Northwest Division Preview: Minnesota Wild

Kent Wilson
September 21 2008 09:26AM

Minnesota won the division last year, largely on the back of their always stellar special teams play. With Jacques Lemaire still glowering from the behind the bench, one can be assured that will continue into the new season, despite whatever changes have occurred this summer.

Off-season changes

In: F – Andrew Brunette, F – Owen Nolan, F – Antti Miettinen , F – Craig Weller D – Marek Zidlicky, D – Marc-Andre Bergeron

Out: F – Brian Rolston, F – Pavol Demitra, F – Chris Simon, F – Branko Radivojevic, F – Mark Parrish, F – Aaron Voros, F – Matt Foy, F – Todd Fedoruk, D – Keith Carney, D – Petteri Nummelin, D – Sean Hill

Front Office

Doug Risebrough learned many hard lessons in Calgary during his first turn as a GM. He was thrust suddenly into the big chair in 1991 and was promptly robbed blind by his former mentor Cliff Fletcher in what is roundly considered the worst trade in Flames history (Gilmour, Macoun and parts for Gary Leeman and parts).

*shudder*

“Riser” also failed to re-sign guys like Gary Roberts and Robert Reichel before he was summarily dismissed in 1995. The franchise suffered such a sharp and noticeable downturn during his tenure that it’s actually pretty astonishing he lasted four years.

Fast forward to 1999 and Risebrough is asked to head the new Minnesota expansion team. Something sunk in from the first go-round—or he surrounded himself with some savvy advisers—because Risebrough has been a model of consistency as the Wild’s GM. He immediately hired Jacques Lemaire, built the team around his coach’s requirements and style of play and has been advancing that game-plan ever since. As a result, the Wild are rarely involved in any notable trade rumours or blockbuster deals. They tend to draft relatively well and develop talent from within. They almost never seriously enter the free agent frenzy, beyond signing periphery or support players and tend to operate several million dollars below the salary cap ceiling.

The aforementioned Jacques Lemaire has been the only coach the organization has ever known. The wily tactician relies on strangling teams at even-strength with neutral-zone-clogging trap hockey and then taking advantage of mistakes and special teams. He rotates the team’s captaincy, shuffles lines and engages in active bench management. No matter what the roster looks like, his teams are always defensively capable and rigorously disciplined. As long as Lemaire sticks around, the Wild will be a difficult team to play against.

Forwards

Minnesota has never been about high-powered offence, instead opting to rely on “just enough” to get by. They have one notable big gun in Gaborik whom they tend to surround with a few good (though not great) support players every year.

Here’s Minnesota’s current and departing players, ranked by even-strength quality of opposition. Guys in italics are out while the bolded players are new:

Mikko Koivu: 2.14 PTS/60, 2.66 GFON/60, 1.55 GAON/60

Branko Radivojevic: 0.97 PTS/60, 1.62 GFON/60, 2.46 PTS/60

Stephane Veilleux: 1.09 PTS/60, 1.54 GF0N/60, 2.37 GAON/60

Marian Gaborik: 2.77 PTS/60, 3.47 GFON/60, 2.39 GAON/60

Brian Rolston: 1.42 PTS/60, 2.13 GFON/60, 2.13 GA0N/60

Owen Nolan: 1.57 pts/60, 2.38 GFON/60, 2.13 GAON/60

Andrew Brunette: 2.56 PTS/60, 3.57 GFON/60, 2.86 GAON/60

Eric Belanger: 1.39 PTS/60, 2.24 GFON/60, 2.51 GAON/60

Pavol Demitra: 2.34 PTS/60, 3.32 GFON/60, 2.54 GAON/60

Mark Parrish: 1.58 TS/60, 2.37 GFON/60, 1.84 GA0N/60

Antti Miettinen: 1.94 PTS/60, 2.71 GFON/60, 2.09 GAON/60

PM Bouchard: 2.05 PTS/60, 2.64 GFON/60, 1.82 GAON/60

Aaron Voros: 1.82 PTS/60, 2.38 GFON/60, 3.09 GAON/60

Chris Simon: 0.72 PTS/60, 1.67 GFON/60, 1.91 GAON/60

James Sheppard: 1.26 PTS/60, 1.81 GFON/60, 1.74 GAON/60

Todd Fedoruk: 1.07 PTS/60, 2.53 GFON/60, 2.33 GAON/60

Benoit Pouliot: 1.41 PTS/60, 2.11 GFON/60, 2.82 GAON/60

Derek Boogaard: 0.00 PTS/60, 0.45 GFON/60, 2.72 GAON/60

Matt Foy: 2.35 PTS/60, 2.65 GFON/60, 2.94 GAON/60

PTS/60 – average number of points recorded for every 60 minutes of even-strength ice-time. GFON/60 – average number of goals scored for every 60 minutes that the player is on the ice. GAON/60 – average number of goals scored against for every 60 minutes that the player is on the ice.

