As the season nears, Flames Nation begins its look ahead to the competition, such as it is, that the Flames will face in the Northwest Division. First up, the Minnesota Wild.
10/11 finish: 86 points, 3rd in the NW, 12th in the Conference
Playoffs: none since 07/08
Key Players: Koivu, Heatley, Bouchard, Setoguchi, Latendresse, Clutterbuck, Backstrom
Additions: Heatley, Setoguchi, Brunette
Subtractions: Burns, Havlat
Cap Position: 9.4M under the number
Projected finish: between 9th and 13th in the Conference
After another season wallowing in the Conference’s second tier, Chuck Fletcher embarked on a major retooling of his club this past off-season. He fired his coach, then made two major deals with the San Jose Sharks to add scoring depth to a team that had a terrible time generating any offence at all.
Last year’s Wild might well have been in the bottom two or three clubs in the entire league at EV. As I’ve mentioned previously, I like to use EV-tied Fenwick performance as a proxy when we don’t have full scoring chance numbers, and by that metric, the Wild were astonishingly bad. The Wild managed a putrid EV-tied Fenwick figure of .437, precisely the same as the 30th placed Oil, who were even more injury riddled than Minnesota last year.
In contrast, the worst playoff team in the West, Anaheim, was at .464 and the next-worst Coyotes finished the regular year with a .499 EV-tied Fenwick figure. Every other playoff team as well as Calgary and St. Louis finished in the black by that metric. Not everything is an accident, in other words.
In response to that performance, the Wild acquired Devon Setoguchi and Dany Heatley to bolster a weak forward corps. The question worth asking, of course, is whether either of those gents will be able to do so, and their past history suggests that it’s still an open question. Setoguchi played good comp to a draw last season, albeit with some fairly cushy ZS numbers to aid matters. He’s still only 24, so the potential for him to improve is out there, and he should get his chances on the PP as well.
Heatley, on the other hand, is probably at a career crossroads. The troubling number that caught my attention when I looked back at his 10/11 performance was the shots on goal total. He managed 217 for the season, which was the lowest he’s posted for a full season since he was a rookie. He follwed an indifferent regular year with a poor playoff, and as a result, Doug Wilson took his first opportunity after a contractual window opened to move the winger for Martin Havlat.
The reason that the SOG total is worth mentioning is that he played on a team that was very good at generating shots, especially on the PP, which might lead one to believe that Heatley wasn’t as involved in the offence as in the past, and it’s a number worth watching this year. More to the point, his primary skill as a player is that he’s been an outshooter based on volume. If he isn’t getting a pile of shots, his value plummets, since he’s nothing special in his own end. He’s on a pretty juicy contract as well, so I’d suspect his play for a team historically challenged to score will get a bit of scrutiny.
One thing that might help the Wild would be better health for Latendresse and Bouchard. Both of those guys can play a bit, and if they can stay healthy, a group of forwards featuring those two, Heatley, Koivu and Setoguchi might be able to get by. The other forward of note might end up being Cal Clutterbuck. He plays like a first-rate jackass virtually every night, but he’s no stiff. If Yeo doesn’t bury him with D-Zone starts in the way that Richards chose, he’ll likely get more attention as a pretty productive player. Kyle Brodziak and former Flyer Darrell Powe aren’t terrible either, and those gents are the most likely to benefit from a deeper group of forwards.
The fallout from bringing in Setoguchi and adding a nice prospect in Charlie Coyle is that the Wild lost a very good defender in the bargain. Brent Burns always seemed like he should be a bit better than he showed, but his absence will leave MInnesota with an extremely sub-par set of defencemen. When your two best guys are Nick Schultz and Greg Zanon, you aren’t good. Mike Lundin was a nice pickup as a UFA, but he wouldn’t just walk into a good team’s top four in the way that’s almost certain to occur for him with the Wild. It’s the weakest part of the club by a fair margin, and one not likely to be addressed by any prospects in the immediate future.
The goaltending seems decent enough, as Nik Backstrom had a rebound season that kept the Wild more or less competitive. He and Josh Harding should be solid enough, presuming Harding is all the way back from his knee injury. Jose Theodore was a decent backup last season, and the WIld, even with better forwards, will almost certainly need that sort of work from Backstrom and Harding to be in the hunt this year.
Beyond the changes to personnel, the Wild made a major move behind the bench. Todd Richards, who had the unenviable job of following Jacques Lemaire as the team’s coach, was given the bullet immediately following the season, with former Aeros coach Mike Yeo getting the nod to take over as head man. Like Fletcher, Yeo had previously worked in the Penguins organization before running the Aeros, so it’s fairly clear that Fletcher wanted a commodity known to him, despite the fact that Yeo has all of one year as a head coach under his belt.
That one year was a very good one, of course, with the Aeros reaching the Calder Cup final, so we’ll see how he manages in the bigs is still up for debate. One move he might have to consider is using his best player, Koivu, in more power v. power scenarios. Richards buried the Clutterbucks and Nystroms so that his skill guys could get the high ground, but the bottom end forwards got torched in the bargain**. With the shaky nature of the Wild D added in, I’m not sure that strategy is a winner.
The Wild might well be better this year and still tread water in the standings. Whatever I might think of the Heater/Havlat trade (not much), having Latendresse and Bouchard back for full seasons should help the team generate a bit more up front. I just can’t shake the feeling that the Wild’s thin defence will be their undoing, though, and because of that and the very competitive nature of the West, I think they’ll need a Hasek season from Backstrom to make the playoffs.
That noted, if they’re in the hunt come late January, they’ll have enough cap room to add a decent blueliner or two, which might be enough to sneak them into 7th or 8th. Decent rental defencemen are usually a commodity that appear in significant numbers at the deadline, so the trick for the Wild will be hanging in until about the 50 game mark.
Then again, maybe Chuck Fletcher is keeping his powder dry for July 1, 2012. The Wild will have cap space to work with, Heatley is the only top-end forward on the roster over 30, and with Granlund and Coyle in the pipeline, adding a top UFA defenceman might give this team a serious boost down the line. Maybe like a guy that grew up about 260 miles away. That sort of move might be the catalyst to get the Wild out of the mushy middle, so it could well be that a patient season by Wild management should be the order of the day.
** Appropriately, this issue is one raised by Kent Wilson in his look at the Wild in this year’s Hockey Prospectus annual.