September 15, 2009
NHL season previews often sell you an impressive bill of goods before you realize, at the end of the season, you're holding an empty box. Which makes using advertisements and infomercials the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2009-10 NHL Season Previews, presented each day throughout September.
Last Season's Ad Copy: Ninth in the Western Conference, third in the Northeast Division (40-33-9, 89 points). One of the most under-scrutinized stories of the offseason was the utter, total and complete regime change for the Minnesota Wild. We're talking about a figurative tombstone for the first part of the franchise's history: "R.I.P. Minnesota Wild, 2000-09; Beloved Trappers, Trusted Postseason Teasers."
With Jacques Lemaire stepping down as head coach (before stepping up for a second stint with the New Jersey Devils) and GM Doug Risebrough being removed in favor of rising managerial star Chuck Fletcher. Behind the bench comes another rising star: Todd Richards, former head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and an assistant coach in San Jose last season.
The duo promised a new up-tempo style of hockey for the Minnesota Wild. No, we can't wrap our brains around that concept yet, either.
Latest Gadgets (Offseason Additions): Besides the coach and GM, Martin Havlat(notes) is the most significant new face for the franchise, signing a six-year deal worth $30 million after the Chicago Blackhawks refused to go long-term with him. It was an important signing, seeing as how the Wild needed to fill their porcelain-based scoring right winger quota.
OK, that's not exactly fair. After missing 73 games in two seasons with the Hawks, Havlat played 81 games and had a career-high 77 points and was an integral part of the Chicago offense. His points per 60 minutes of five-on-five hockey was 2.89; but you'd hope for more than 14 power-play points for him this season. Bottom line: He, Mikko Koivu(notes) and Andrew Brunette(notes) could create fireworks this season. Provided Havlat can resist the siren's song of Twitter addiction.
Kyle Brodziak(notes) (11-16-27) comes over from Edmonton for some depth at center. Defensemen Shane Hnidy(notes) (Boston) and Greg Zanon(notes) (Nashville) bring a gritty element to the defense; in Zanon's case, he played nearly 21 minutes a night for the Preds. Petr Sykora(notes) is in camp, and odds are he'll be on the roster, too.
To The Recycle Bin (Offseason Subtractions): The Marian Gaborik(notes) Era ends after eight seasons, 219 goals and 502 out of a possible 656 regular-season games played. Both parties are better for the split; Wild fans are either going to be pointing and laughing as Gaborik's injury-plagued career continues with the New York Rangers or rather surly if he ascends to greater heights than his 42 goals and 83 points in 77 games two years ago.
Defensemen Marc-Andre Bergeron(notes) and Martin Skoula(notes) were unsigned. Defenseman Kurtis Foster(notes) and forward Stephane Veilleux(notes) both left for Tampa Bay, where they are competing with roughly 20,000 players under contract for jobs.
The Pitchman (Top Offensive Player): If it's not Havlat, it's Mikko Koivu, who exploded with 20 goals and 67 points playing with Brunette and Antti Miettinen(notes). Havlat could continue to elevate that game; but the real reason to watch Koivu this season could be the addition of Richards, who promises Koivu fits well with his up-tempo attack. So it's been a good offseason for Mikko ... even if his brother likes Teemu better.
Introducing ... (Potential Breakout Player): The two centers behind Koivu on the depth chart would appear to be Pierre-Marc Bouchard(notes), who is being shifted from the wing to the position he played in juniors, and James Sheppard(notes), the 21-year-old who had 24 points and was a minus-14 last season under Lemaire. Whether or not Bouchard excels, this could finally be a breakout year for Sheppard in a more offensive system.
At least that's what the Nostradamus of the Wild says. And who are we to argue?
Operators Are Standing By (The Defensemen): The use of Brent Burns(notes) at forward by Lemaire was annoying for everyone but fantasy players; it'll be good to see this burgeoning young star concentrate on defense, potentially with Nick Schultz(notes) as a partner. Best of all: The symptoms from his (sadly undiagnosed) concussion are gone.
The arrival of Richards is great news for both Kim Johnsson (24 points) and Marek Zidlicky(notes) (42 points), both of whom will be activated more under the new coach's sytem. Zidlicky's scored 25 power-play points in each of the last two seasons. Zanon and Hnidy are solid, veteran depth on the blue line.
The Spokesmodel (The Goalies): Niklas Backstrom's(notes) four-year, $24 million contract extension was signed on the former GM's watch and when Lemaire was still behind the bench. Now comes the time in every former Lemaire goalie's career when he must prove his stellar numbers (2.33 GAA, .923 save percentage) are more than just a product of the system. Others have their doubts, but Backstrom's still an elite keeper even if his numbers wobble.