Marian Gaborik would be a superstar if he could stay healthy. He has one of the highest goals per game rates of any current skater, despite playing in a stingy conference for a notoriously stingy coach. Gaborik became the first skater in recent memory to score five goals in a single game, a feat he managed against the NYR mid-way through the year. He’s incredibly fast, strong, with a blistering and highly accurate shot. When he isn’t icing down a sore groin (which is rare) he’s incredibly difficult to contain.

Gone are quality support players like Rolston, Demitra and (to a limited degree) Mark Parrish. PM Bouchard and the returning Andrew Brunette will probably kick in some 55 or 60 points each, but the remaining void will have to be filled by the likes of Mikko Koivu and James Sheppard, a couple of homegrown Wild prospects that are good bets to take a step or two forward this season. Koivu, in particular, had stellar underlying stats last season and will probably spend a majority of the year as Gaborik’s centerman. Brunette/Miettinen may rotate as the top unit’s LW, depending on chemistry, need, etc.

After that, the Wild have some serious question marks. PM Bouchard will be looked upon to centre a secondary scoring unit featuring whoever isn’t playing with Gaborik (Mienttinen?) and... err... Owen Nolan? Not a scary combination. Nolan has settled into a 15 goal, 30 point player, at best. He’s not much of a offensive threat anymore.

Stephane Veilleux will anchor the “checking line” again, although who he’ll be playing with is an issue. Gone is fellow shut-down man Radivojevic and the Wild don’t have too many guys that faced top competition left. Lemaire loves having a shut-down unit to send out against the opposition’s top players, so if some of the rosters flotsam can’t ably get the job done, there’s a chance Mikko Koivu will get that assignment thanks to his excellent results against stiff competition last year (moving Bouchard up with Gabbers).

Minnesota has a handful of strong players up front, but little beyond that. While Koivu is poised to become a significant force in his own regard, the Wild’s capacity to score on a nightly basis likely rests on Gaborik’s wonky groin once again. If he’s felled by another long-term injury, the Wild may have a hard time filling the net.

Defense

The team nominally improved an already decent defence corps this summer. For perhaps the first time in the franchises brief history, Minnesota should have a full compliment of both offensive and defensive rear-guards.

Here’s some of the advanced stats of the notables:

Nick Shultz: 0.61 PTS/60, 2.35 GFON/60, 2.11 GAON/60

Kim Johnsson: 0.66 PTS/60, 2.26 GFON/60, 2.39 GAON/60

Brent Burns: 0.90 PTS/60, 2.74 GFON/60, 2.15 GAON/60

Martin Skoula: 0.46 PTS/60, 1.78 GFON/60, 2.60 GAON/60

Marek Zidlicky: 0.86 PTS/60, 2.68 GFON/60, 2.48 GAON/60

Marc-Andre Bergeron: 0.56 PTS/60, 2.05 GFON/60, 2.05 GAON/60

Kurtis Foster: 0.76 PTS/60, 2.62 GFON/60, 2.29 GAON/60

Keith Carney: 0.79 PTS/60, 2.22 GFON/60, 1.82 GAON/60

Sean Hill: 0.51 PTS/60, 1.53 GFON/60, 3.56 GAON/60

Petteri Nummelin: 0.56PTS/60, 2.05 GFON/60, 2.05 GAON/60

Brent Burns is the pick of the litter. He put up a team best point rate while facing tough competition—and he’s only 23 years old. A lot of fuss is made about guys like Phaneuf, Weber and Green, but Burns is a defensive superstar in the making. He’ll spend a lot of time on the ice in all situations this season.

