The Minnesota Wild underwent a summer of dramatic changes in hope of returning to the postseason for the first time since 2008.
The Wild finished 12th in the Western Conference last season, 11 points behind Chicago for the final playoff spot. Minnesota was undone by a myriad of issues, from unstable goaltending to an anemic offense that scored the second-fewest goals in the conference.
The reaction by general manager Chuck Fletcher was a wholesale makeover on the ice and on the bench in a span of just a few weeks. Coach Todd Richards was replaced by Mike Yeo, who ran the Wild's AHL affiliate in Houston last season. Fletcher also traded cornerstone defenseman Brent Burns and dynamic forward Martin Havlat to San Jose in separate deals.
Minnesota faithful shouldn't fret, however. Fletcher didn't burn the house down without building a foundation for 2011-12 and beyond. Not only does Yeo boast an impressive pedigree -- he was an assistant for the Stanley Cup-champion Penguins in 2009 and led Houston to the Calder Cup Finals in his only season -- one year after the Aeros finished in last place. The trades of Burns and Havlat brought back an impressive return. In exchange for Burns came young forward Devin Setoguchi, highly-touted prospect Charlie Coyle and a 2011 first-round pick, which the Wild used on high-scoring Saint John Sea Dogs center Zack Phillips. The deal for Havlat brought two-time 50-goal scorer and four-time all-star Dany Heatley to Minnesota.
Those moves alone won't turn the Wild into a Stanley Cup contender, but they are a sign the franchise has no intentions of letting the rest of the League pass it by. As the 2011-12 NHL season dawns, the reconstruction of the Wild is in full swing.
The biggest losses for Minnesota are Burns and Havlat. After a few injury-plagued seasons, Havlat has stayed healthy and productive, and the last three seasons he's averaged 77 games and 64 points. He led the team with 22 goals last season, and his 64 points tied Mikko Koivu for the team lead.
That kind of output will be missed, as will the offensive support the Wild got from in Burns, who set career highs in goals (17), assists (29) and points (46) while playing 80 games.
The goaltending position also took a bit of a hit as management opted to let Jose Theodore leave via free agency. Theodore hadn't factored into Minnesota's plans a year ago, but after backup Josh Harding suffered a season-ending knee injury in the preseason, Theodore provided a solid veteran presence behind Niklas Backstrom, going 15-11-3.
Minnesota also made a significant break with its past by allowing 37-year-old forward Andrew Brunette to sign with Chicago as a free agent. Brunette, who spent six of the last nine seasons with the Wild, scored what arguably is the most important goal in franchise history, an overtime winner in Game 7 of the 2003 Western Conference Quarterfinals against Colorado's Patrick Roy.
Veteran two-way center John Madden remains an unsigned free agent, defenseman Cam Barker had his contract bought out in June and forward Chuck Kobasew signed a free-agent deal with Colorado on July 1.
Contrary to appearances, the San Jose Sharks aren't relocating to Minnesota, but given how much of their offense has moved to the upper Midwest, the confusion might be understandable. Setoguchi and Heatley bring first-line talent, postseason experience and 409 goals in a combined 936 games. The pair will be expected to provide a sharp boost for an offense that scored just 203 goals last season, fifth-fewest in the League.
In addition, Minnesota gave itself some added grit when it shipped a 2013 third-round pick to Philadelphia for the negotiating rights to checking center Darroll Powe, who chipped in with the occasional goal and led one of the most physical teams in the League in hits last season. Powe eventually signed a three-year pact with the Wild worth $3.2 million.
Minnesota also signed Jeff Taffe, a 2000 first-round pick of St. Louis and the 1999 Mr. Hockey in Minnesota to a two-way deal. While Taffe played just one game in the NHL last season, he had 67 points in 74 games for the Rockford IceHogs of the AHL and could see time with the Wild this season.
To help fill the gap on defense, Minnesota also signed Mike Lundin, who skated in all 18 playoff games for Eastern Conference finalist Tampa Bay last season, to a one-year deal. Lundin, a Minnesota native, had 1 goal and 11 assists in 69 games in 2010-11.
Yeo's lone season in Houston provided the kind of turnaround Minnesota would like to have. After making the playoffs three times in five seasons between 2002-03 and 2007-08, the Wild has finished out of the conference's top eight in three straight seasons, the longest drought in club history.
However, Yeo can't turn the Wild into playoff contenders without the right pieces, and Fletcher has started to put some of them in place. Setoguchi and Heatley will need to bring their offense with them to Minnesota for the Wild to be successful, particularly with a thinner defense now that Burns is on the West Coast. The team's fortunes, however, may hinge on Backstrom. The Finnish netminder is coming off two subpar seasons, including last season when he finished with a losing record for the first time in his five NHL seasons.
Backstrom attributed his rough season to a shoulder injury he suffered in October and then re-aggravated at the end of February. He did show flashes of his amazing talent before tweaking his shoulder again, compiling a .940 save percentage and a 1.69 goals-against average in the month of February. Given the jump in his GAA to 3.81 in March, there is plenty of reason to believe something significant hampered Backstrom down the stretch.
Considering the improved offense and the potential of a healthy Backstrom, the Wild certainly should be in the mix for a playoff spot, even in the hotly contested Western Conference.