2010-11 Minnesota Wild Season Preview: Hard Work Lies Ahead
"Our goal at the start of the year was to make the playoffs, it's a little bit disappointing," Richards said. The Wild finished 13th in the Western Conference a year ago and 22nd in the NHL, going 38-36-8. After a disastrous 3-9 start set the team back, they had some strong moments, including a 12-4 run from late November through late December, but they fell behind the eight ball in the West, and never established themselves as a serious playoff contender.
"We were chasing pretty much all year," Richards said.
As the free agent signing period opened in July, general manager Chuck Fletcher and Richards set out to improve the character and work ethic of their roster. Without indicting any individual players, they went to work at this task, and they like what they've done.
Fletcher signed center Matt Cullen, a Minnesota native, veteran pivot John Madden, forward Eric Nystrom, and he traded for tough guy Brad Staubitz. While Staubitz has a lot of work to do before he'll be the cult hero Derek Boogaard was in a Minnesota uniform, he won't have to do much to prove he's more of a complete hockey player.
More importantly, Richards notes the improved leadership in the locker room.
"Another area was bringing in some character ... leadership-type qualities in players," Richards said. "Not that we don't have leadership and don't have character, it's just bringing more in."
Madden has won three Stanley Cups with New Jersey and Chicago, while Cullen won one in Carolina.
They are the foundation for the hard work ahead for this team. By not making a big splash in free agency or by making a trade, Fletcher gave the signal that he believed the team was on the right track to compete for a playoff spot this season.
Now the team has to do the walking for Fletcher's "talking."
They're stronger down the middle this season. A returning Pierre-Marc Bouchard and the additions of Cullen and Madden give Richards choices at center that he didn't have a year ago. Captain Mikko Koivu will center the top line, and Bouchard might be called on for second- or third-line duty now that the team knows they'll be without James Sheppard into December (Sheppard was hurt in an ATV accident less than two weeks before the start of training camp).
The Wild can also use Kyle Brodziak and youngster Casey Wellman at center, though it seems Wellman would be better off in the American Hockey League, where he would get regular top-six duty and special teams work that he won't get in Minnesota.
Having Madden around gives Richards a reliable fourth-line center who can win faceoffs and kill penalties. Add in Nystrom and Cullen, who have logged a ton of short-handed ice time in their careers, and you have the makings of a very formidable penalty kill unit.
Improvement five-on-five is still a priority, and the team is optimistic they will benefit greatly from Bouchard's return, along with a full season from Guillaume Latendresse, who scored 25 goals in 55 games after being traded from Montreal. Another huge key is the play of forward Martin Havlat, who struggled in his first season with the Wild. He stayed largely healthy, but only scored 18 goals and 54 points, numbers that the team needs to see improve.
Richards feels good about his defensive group, which will be led by emerging Brent Burns. While trying to shake off a 2009 concussion, Burns started poorly last season, and he didn't really hit his stride until the team's final 25 games or so.
"I think Brent struggled at the beginning because it was a new philosophy on how to play the game," Richards said. "He had to deal with different injuries, and that's a huge setback. By the end of the year, he was taking steps in the right direction."
If Burns is playing 20-25 minutes per game, as he is fully capable of doing, he can make a huge impact on this team.
The Wild are also looking for better play out of goalie Niklas Backstrom, a guy Richards said struggled to trust his teammates a year ago.
"Your goaltender has to trust the players in front of him," the second-year coach said. "I think some of it came down to -- early in the season -- our defensemen and forwards were caught in between, and we gave up too many easy goals."
If everything falls into place as Fletcher has planned, the Wild have to like their chances of taking some positive steps in the Western Conference playoff race.
MAKING THE DEFENSIVE STOPS
The Wild were not their normal selves last year, allowing 2.92 goals per game to rank 21st in the NHL. They posted a minus-25 goal differential over the course of the regular season, and gave up 42 more goals then they did in 2008-2009 under Lemaire.
Simply put, they have to be better. A healthy Burns goes a long way, and the team benefits from not having to learn a new system during the short training camp that precedes their opening game in Finland Oct. 7.
Backstrom is bound to rebound, too. He went from a goals against of 2.33 in 2008-2009 to 2.72 last year, and his save percentage fell 20 points. Having a better, more stable, more confident group in front of him should ease some of that burden immediately. The Wild figure not to spend a large chunk of the early season bumbling around in their own zone like they did last year, and they certainly have the talent and experience to be a better defensive team.
HELP IS ON THE WAY
Fletcher took over a woeful farm situation last year, with an alarming lack of depth in the minor-league system, especially up front. He's tried to add draft picks as much as possible over his two offseasons at the helm, but that hasn't proven to be very easy.
Now, things are looking up. Wellman will probably spend most of the season in the AHL after being signed late last season out of the University of Massachusetts. Promising forwards Colton Gillies and Cody Almond, the latter of whom saw some time in the NHL last year, are also expected to play for the Houston Aeros.
Defensemen Marco Scandella, Nate Prosser, Tyler Cuma, Clayton Stoner, and Justin Falk all have promise, with Stoner likely to make the Wild's final roster. Prosser and Scandella could find a way on it, too, though at least one of them is probably destined for Houston.
2009 third-rounder Matt Hackett -- a goalie -- could earn some big minutes in the AHL.
If that's not enough, Fletcher drafted center Mikael Granlund in the first round this year, and despite a lack of size, the team is very excited about his potential.