Flames Nation continues its review of the other Northwest Division squads. Next up, Minnesota.
Regular season – 4th in the NW, 13th in the conference
Playoffs – none since 07/08
Key players – Koivu, Havlat, Latendresse, Burns, Backstrom
Significant additions – Cullen, Madden, Theodore, Nystrom
Injuries – Bouchard, Harding
Cap position – tighter than it should be
Predicted finish – in the cluster between 7th and 12th in the conference
The Wild found out that life really didn’t get better without Jacques Lemaire in 09/10 as injuries, indifferent play from a major UFA signing and poor goaltending left them outside the playoffs. This season might not seem as if it will be much different, either. Minnesota was a semi-peripheral player in the UFA market, and their drafting has been about as good as Calgary’s. That’s not a compliment, on the off-chance you were wondering.
Any preview of the Wild has to start with Mikko Koivu. The Finn is an underrated gem, really. He can play the toughs to a standstill, and creates enough offence in the process that a deeper team would feed off his excellence. As of next year, when he’s getting almost 7M, he won’t be underappreciated by his financial advisor even if the rest of the hockey world isn’t always sure what to make of him. He’s joined by Andrew Brunette on the first line, who has the remarkable skill of shooting from very short range, if nothing else. The Wild could really use Pierre-Marc Bouchard to get over his concussion. He’d be a solid winger for Koivu, and the Wild missed him more than most might have realized. Bouchard is travelling with the team and has resumed practicing, but there’s no timetable for his return.
It’s behind Koivu’s group where things get interesting. Martin Havlat was brought over last summer at considerable expense to add a solid top-sixer. He had a horrible start, though, and even the mid-season acquisition of Guillaume Latendresse to the second unit wasn’t enough to get the Wild into the post-season. Latendresse might be headed for a bit of a drop from his rate of 25 goals in 55 games after his move from the Habs, given that most players don’t sustain 18.8 SH% over an extended period, but if he finished with 25 goals in a full season, that would likely be considered acceptable. His past SH% numbers wouldn’t rule out that sort of production, and he’ll get his chances on the PP. Matt Cullen will join the duo after the Minnesota native opted to return to his roots for the next three years. Cullen was a decent second/third banana in Carolina and Ottawa, and he’ll be asked to produce in his normal 50 point range.
The Wild added another pair of FAs this summer to the bottom six. John Madden, last seen obtaining another Stanley Cup ring with the Hawks, will center the third group, and pre-season reports suggest our old pal Eric Nystrom will have his chance at regular top-nine minutes alongside the veteran pivot. I’ve presented a rather sceptical view of that signing here, since I’m not anywhere near convinced that Nyzerman can help a good club if he’s a regular.
Minnesota’s defence isn’t terrible. They have a decent enough first five, and Greg Zanon has been a bit overlooked as a shutdown guy, both in St. Paul and Nashville. He and Nick Schultz provide the own-zone nous, while Brent Burns, Marek Zidlicky and Cam Barker will be the main PP contributors. Zidlicky is out in the short term with a wonky groin, but the former Pred will be part of a good PP unit, which was one thing that didn’t depart when Lemaire left.
Burns missed a pile of time last season, and his return to form might be a key in returning the Wild to respectability. When he’s healthy, Burns is a terrific talent that can influence the game at both ends, and a team that struggled to create offence needs every bit of input it can get.
Niklas Backstrom was not very good last season. There’s been some suggestion over the years that Lemaire was the one coach that was able to influence a goaltender’s SV% by reducing the quality of scoring chances via stylistic measures. If that’s so, Backstrom was a terrible signing at 6M a year, but even a modest bounce-back into the .920 range at EV would be a boon for the Wild. He’ll be backed up by Jose Theodore, after his regular caddy Josh Harding blew out his knee in training camp.
The Wild aren’t an awful team like the Islanders or last year’s Oilers, but they do seem stuck in the mushy middle, and as Flames’ fans know all too well, that’s not an easy place to escape. If the Wild are to contend, they require a return to form from Backstrom and Havlat, as well as good health for Burns and Bouchard. The added depth of Madden and Cullen might also help them get back on the good side of the shot clock, because last year’s team was out-shot by a pretty wide margin. At any rate, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were within shouting range of the post-season, and if the Flames and Avs falter, they might get a playoff spot. The Wild will very likely be part of a group of teams around 85-95 points, with the bounces likely determining who moves on in April.