Josh Harding(notes) twisted in the wind all summer as an RFA before signing a one-year deal with the Wild to remain their
trade bait backup goalie. The gloriously named Wade Dubielewicz(notes) is also in the mix between the pipes.
The Inventor (The Coach): Richards is highly regarded by those who've worked with him, so it's no surprise he got the call with former Penguins assistant GM Fletcher at the helm. But what to expect from him? Richards, to the Sporting News:
"Jacques (Lemaire) and the previous staff did a great job. We're not going to re-invent the wheel or the game. Hockey is hockey. For me, it's coming in and giving these guys more freedom. But with freedom comes responsibility. That's the great thing they've done in the past here, they've taught guys defensive responsibility. Now add more of the offensive side of it, some creativity ... maybe it's more aggressive."
Once he figures out freedom, offense and creativity are pretty much reinventing the wheel in Minnesota, we'll be betting somewhere ...
2009-10 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: A-
"The Wild aren't rebuilding --they are reconfiguring."
"Any predictions given for the Wild this upcoming season could be spot on... or they could be completely wrong; no one really has any idea what's actually going to happen after this off season's facelift. Eyes will be on young guys like James Sheppard and Benoit Pouliot(notes), who have huge potential but never reached it under Jacques Lemaire, and guys who struggled last season like Pierre-Marc Bouchard (opponents seem to have figured out his love for spinning). And now, with oft-injured Marian Gaborik and d-man Martin Skoula gone, Wild fans are looking for a new whipping boy (Pouliot seems to be the frontrunner at the moment)."
"On the frosted side, I expect to not be so bored and disappointed all the time. I expect more of those moments that make me love the game and make my heart swell. I expect players to be having more fun, which in turn will make fans have more fun. I expect Clutterbuck to not be the only reason to watch.
"However, the wheat side expects a few critical, early injuries that cause us to have to write the whole season off, while the only thing left to discuss for the last 5 months is how Pouliot continues to disappoint us, how great Gaborik is doing in New York, and how Bouchard still. Won't. Shoot. The [expletive] puck. But thank God we've still got Clutterbuck, so there's a reason to watch."
"With Todd Richards and the new style coming, there is a lot of discussion about excitement for an up-tempo game. My fear, however, is that the Wild don't have the players to fit the style. Richards talks about going forward this season and it not being a rebuilding year. Well, I don't see how it can't be a rebuilding year, or at the least, a transitional year. The team still lacks finishers, replaced one scoring forward with another, but not adding additional offensive talent. Kyle Brodziak, Greg Zanon, etc. are not elite scorers. The big spark needs to come from players like Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Marek Zidlicky, Benoit Pouliot, Colton Gillies(notes) and James Sheppard, who found themselves in Lemaire's doghouse for taking risks in the offensive zone. They will likely find the new system refreshing, as they'll probably have much more latitude with the puck.
"All this being said, the biggest question will be the impact on Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding. Going back to Manny Fernandez(notes) and Dwayne Roloson(notes), the Wild have had fantastic goaltending numbers, which many believed to be inflated due to the system. Backstrom signed a massive deal last season, and Harding will likely be tradebait this year to bring in young offensive talent. But if they suddenly find that the kinds of quality chances that the opposition had been denied for so long in Minnesota start showing up and Backstrom nears a 3.00 GAA, you might find people turning on Backs in a hurry or dreaming for the days of 'The Trap.'"
"Remember when Michael Corleone took over the family? It was like a breath of fresh air, an end to the long rule of Vito. Michael brought a youthful energy and new ways to do business. The Wild hockey organization is experiencing a similar revival. Gone are Jacques Lemaire and his trapping ways, only to be replaced by the self-proclaimed up-tempo style of native Minnesotan Todd Richards. Provided Havlat and Koivu stay healthy, the Wild are looking at about 95 points and should be in the running for the 8th playoff spot. Unless, that is, Todd Richards is only Fredo in disguise."
Don Draper Says ...
"Alright, Richards. Doug and Jacques laid the track. You're going to hit the switch and bring the train into the station while the rest of us have Gin Rickeys in the dining car."
Results May Vary (Biggest Issues Facing the Team): Can Richards rewire players who have been the defensive hockey equivalent of the Borg collective under Lemaire's franchise-long tenure? Is there enough offense below the potentially great top line? Can Backstrom excel without the trap; and if not, will Harding take over? And while they're quite used to star wingers missing for prolonged periods of time: Can Havlat stay healthy?
Warranty Expires (Prediction): This is going to go one of two ways. Either Richards is going to find offense in players down in the lineup who were shackled under Lemaire (and that includes the defensemen), or the Wild's new regime are going to be playing in a sandbox with someone else's toys. Chances are, in a very competitive conference, there's going to miss the playoffs this season. But that's not to say Richards doesn't have the same transformative effect as a first-year coach that we've seen in other NHL cities recently.