The Minnesota Wild emerged from the tightly-packed and ultra-balanced Northwest Division to finish first last season for the first time in franchise history, but that accomplishment didn't go very far in helping the offseason recruiting effort.
The Wild have their defense-first, counter-attack system set under respected coach Jacques Lemaire, but Minnesota also had designs on improving on its ability to score and shore up a couple areas that slipped last season.
What did and didn't get done in the offseason is greeted with mixed reviews.
According to reports, Minnesota shot pretty high, hoping to lure Marian Hossa, Markus Naslund and/or Kristian Huselius to fortify an attack that lost Brian Rolston, Pavol Demitra and Todd Fedoruk, among others. Those efforts fell short. And while the Wild did acquire Owen Nolan, Andrew Brunette and Antti Miettinen, the general feeling is the Wild will be fortunate to improve upon their 18th-place average of 2.68 goals per contest.
The silver lining, however, might be what the team managed to do on the blue line by acquiring a couple of offensive-minded defensemen who could help kick-start a few rushes.
The Wild got Marek Zidlicky, a late-blooming 31-year-old who should fit very well into Lemaire's system. Zidlicky is a smooth skater and can make the solid first-pass. He should come in handy on Minnesota's power play, too. And Marc-Andre Bergeron comes by way of Anaheim. Undersized for the old NHL, Bergeron has bounced around a bit but could find a home in Minnesota with his ability to skate and shoot.
The pair is a nice addition to a blue line that is trending up thanks to the development of Brent Burns as one of the game's most under-publicized defensemen. Burns, 23, started to take on good chunks of average ice time as the season progressed last season, but a late-summer clean-up on his left elbow could impact his run up to the start of the season.
Up front, the Wild look to be a more physical group than at the start of last season with the additions of Nolan and Craig Weller. Brunette was a popular member of the team during his first go-around in St. Paul, but he's 35 years old now and slotted in to first-line left wing duty.
So maybe Minnesota didn't get everything it wanted, but the Wild will put their trust in Lemaire's magic to bring the group together and get the most out of them.
Last season: 44-28-10, 98 points, first place Northwest Division, third in the Western Conference. After winning the franchise's first division crown despite earning six less points while finishing second the previous season, the Wild lost a six-game, first-round series to division-rival Colorado after qualifying for the postseason in consecutive years for the first time.
Imports: D Marek Zidlicky (2007-08 team: Nashville Predators), RW Owen Nolan (Calgary Flames), LW Andrew Brunette (Colorado Avalanche), RW Antti Miettinen (Dallas Stars), RW Craig Weller (Phoenix Coyotes), D Marc-Andre Bergeron (Anaheim Ducks), RW Jesse Schultz (Atlanta Thrashers), G Barry Brust (minors), C Corey Locke (Montreal), C Krys Kolanos (minors), C Bryan Lundbohm (Denmark), D Tomas Mojzis (Russia).
Exports: RW Brian Rolston (Tampa Bay Lightning/New Jersey Devils), LW Pavol Demitra (Vancouver Canucks), D Keith Carney (available free agent), LW Todd Fedoruk (Phoenix Coyotes), LW Aaron Voros (New York Rangers), RW Matt Foy (St. Louis Blues), D Sean Hill (available free agent), RW Randy Jones (Nashville Predators), D Shawn Belle (Montreal Canadiens), D Petteri Nummelin (available free agent), LW Chris Simon (Russia).
Three keys to the season: First, Niklas Backstrom needs to get his fire back. Backstrom enjoyed a successful rookie season two years ago, and the Wild fed off him to allow the fewest goals in the league during the 2006-07 campaign. Last year, Backstrom seemed to fall victim to the sophomore jinx. His goals-against average ballooned from 1.97 to 2.31, and his save percentage subsequently dropped from .929 to .920. The 30-year-old's workload did increase last season. He appeared in 58 games (41 in '06-'07) and logged more than a 50 percent increase in minutes played. Backstrom (33-13-8) didn't have a bad season, he just wasn't as good as the season before. Also, backup Josh Harding was less effective (11-15-2, 2.94 GAA and .908 save percentage). As a duo, the Wild slipped to ninth in goals-against. Again, not terrible, but there's probably a happy medium in there, and when a team struggles to score goals there simply is more pressure on the puck stoppers to, well, stop the puck.
Second, the Wild are going to need their young veterans to step up. Specifically, that means up front James Sheppard, Mikko Koivu and maybe even Benoit Pouliot have to make more contributions. On defense, that means slightly older regulars Kurtis Foster and Nick Schultz must be ready to take the minutes left by departed Keith Carney and Sean Hill. And the Wild would love to see a young stud like Colton Gillies, 19, or Cal Clutterbuck, 20 – both tough forwards – break into the lineup and make an impact.
Third, Minnesota has a real star in Marian Gaborik and no doubt would like to have the 26-year-old for many more of his prime years. That makes signing him to a contract extension before next summer, when he could be eligible for unrestricted free agency, a top priority. It was very important that general manager Doug Risebrough and assistant GM Tom Lynn paid Gaborik a visit during the offseason at the right wing's home in Trencin, Slovakia. Gaborik, set to make $7.5 million a year after he led the team in goals (42) and points (83), came away impressed with management's plan and commitment to build a winning team. But Gaborik also has expressed disappointment in the Wild's inability to lure top free agents, and Risebrough said Friday, "This thing is not going to drag on." The goal is to get a deal done either before or very early in the season.
On the hot seat: Even though his team won a first-ever division title, Lemaire privately expressed his personal struggles coaching the group last season, and he reportedly was talked into returning this season. If Lemaire's heart isn't into coaching any more, the Wild could have a problem. Then again, with Kevin Constantine being groomed with the Wild's top minor-league affiliate in Houston, the problem could quickly be solved if need be.
Poised to blossom: Pierre-Marc Bouchard isn't the biggest guy on the team – he's listed as 5-foot-10 and a slight 162 pounds – but the 24-year-old vet, embarking on his sixth NHL season, already could be poised to emerge from the shadow Gaborik throws a bit like the attention Sidney Crosby sometimes gets over Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh. Bouchard quietly led the Wild in assists (50) last season, and saw his goal-output dip (13) to the fewest he'd scored in three seasons. He could be poised to be the offensive answer the Wild are looking for.
Analysis and prediction: Something just doesn't feel right about this team, especially considering the rough sledding of the Northwest Division. Lemaire's special teams are always outstanding, but what if there's a slip? We know goal scoring is going to be a challenge. And is the goaltending really good enough? Too many question marks. It's a reshuffling in the division, and the Wild get left out in the cold.