Time of major changes for the Wild

Doug Risebrough, the only general manager the Minnesota Wild franchise had known, got fired. Jacques Lemaire, the only coach of the team, resigned. And the team finally cut ties with injury-plagued, underachieving forward Marian Gaborik(notes), the last of the original playing members of the team.

Photo Chuck Fletcher was hired as general manager to replace Doug Risebrough.
(Kyndell Harkness/Associated Press)

And they were all the right moves.

Make no mistake, Risebrough is a bright and experienced hockey executive and Lemaire is a wily coach with many years left. Gaborik? Great player when he’s in the lineup, but he wasn’t in the lineup enough. There comes time for change, and it was probably a year overdue here.

The Gaborik negotiations, or lack thereof, may have gone as far as anything to number Risebrough’s days. Lemaire needed a new place to call home, and that will be New Jersey, where he had comfort and success before. Gaborik is the Rangers’ problem now, and the faithful, ultra-supportive Wild supporters know what that means.

Minnesota had arguably been the most successful of the nine expansion franchises that joined the league since 1991-92. The Wild achieved the Western Conference finals in only their third season, qualified for the playoffs in three of their first eight seasons and always seemed to be a difficult outfit even during their non-playoff campaigns.

But the team seemed to flatten out, become predictable and didn’t appear to know really how to change things to move to another level. So now they’re more than turning the page in St. Paul. This isn’t even a new chapter. We’re talking a brand-new book here.

When the Wild looked for Risebrough’s replacement, they settled on a candidate who comes from good bloodlines and a successful organization. Chuck Fletcher is the son of Hall of Famer Cliff Fletcher, and the son was assistant GM of the Stanley Cup champion Penguins. He dipped into the coaching pool for Todd Richards, unknown to most NHL fans but not to those in the State of Hockey or to Fletcher.

Richards, born and raised in Minnesota, coached the Penguins’ top minor-league affiliate when Fletcher was with the Pittsburgh organization. Richards had since moved on to San Jose last season to become then-rookie coach Todd McLellan’s assistant, and the Sharks gave Richards permission to pursue a head-man’s job since there was no secret that was his ultimate ambition.

Photo
Koivu

Richards hopes to pattern the Wild after the Sharks, who basically copied the Red Wings’ blueprint for success. McLellan, a former Red Wings’ assistant, brought the philosophy of dictating play, involving the defense in the offense when at all possible and throwing as many pucks at the net as you can. Richards wants Minnesota to play quick and aggressive, too, and what a vast departure that will be considering the Wild’s reputation for a trapping, patient, slow-it-down style.

Last season: 40-33-9 (89 points), third place Northwest Division, ninth in the Western Conference and 19th in the overall standings. The Wild missed out on the postseason for the first time in three seasons.

Imports: General manager Chuck Fletcher, coach Todd Richards, RW Martin Havlat(notes) (Chicago), D Shane Hnidy(notes) (Boston), D Greg Zanon(notes) (Nashville), C Kyle Brodziak(notes) (Edmonton) and G Wade Dubielewicz(notes) (Columbus).

Exports: GM Doug Risebrough, coach Jacques Lemaire, RW Marian Gaborik (N.Y. Rangers), LW Stephane Veilleux(notes) (Tampa Bay), D Kurtis Foster(notes) (Tampa Bay).

Re-signings: G Josh Harding(notes).

Salary cap: The Wild are surprisingly close to the ceiling of the cap considering they shed themselves the burden of having to pay Marian Gaborik. Minnesota has approximately $53.7 million committed with a cushion of only about $4.1 million.

Photo
Havlat

Three keys: If changing the style of attack is going to work, it’s not as much the forwards being asked to kick it up as the onus switching to the defense to move the puck and become actively involved in the attack.

Aside from Brent Burns(notes) and Nick Schultz(notes), the other logical top defensemen are all non-Minnesota draftees and between 29-33 years of age – a group that includes Marek Zidlicky(notes), Greg Zanon, Kim Johnsson(notes) and Shane Hnidy. Certainly a younger defender or two could creep into the mix, but the Wild must be aware of keeping those older legs fresh throughout the season somehow if they want to run a high-octane attack.

Second, Mikko Koivu(notes) had a nice breakthrough season last year, his fourth year in the leagues, scoring 20 goals and 67 points during 79 games. The sixth pick of the 2001 draft will have to be as productive and then some to help the Wild improve on a 22nd-ranked offense.

A new, unshackled system may help, but Koivu will also have a new linemate in Havlat and not a whole lot of offensive depth around him to pull this off. Minnesota has invited Petr Sykora(notes) in for a camp tryout, which might suggest the lengths the Wild is reaching for goal scoring.

Third, Niklas Backstrom(notes) has a nice, $6 million annual income for this and the next three seasons, and the 31-year-old late-bloomer has certainly put up terrific numbers during the first three seasons of his NHL career (.923 save percentage and a 2.24 goals-against average.

But remember, Backstrom benefited, too, from Lemaire’s conservative style and now he may be left a bit more exposed. Backstrom might face more odd-man breaks, or simply the number of shots allowed and even the quality of shots might improve. He’ll have to be up to the task, too, since he is clearly the No. 1.

On the hot seat: Martin Havlat didn’t ask for this, but the comparisons will likely be inevitable since the 28-year-old offseason acquisition is basically replacing Gaborik, the Slovak star who couldn’t fulfill expectations in Minnesota because of nagging injuries.

Photo Minnesota goalie Niklas Backstrom has put up outstanding numbers the first three years of his career.
(Scott A. Schneider/Getty)

Wild fans will like the fact Havlat appeared in 81 of Chicago’s 82 games last season, managing 29 goals and 77 points along the way. They won’t be so thrilled with his game totals the previous three campaigns – 18, 56 and 35. Havlat’s $30-million deal runs through 2015 so he has plenty of time to get comfy cozy in Minnesota.

Poised to blossom: Pierre-Marc Bouchard(notes) already has six NHL seasons under his belt, but the 25-year-old has never really produced in the manner that would validate his selection as the eighth player drafted overall in 2002.

The arrival of Richards and the change in systems, assuming that’s what really happens, might be what Bouchard needs to climb out from under Gaborik’s shadow and become the offensive leader of this team. Questions about his lack of size might have been legitimate when he broke in, but under the new NHL, and the opportunity for smaller players to not face all the inference-based defense of days gone, invite Bouchard to boost his point totals.

Time has passed: You really have to hand it to Owen Nolan(notes) for resurrecting a career that look over several years ago when he was toiling in Phoenix. But the image of Nolan duplicating his power-forward numbers while in San Jose during the prime of his career are unrealistic despite how much the Wild could use more offense.

The best thing Nolan could do in the final year of his contract is provide the veteran leadership and work hard shift after shift, which is something he did well under Lemaire’s disciplined system. It’s obvious Nolan still loves the game, and the epiphany-like change in his personality to a positive, friendlier teammate over those grumpy days as captain of the Sharks can go a long way in mentoring the up-and-coming Wild.

Just don’t ask him to score 20 goals and produce 60 points.

Prediction: It says here, between new management, a rookie coach, a new system and not the deepest offensive team on paper, the Wild are going to struggle to crack the top eight in the West race. It’s going to be a year of transition and possibly a bit of rebuilding before all’s said and done.

Ross McKeon is an NHL editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Ross a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Sep 15, 2009