We're about halfway done with our season preview and are a little ahead of schedule. Hopefully we can get this kicked out well before September ends and the teams start their travel season in lovely Europe. Pre-season hockey rules so go check it out in a town near you!
And now, the Minnesota Wild.
Team M.O.: The team utilized a solid defensive style throughout the beginning of their existence. However, following seasons of inconsistency and the incident of Marian Gaborik leaving the team through free agency, former GM Doug Risebrough was replaced with Chuck Fletcher while former coach Jacques Lemaire stepped down for newcomber Todd Richards to come on board. Richards boasted a new type of game than the previous organization did; lets just say it didn't go over entire too well that first year...
Last Season: Thirteenth in the Western Conference and out of the playoffs. Frankly, it doesn't look much better this season.
Offense: Mikko Koivu just signed a seven-year extension and while he might not have the offensive numbers of an idea Number 1 center, he still has an excellent work-rate and is a solid option for a team's top line. Martin Havlat managed to avoid injuries (for the most part) but saw his production come back to the 50 point range (after posting 77 points the season prior) and suffered through his first minus-rated season since 2002. Guillaume Latendresse appears to be doing better in Minnesota than he was playing for the Montreal Canadiens; he'll need to put up some consistency in order to erase any doubts. Matt Cullen was signed through the off-season and provides the team with a versatile forward who can be used judiciously on the second-unit and special teams. Antti Miettinen is also finding a legitimate level of offensive consistency with his game and should supply the team with 40-50 points this season. Andrew Brunette's production actually improved by 10 points from the previous season; though he's getting older he can still be a significant factor for the team's scoring.
It's unfortunate I can't mention Pierre-Marc Bouchard in the same light as those guys but he's still suffering through a concussion he sustained at the start of last season and there isn't a time table for a return. Though the team could try and make a move for an offensive player, they might be just as well-off if they give Casey Wellman a shot at being that offensive forward who splits time between either the press box and the ice or between the minors and the NHL.
Kyle Brodziak put up a career best of 33 points last season and appears to be a sound option for any team's third unit. Chuck Kobasew's production fell off a cliff between two seasons ago (42 points) in comparison to last season's totals (15). Knee injuries were a factor, though, so a healthy Kobasew should be capable of boosting the offensive production on a depth line. Cal Clutterbuck is a solid grinder but you can't help but feel that he needs to produce more to warrant more ice time. John Madden brings his Stanley Cup championship over from the Chicago Blackhawks and will give the team a solid faceoff man and penalty killer. Eric Nystrom was acquired during the off-season from the Calgary Flames to give the team a versatile forward in a defensive mold. The departure of Derek Boogaard created an opening for Brad Staubitz to come over and play the role of enforcer. James Sheppard has been woefully inconsistent and you can't help but wonder if he was asked to do too much too soon; he might have to require a complete change of scenery to realize his potential. Robbie Earl performed well enough in call-up duty to warrant a right to challenge for a depth spot on the NHL club.
Their defensive forwards seem to be lacking too and could stand to be fortified with someone in the mold of Darcy Tucker, IMO. In fact, he's still free if they should be interested in signing him.
Defense: Marek Zidlicky has been wonderfully productive for the team but could stand to still do the defensive things right to help a club get out of their losing ways. After having a breakout season in 2007-08, Brent Burns has seen his production and role regress due to a large part of all the injuries he's suffered in the past few seasons. Cam Barker was acquired mid-season from the Chicago Blackhawks and managed to increase his production-rate with more ice time; he should give the team a solid Number 3 defender going into the season. Defensive defender Greg Zanon saw his numbers suffer on a team notorious for bad defense last season but is the kinda guy who will still provide maximum effort even when the poo hits the fan. Nick Schultz managed to increase his production and could ascend the depth chart if he manages to keep it up.
For their Number 6 and 7 spots, the team has Clayton Stoner, Nate Prosser, Maxim Noreau, and Justin Falk all looking to battle for spots. While I couldn't necessarily object to going with one of them (Stoner in particular and no, not because of the last name), injuries are too much of a concern on this team for them to go into the season with what they have now and should look to grab at least another NHL defender, perhaps two, if they deem that their prospects aren't quite ready for "the jump."
Goaltending: Niklas Backstrom was considered unspectacular last season yet considering his Olympic numbers and the numbers he put up the previous season, it's not entirely impossible he suffered because the team in front of him was lacking in defense; he'll get his chance to prove this season that this was an aberration. Josh Harding is touted to have the gifts of a starting netminder yet hasn't played more than 29 games in a single NHL season, which leaves you to wonder if the team's utilizing him properly. Anton Khudobin has been unspectacular in the minors but was completely dominant in two appearances with the Wild last season; if he can put together a complete season down in Houston he could very well ascend the depth chart in front of both Backstrom and Harding. Minnesota will likely have Dennis Endras as the team's depth option in Houston while their remaining prospects play for their current teams.
Management: IMO, Fletcher received a decent team which he's put a little bit of work into but hasn't managed to put together a group that's complete enough to compete for 82 games a season. If Fletcher is committed to the type of game Richards is trying to execute, a full-rebuild might be necessary for the club.
Prediction: Fourth in the Northwest Division and out of the playoffs.
When you factor in the potential for injuries and inconsistency, there isn't a whole lot of faith one can put in Minnesota's current level of depth to bail them out over the course of an entire season. As I alluded to earlier, the organization has this season to return to the playoffs. Otherwise, they're going to have to hit that "rebuild" button and the resolve of the Minnesota hockey market will be tested for the next few seasons to come.