Looking back at the 2009-10 season, the name “Wild” was fitting for the hockey club that hails from St. Paul, Minnesota. For the second straight year, the Wild failed to make playoffs, finishing with 84 points and a fourth-place finish in the Northwest Division. Though they played well against Eastern Conference teams (10-4-4), their record against foes in the West was just 28-32-4. Also, Minnesota scored 86 goals in their 13 road victories (13-24-4), a league low. It didn’t help that the Wild had 342 man-games lost to injury last season.
On a positive note, the Wild won 52.2-percent of their faceoffs last campaign, fourth best in the NHL, while sporting a healthy home record of 25-12-4. So, going into this season there are some positive aspects to build upon.
Head coach Todd Richards, a Minnesota native, returns for his second season behind the bench. Richards is known for being a winner, reaching the playoffs every year he played as a player (13 yrs.) and as a member of coaching staffs (7 yrs.). The 20-year streak was broken last season, but Richards looks to rebound with his team this year. Second-year General Manager, Chuck Fletcher, is charged with the task of bringing in the talent and changing the fortunes of this hockey club to bring the Stanley Cup to the North Star State for the first time.
For all the negatives, there were some bright spots last season, led by team captain Mikko Koivu. Koivu led the team in points (71), as well as assists (49). Left winger Andrew Brunette was second on the Wild with 61 points, which included 25 goals. Of players that played a minimum of 60 games last season, Brunette led the league with a shooting percentage of 19.4%, scoring his 25 goals on just 129 total shots.
No player may have had more pressure on him last year than Martin Havlat, one of the team’s key forwards. Havlat was signed (five years/$30 million) as the replacement for departed superstar, Marion Gaborik, and the scoring he took with him to Madison Square Garden last season. Havlat finished third on the team in scoring (54 pts.) and is fully expected to add to that total this year.
GM Fletcher spent the offseason bringing back most of the talent from last year, re-signing most of the teams’ free agents. Left winger Guillame Latendresse led the Wild with 27 goals last season, and was brought back with a two-year deal. Backup goalie Josh Harding was also re-signed, and the same goes for center James Sheppard -- who broke his left kneecap in an ATV accident this offseason. Luckily, the team added some depth at center with the signings of centers Matt Cullen (48 pts) and John Madden (23 pts.) - both are NHL veterans and Stanley Cup winners. Cullen won with the Hurricanes during the 2005-06 season. Madden has won two the Devils and his third last season, while playing for the champion Chicago Blackhawks. Madden is known more for his penalty killing abilities and two-way play. Rumors swirled this summer that American hockey legend Mike Modano would finish his Hall of Fame career back in Minnesota, where he was a member of the now-extinct Minnesota North Stars. But Modano eventually signed with Detroit.
Also gone is team enforcer Derek Boogaard. A literal giant among men at 6-foot-8, 257 pounds, Boogaard bolted for the bright lights of Broadway and the New York Rangers, taking with him his team-best 105 penalty minutes. To replace Boogaard, the Wild brought in San Jose tough guy Brad Staubitz. The defenseman should add some depth and physicality to what has been a relatively weak blue line.
Starting netminder Niklas Backstrom is looking to get back to his form of two years ago, when he won 37 games (eight shutouts) along with a .923 save percentage and a 2.33 GAA. His numbers were subpar last season: 23 wins, .903 save percentage and a 2.72 GAA. Injuries to the starting goalie’s back and groin caused him to miss 11 games last year. Look for Backstrom to bounce back this season and again be a Vezina finalist. Along with backup Harding, the Wild have one of the better goalie tandems in the NHL, they only need more offensive support.
As we look forward to the upcoming season, the Wild should be a tough team to beat. They have the scoring and the goaltending talent that should get them back to their playoff form of two years ago. Now, hopefully the only thing that will be ‘wild’ about this team is their name - not their upcoming season.
THE BIG GUNS
Mikko Koivu (C): Koivu scored a career-high 71 points last season and has become the focal point of Minnesota's offense. He underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder to repair a torn labrum and arthroscopic surgery on his right knee after the end of the season, so check on his health during the preseason.
Martin Havlat (RW): Havlat got off to a slow start with the Wild after groin and hamstring injuries early in the season. He had just eight points in his first 19 games, but found a groove in the offense in the second half and scored 46 points in his final 54 games. As always, Havlat carries significant injury risk even after playing over 70 games for the second time in seven seasons, but he should be the main scorer on the Wild's top line again.
Andrew Brunette (LW): One player that benefited heavily from coach Richards’ open style of play was Brunette. He scored 25 goals last year and registered 61 points, both of which were good enough for second on the team. With a year of playing in a new system under his belt, there’s no reason why we can’t expect Brunette to score 30 goals and collect 70 points.
ON THE RISE
Marek Zidlicky (D): While Zidlicky's goal scoring was down last season, he turned in his typical season with lots of production on the power play. He made up for just three power-play goals with 20 assists on the man advantage. He could move up to the 50-point level if the Wild move to a more open attack and with Cam Barker helping improve the scoring touch of the defensive corps.
Guillaume Latendresse (LW): Latendresse turned his career around after he was traded to Minnesota from Montreal last season, scoring 38 points in 64 games with the Wild. He should be a nice sleeper this season in his first full season with Minnesota, especially since the move out of Montreal and fresh start with the Wild seemed to rejuvenate him.
Brent Burns (D): A first-round pick in 2003, Burns was the third-highest scoring defenseman on the team last season with 20 points (3 G, 17 A) - not bad for a 25-year-old kid that only played in 47 games. Burns has the ability to put up points, making him a young player to closely keep your eyes on.
TWO TO AVOID
Antti Miettinen (RW): Miettinen had a career-high 20 goals last season, but don't expect much improvement at age 30. He's good to score about 40 points a season, but doesn't add much elsewhere for fantasy purposes. He doesn't get a ton of power play time, penalty minutes or help with the plus/minus category.
Niklas Backstrom (G): Backstrom's stats took a hit with the move away from defensive-minded head coach Jacques Lemaire to Todd Richards' more open attack. Considering that the Wild fell to 21st in goals allowed from second in 2008-09, it's amazing Backstrom's stats didn't suffer more. He'll get the majority of starts ahead of backup Josh Harding, but his stats may suffer again as Richards focuses his energy on offense.
Mikael Granlund (C): The ninth overall pick in the 2010 Entry Draft, Granlund is the real deal. This brilliant playmaker skated in Finland’s top league and averaged nearly a point per game in 2009-10 - (13 G, 27 A) in 43 games. More impressive: he was only 17 years old.
Tyler Cuma (D): The 2008 top team prospect, Cuma is the future anchor of the blue line. This physical defenseman (6-foot-2, 192 pounds) was a team leader on the Ottawa 67s (OHL). He should make the club in Minnesota any time now, and he’ll give you his fare share of points once he cracks an NHL lineup.
Matthew Hackett (G): This third-round pick in 2009 put up great numbers for the Plymouth Whalers (OHL) in 2008-2009. He started the season as a backup but ended the season as the team’s top goalie, posting a 34-15-3 record to go along with a 3.04 GAA. He’s certainly worth watching.