery after the worst offensive season of his NHL career and he got it with a trade to the Minnesota Wild. It was Jason Spezza setting up Heatley with the Sens and Joe Thornton with the Sharks. Mikko Koivu will fill that role with the Wild and will be just what the doctor ordered to get Heatley back to the 40-goal mark. -- Sean Allen
Risky pick: Niklas Backstrom
Backstrom was banged up last season and revealed he was struggling with a nagging shoulder injury. There's some reason for optimism, however. In 10 February starts, Backstrom looked like the player of old, posting a 1.69 GAA and .940 save percentage over that span. He is a great value pick on the chance he may put up a vintage season in 2011-12. -- Tim Kavanagh
Sleeper pick: Marek Zidlicky
Badgered by shoulder and hamstring injuries throughout 2010-11, Marek Zidlicky is presently fit and ready to go. Referred to as the squad's best offensive defenseman by former coach Todd Richards, Zidlicky will be asked to anchor a top power-play unit that includes Heatley and Koivu. It could be a very productive season for the blueliner, particularly on special teams. -- Victoria Matiash
Who's On The Move
The offseason signings/acquisitions and departures for the Wild:
• June 17: Named Mike Yeo head coach.
• June 24: Acquired RW Devin Setoguchi, C Charlie Coyle and San Jose's 2011 first-round pick for D Brent Burns and 2012 second-round pick.
• June 27: Acquired C Darroll Powe from Philadelphia for 2013 third-round pick.
• June 30: Named Darryl Sydor assistant coach.
• July 1: Re-signed G Josh Harding.
• July 3: Acquired RW Dany Heatley from San Jose for RW Martin Havlat
• July 6: Re-signed LW Colton Gillies.
• July 9: Signed D Mike Lundin.
• July 15: Re-signed C Casey Wellman. /p>
• RW Martin Havlat (traded to San Jose)
• D Brent Burns (traded to San Jose)
• C James Sheppard (traded to San Jose)
• RW Chuck Kobasew (unrestricted free agent, signed by Colorado)
• RW Antti Miettinen (unrestricted free agent, signed by KHL's Ak Bars Kazan)
• G Jose Theodore (unrestricted free agent, signed by Florida)
• LW Andrew Brunette (unrestricted free agent, signed by Chicago)
• D Cam Barker (contract bought out, signed by Edmonton)
• C Patrick O'Sullivan (unrestricted free agent, signed by Phoenix)
• C John Madden (unrestricted free agent)