2011-2012 season preview: Minnesota Wild
2010-2011 record: 39-35-8, 86 points; 3rd in Northwest, 12th in West
Playoffs: Did not qualify
After treading water the past few seasons in uninspiring fashion, the Wild teamed up with the Sharks to drastically change the outlook of their offensive attack this offseason. Could that streamlining paired up with better health to their defense and goaltending put the Wild back in the postseason? Wild fans are excited no matter what.
Goals were and have been an issue for the Wild since the team’s inception. After finishing in the bottom five in the NHL in goals scored last year, GM Chuck Fletcher changed things up acquiring Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi in separate deals with San Jose. Throw those two on a line with Mikko Koivu and suddenly the Wild have a completely capable top scoring line. With Marek Zidlicky carrying the puck for them with Brent Burns out of town and a second line featuring healthy versions of Guillaume Latendresse and Pierre-Marc Bouchard, coach Mike Yeo is hoping for the goals to come more frequently. Defensively, Cal Clutterbuck gets joined by Darroll Powe to create a heavy hitting set of forwards. Eric Nystrom, Kyle Brodziak, and Brad Staubitz will wreak havoc on opponents with big hits.
The Wild saying they’re going to fall back on the trap a bit more this season shouldn’t give fans the shakes but comfort in knowing that it’s going to happen with a purpose. The defensemen outside of Zidlicky, Nick Schultz, and Greg Zanon are really green and not just because of the team’s sweaters. Jared Spurgeon, Justin Falk, and Clayton Stoner all have some NHL experience now, but they’ll need to prove they can cut it. Mike Lundin comes over from Tampa Bay looking to prove getting squeezed out of the mix there was a mistake on their part. Things could go well here, but there’s going to be mistakes made. Limiting them is what they hope the trap can help out with.
Niklas Backstrom is back again as the man in goal. At 33, time is dwindling down for the Finn to get it done for the Wild and after having some nagging injury problems last season, the Wild are hoping he can rebound with as strong of a season as they know they can bank on from him. Josh Harding returns as his backup goalie after missing all of last season with a knee injury. He was solid two years ago as the backup in spelling Backstrom from doing too much. How he bounces back after a year away will be something the Wild will have to watch closely.
Mike Yeo enters into his first head coaching job in the NHL getting to try and turn things around for the Wild. Yeo is Dan Bylsma’s former assistant coach in Pittsburgh and after spending last season coaching the Wild’s farm team in Houston, the Aeros’ success earned Yeo the shot at the top job in Minnesota. Yeo shouldn’t have any job worries this season unless an epic losing streak comes into play. That shouldn’t happen. We think.
Are Mikael Granlund and his magical shootout moves here yet? He’s still in Finland? Well shoot. All right, how about defenseman Jared Spurgeon then?He’s small (5-foot-9, 185 pounds) but defense is the one area where a player can step up in a big way here and grab the spotlight. It’s also the position where the Wild really need someone to step up bit and Spurgeon showed glimpses of slick ability last season. If Spurgeon can’t do it then perhaps Marco Scandella can on the blue line as well. If anyone slumps or struggles, there’ll be chances to make it all better.
Heatley, Koivu, and Setoguchi become a revelation in Minnesota becoming one of the top lines in the league and a threat to change a game on any shift. Latendresse and Bouchard remain healthy and productive with Latendresse pushing the 30-goal barrier in the process while either Brodziak or Matt Cullen lead the way up the middle on that line. The defense plays tight and strong limiting mistakes that make Backstrom’s life a lot easier in goal as the Wild fight through the West and an iffy division into a playoff spot at the bottom of the West.
Reality here is that this is a thin lineup. An injury to any player will expose the weaknesses of the Wild’s system and any injuries to guys on the top two lines will be offense killers. The Wild are going to be a little bit better, the question is will it be enough to get into the postseason? That’s debatable and seems unlikely.