Since taking over as just the second general manager in 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 talented, yet enigmatic Heatley.
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 winger 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.
Still, it shouldn't be difficult for Heatley to take over the role as Minnesota's best offensive player, 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.
With Burns gone to San Jose, the Wild will need someone to fill the void of No. 1 defensemen and that uncertainty could make things difficult on goaltender Niklas Backstrom.
After suffering through a down 2009-10 season, the Wild received a better effort from 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.
Backstrom is expected to start tonight and is 7-3-1 with a 2.27 goals-against average in 12 career games against Columbus.
Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets opened the season with a home loss, dropping Friday's tilt against the Nashville Predators by a 3-2 score. Ryan Suter, Craig Smith and Matt Halischuk tallied for Nashville and Pekka Rinne stopped 32-of-34 shots to make those goals stand up for the win.
"Pekka Rinne was solid for 60 minutes," said Blue Jackets head coach Scott Arniel. "We were throwing lots of rubber at him, at the very end there we had some great chances."
Blue Jackets center Jeff Carter made his much anticipated debut and contributed two assists. Carter was acquired from the Flyers in exchange for Jakub Voracek, a first-round pick (Sean Couturier) and third-round pick (Nick Cousins) in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
With the addition of Carter, the Blue Jackets are trying to improve on their 13th-place finish in the Western Conference last year.
Columbus won three out of four meetings against the Wild in 2010-11 and the Jackets have taken six of 10 overall in the series. Despite winning their last two trips to Minnesota, the Blue Jackets have lost seven of their last 10 games in St. Paul overall.