2011-12 Minnesota Wild Preview
Since taking over as just the second general manager in Minnesota Wild history in the summer of 2009, Chuck Fletcher has tried frantically to rebuild the Wild on the fly.
Those attempts have so far been unsuccessful as Minnesota recently missed the postseason for the third straight year, but Fletcher made some drastic changes this summer that will solidify his legacy in St. Paul, one way or the other.
In addition to firing head coach Todd Richards and replacing him with 38-year- old Mike Yeo, Fletcher also dramatically altered his club's image after a pair of blockbuster trades with the San Jose Sharks.
The first came at the 2011 NHL draft in St. Paul, where the Wild dealt star defenseman Brent Burns to the Sharks in exchange for a package that included young sniper Devin Setoguchi. Less than two weeks later, Fletcher shipped Martin Havlat to Silicon Valley for the uber-talented, yet enigmatic winger, Dany Heatley.
Minnesota's previous GM, Doug Risebrough, worked hard with longtime head coach Jacques Lemaire to build a team around defense and the neutral-zone trap. Fletcher has said all along that he wants the Wild to play a more up-tempo game and he now believes he finally has the pieces to do so.
FORWARDS - Fletcher initially tried to inject a quick jolt of offense into Minnesota when he signed Havlat to a six-year, $30 million contract in the summer of 2009. However, Havlat disappointed with just 40 goals and 116 points over 151 games, prompting Minnesota to splurge for the higher-priced Heatley.
Bringing in Heatley is a risky proposition, however, as the 30-year-old has three years remaining on a deal that nets him $7.5 million annually and he is coming off his worst full season as an NHLer. Heatley had just 26 goals and 64 points for San Jose in 2010-11 after averaging nearly 44 goals and 89 points in his five previous campaigns.
It shouldn't be difficult for Heatley to take over the role as Minnesota's best offensive player, however, considering centerman Mikko Koivu and Havlat led the team with 62 points apiece in 2010-11. Unless he goes backwards in terms of production, Heatley should greatly improve an offense that ranked 26th in goals per game last season.
Heatley figures to skate on the top line with Koivu and fellow winger Pierre- Marc Bouchard. Koivu, who also serves as Minnesota's captain, is a strong all- around player, but his offensive production dipped last year with just 17 goals and 62 points in 71 games. The Finnish pivot is beginning the first season of a seven-year, $47.25 million contract extension this year.
Bouchard, meanwhile, played in just 59 games last year and posted 12 goals and 26 assists. He is a solid playmaker who could benefit greatly from playing with Heatley.
At 24 years of age, Setoguchi has proven himself as a consistent scoring threat who has a knack for raising the level of his game when it matters most. He tallied 22 goals and 19 assists in 72 games for the Sharks during the regular season and added seven more goals in 18 playoff games.
San Jose had signed Setoguchi to a three-year, $9 million contract just one day before getting dealt to the Wild, so Minnesota will get what should be prime years for the youngster.
Setoguchi could play right wing on a second line that features centerman Matt Cullen, who recorded 12 goals and 27 assists in 78 games with the Wild last year.
The Wild hope another winger, Cal Clutterbuck, continues his ascent in 2011-12. Clutterbuck has improved his goal and assists totals in each of the last three season and finished with 19 markers and 15 helpers in 76 games last year. The 23-year-old is also known as a pest who excels at getting under the opposition's skin.
On the other hand, Guillaume Latendresse would like to put last year behind him as he played in just 11 games in 2010-11 due to a sports hernia and torn labrum in his hip.
Latendresse was traded from Montreal to Minnesota in November of 2009 and tallied 37 points (25 goals, 12 assists) in a 55-game stint with the Wild that year. At the end of the season, Minnesota owner Craig Leipold blamed Latendresse's injury-plagued year on being out of shape, so the 24-year-old should be eager to prove his boss wrong this season.
With Kyle Brodziak (16g, 21a in 2010-11) expected to center the third line, the Wild will likely use speedy grinder Darroll Powe as the fourth-line pivot. Powe spent the last few years in Philadelphia and had seven goals and 10 assists in 81 games with the Flyers in 2010-11.
Minnesota had a decent power-play unit last year, as the Wild finished 13th in the league on the man advantage. The loss of Burns at the blue line hurts, but Fletcher hopes the addition of Heatley and Setoguchi can help offset that departure. Heatley does have more power-play goals (128) since 2001 than any other player.
DEFENSE - Burns was the primary puck-mover on the Minnesota blue line and his exodus leaves the role of Minnesota's No. 1 defenseman up for grabs.
Marek Zidlicky, 34, is the heir apparent to Burns, but he needs to stay healthy this year after managing to play in just 46 games in 2010-11. Still, Zidlicky had seven goals and 17 assists in his shortened campaign and is the best two-way blueliner left in St. Paul.
Greg Zanon, 31, is a stay-at-home defenseman that will likely join Zidlicky to form Minnesota's top pairing. Zanon skated in all 82 games for the Wild last year and posted seven assists. Nick Schultz, 29, is also back after notching three goals and 14 assists in 74 contests last year.
The Wild brought in Minnesota native Mike Lundin this summer, signing the 26- year-old to a one-year, $1 million deal. Lundin had one goal and 11 assists in 69 games for Tampa Bay last year.
Jared Spurgeon, Clayton Stoner and Marco Scandella, who have played a combined 138 games at the NHL level, will make up the remainder of Minnesota's blue line.
GOALTENDING - After suffering through a down 2009-10 season, the Wild received a better effort from goaltender Niklas Backstrom last year.
Backstrom was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy in 2008-09, but followed that campaign by going 26-23-8 with a 2.72 goals-against average and .903 save percentage two years ago. Last season, the Finnish backstop was 22-23-5 with a 2.66 GAA and a much-better .916 save percentage.
Now that the days of Lemaire and the neutral-zone trap are gone, Backstrom will find it difficult to regain his stellar numbers of 2008-09 (37-24-8, 2.33 GAA, .923 save pct.) but the Wild can't afford him to regress any further.
Backstrom will also have Josh Harding back to spell him this year after the backup missed the entire 2010-11 campaign with a torn ACL and MCL. Like Backstrom, Harding also had a bad season two years ago, going 9-12-0 with a 3.05 GAA and an even .900 save percentage.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - Knowing that he won't be given forever to get Minnesota back to the playoffs, Fletcher rolled the dice on Heatley and Setoguchi this summer. The offseason moves will make Minnesota a better team than the 86-point club it was a year ago, but the Wild will have to fight until the very end to make the playoffs. However, with too many questions about depth, especially on defense, and a 38-year-old rookie head coach, Minnesota could be headed for a fourth straight year out of the postseason.