Burns-Shultz

Johnsson-Zidlicky

Skoula-Bergeron

Foster

This arrangement gives the Wild a very competent shut-down pair as well as a mobile, puck-moving second unit. It also bumps the horrendous Skoula down with the always exciting (for all the wrong reasons) Bergeron. That 3rd pairing will have to be generously sheltered all year, though the addition of MA-Be(y) does give the club an impressive arsenal of potent weaponry for the powerplay.

Goaltending

The Wild have famously gone with the “duo” method of goaltending, never designating a starter beyond “the guy with the hot hand.” Last year Backstrom ended up playing most of the games, due to his more impressive results.

Niklas Backstrom:

2007–08: 58 GP, 33-13-8, 2.31 GAA, .920SV%

Josh Harding:

2007–08: 29GP, 11-15-2, 2.94 GAA, .908SV%

Owing to the team’s defence-first philosophy—and the fact that they never face a large workload—Minnesota is typically very kind to its goaltenders numbers. In his first two seasons, Backstrom has posted a SV% at or above .920. That’s better than most of the tenders that made the all-star game last year. Expect him to get a bulk of the starts again in 08/09.

Despite the comfy confines, Josh Harding struggled last season, as can be seen in his results above. However, he was excellent during a seven-game try-out the year prior and put up sparkling numbers over the course of three seasons in the AHL. At just 24 years-old, Harding has the history and pedigree to bounce back from his sub-par performance. The battle between him and Backstrom should be a livelier one starting in October.

Special Teams

The Wild have almost always excelled at special teams. Since 02/03, Minnesota has had the best PK in the league averaged over those five seasons (85.9%). They’ve also been one of the most disciplined teams, drawing 176 more penalties than they took over that same time frame.

Of course, Minny also had the best PP in the division last season at a 18.6% efficiency; bad news for fans of the other NW teams considering some of Minny’s off-season blueline additions (Zidlicky, Bergeron, Brunette). Even though the forward ranks seem relatively unimpressive, there’s little chance of any major downturn under the baleful glare of Jacques Lemaire. With the coaching being what it is and guys like Burns, Zidlicky, Foster, Bergeron and Johnsson blasting away from the point, expect the Wild to maintain (or improve) their impressive PP standing.

Synopsis

While the Wild are somewhat thin up front, the strong back-end, decent goaltending and iron will of their taciturn coach will no doubt ensure another season of competitive hockey. Offence may be an issue if Gaborik gets hurt again and it’ll be interesting to see if the coaching staff can cobble together some kind of effective bottom-end of the roster, but those are relatively minor quibbles.

Bottom line

I fully expect the Wild to challenge for the division title again and, at the very least, make the post-season.


—Kent Wilson writes about the Flames over at his blog Fiveholefanatics, as well as occasionally misleads fantasy hockey players for fanball.com. He is also an occasional OilersNation contributor.

The OilersNation Research Department™ has been hard at work getting ready for the new season. As 2008-09 draws upon us, we’ve analyzed what the Northwest Division will look like.

The teams we’ve look at so far:

  • Vancouver Canucks (parts one and two)
  • Colorado Avalanche (parts one and two)
  • Minnesota Wild (you’re reading it)


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Former Nations Overlord. Current Fn contributor and curmudgeon For questions, complaints, criticisms, etc contact Kent @ kent.wilson@gmail. Follow him on Twitter here.
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#1 Wanye Gretz
September 21 2008, 06:51PM
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Who is this Kent W. Why are Flames fans writing on here. Wait till I do my review of the Flames. Then we will see the kind of stuff this Kent is made of.

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#2 therealdeal
September 21 2008, 11:34PM
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Nice as usual Kent. No reason to think Minny won't be at least competitive.

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#3 Jonathan
September 22 2008, 07:15AM
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Very nice read, Kent.

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#4 Kent
September 22 2008, 09:35AM
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Who is this Kent W. Why are Flames fans writing on here. Wait till I do my review of the Flames. Then we will see the kind of stuff this Kent is made of.

Wait...weren't you the guy that sent me the the coke/whores so I would write this preview?

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#5 DJ Spyn Cycle
September 22 2008, 09:58AM
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No Kent, that was me. Wanye's just an employee. Me and a back-room Illuminati run the show here.

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#6 Kent
September 22 2008, 11:30AM
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That's great. I've been looking for an "in" with the Illuminati for years.

"Who keeps down the electric car? Who makes Steve Gutenberg a star?

We do! We do!"

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