Writing a Wild team preview for the ’09-10 season is hard. Too much change equals too much uncertainty. Will Lemaire’s exit and Richards' entry serve as a boost to the offensive output of the Bouchards, Koivus, Sheppards and Burnses of the world? Or will the new fangled “up-tempo, skating, aggressive forechecking” system just expose how critically bereft of finishers the roster is – the result being a lot of odd-man opportunities coming at Niklas Backstrom and (for now) Josh Harding? Who the hell knows?
What appears to be an extremely top-heavy (skill-wise) group of players can muck and grind with the best of them and has some good speed. But there’s a general lack of scoring depth. Havlat replaces Gaborik’s scoring from last season no problem – IF he’s healthy. But keep in mind this was a team whose best and second-best goal scorers last season were Owen Nolan and Andrew Brunette. Ugh. Mikko Koivu could certainly thrive with the shackles removed, and he and Havlat might be able to make sweet hockey music together. Bouchard could also thrive but, frankly, that would have less to do with the new system and more to do with his testicles dropping allowing him to start going to the net and shooting the freakin’ puck. At least now no one can say “the system” is what’s been holding him back, that or all those Selkes he’s got on his mantle. The signing of Petr Sykora, however, gives the Wild a more well-rounded second line than they had before.
Richards wants the attack to funnel through the middle, and get down low to punish the defenseman if it’s a dump and chase (but with not-one-but two forecheckers! If Lemaire was dead he’d surely be rolling over in his grave, emitting monotone zombie grunts of sacre bleuuuuu…derezzzz nooooooo dowwwwwwwtttt!) or draw the defenders into the middle, thus opening up the outside for the rest of the attackers. Sounds great. The Wild certainly has guys who will hit. The question is whether or not they have guys that can channel Dino Ciccarelli and finish.
*Who’s going to score? After the top line, it’s a bunch of question marks. Sure, the talent’s there, but a lot of that talent was there last year too. If Havlat and Sykora can replace Gaborik’s output (which they should do easily if they just stay healthy) the offense could be more potent right away.
*If they have trouble scoring, will they forget everything Lemaire taught them about playing defense? Watching this will be a very interesting side story, especially early in the season.
*Will the kids step up? Pouliot and Sheppard in particular, but Bouchard needs a big bounce-back year as well. Pouliot, especially, is sliding in public opinion. A slow start and the fans could be calling for his head.
*Will the vets stay healthy? Havlat was healthy last season, and he put up a career number of points. But this squad is not nearly deep enough to suffer injury, and is pretty reliant on some old-timers (Nolan and Brunette.) It wouldn’t take many injuries to the right players to submarine the season. Obviously no team can afford injuries to key guys, but the Wild simply doesn’t have the depth to suffer any material injuries without it basically killing their slim chances of making the playoffs.
Ranked 22nd in the league (4th in NW division) last season in goals-for per game with 2.61.
Primed for a breakout:
Cal Clutterbuck. In a system that emphasizes hustle and hitting, the NHL record-holder for hits in a regular season could see time on the 2nd line, and his name on the scoresheet more often.
Primed to underwhelm:
Derek Boogaard. Neither the fleetest of foot, nor the craftiest with the puck, the big man seems like a fish out of water in Richards’ system. And, if most of the rest of the league is still afraid to fight him, it’s going to be tough to justify his $950k cap hit. Didn’t play much last year – when he dressed, that is – and doesn’t seem like he’ll be able to justify more minutes this year. Goes out of his way to help the team in the community, wish him nothing but the best, but it just doesn’t look like he’s got that much farther to go in Iron Range Red.
Fantasy Draft Guide
Take in the first round: I guess Mikko Koivu. But only if you’re not picking in the top, say, 20 picks. He should be on the ice for all key situations, and on the top line 5:5. Assuming everyone’s healthy, he’ll be with Havlat to start and a grit guy like a Brunette. Backup: Havlat, though, again, don’t use a super high pick on him.
Take in the mid-rounds: James Sheppard. This could be a great bargain pick-up. I think Shep could, repeat could, have a big breakout year. He’s also got some size, so he might get you some points in categories like PIMs. If your league has +/- as a category you may want to approach him more carefully.
Sleeper: Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Could have a big breakout year with the shackles removed. Will probably also get time at both center and wing – in case your league allows you to use players at multiple positions. Won’t be a stat monster though (probably not going to get you any PIMs), so Cal Clutterbuck is the alternative. Cal could really thrive in a role on, say, the 2nd line as the first guy in on the forecheck. Playing with more-skilled guys, he could easily belay the sophomore slump and put up some nice stats on a late-round pick.
Beware: Benoit Pouliot. To be fair, I’m not sure anyone outside of the Wild’s circle of influence even remembers this kid anymore. He’s just disappointed time and time again since he turned pro. It’s not his skill level; it’s his heart and his head. So, if you’re intrigued by his potential to put up points (which would be reasonable) keep in mind the big knock on him is that his attitude is awful.
An above-average NHL blueline. Young stud? Brent Burns. Puck movers? Kim Johnsson and Marek Zidlicky. Stay-at-homers? Nick Schultz and Shane Hnidy. ‘Tweeners? Greg Zanon. “You look at my goalie, I thump yo head”ers? John Scott. It’s a well-rounded group. We’ll see what effect Richards’ encouraging them to activate has beyond the expected increases in offensive output from Burns, Johnsson and Zidlicky. By Schultz’s own admission [link Russo??] he probably won’t light up the league. Burns appears to be healthy and rarin’ to go. But, boy oh boy, do Wild fans hope he doesn’t end up going down the Adam Deadmarsh road to oblivion. No, this isn’t the Flames’ “Team Canada” defense, but it’s no slouch either.
*Will they find any offense? Richards has said he wants them to activate when the situation calls for it. Burns, Johnsson and Zidlicky should have no problem with that. But what about Schultz, and lesser-knowns like Hnidy and Zanon?
*Will they give up more chances? Wild fans are used to a defense that seals up opposing offenses as tight as a drum and limits chances to the low-percentage areas. Will that continue, or if it doesn’t, will they be able to adapt defensively so that the result is the same?
*Where’s the sandpaper? Wild fans have longed for a defense that’s less hospitable to interloping forwards in the crease and slot areas. Certainly Scott brings some of that, and Zanon and Hnidy are unknown commodities at this point. Obviously you’re never going to make Kim Johnsson into a Chris Pronger in front of his own goalie, but will the squad overall be tougher?
*Can they adapt? The NW division features a variety of personalities among the five groups of forwards. Will the Wild blueliners be able to keep up with the speedy Oilers, go hit-for-hit with the Flames and break up the devastating cycle of the Canucks?
Ranked 2nd in NHL (1st in NW division) with 2.40 GA/GM last season.
Primed for a breakout:
Brent Burns. He’s tan, rested and ready to dominate. No more experiments at forward, and, with any luck, no more concussions. Burns could, repeat could, join the Shea Webers and Mike Greens of the league in the upper echelon of young stud defensemen.
Primed to underwhelm:
Marek Zidlicky will suffer from the loss of Martin Skoula more than any other returning defenseman if for no other reason than Wild fans, bereft of their favorite defensive whipping boy, will have nothing obfuscating their observation of Zidlicky’s adventures on his own side of the center red line. He’s a power play specialist, that’s about it.
Fantasy Draft Guide
Take in the first round: Burnsie. He should be good in several different categories. He could justifiably be taken right after Green and Weber. Bonus: he’ll be playing to impress Yzerman right out of the gate this season, so the motivation will be there from the very beginning.
Take in the mid-rounds: Kim Johnsson. He’s got more offensive skills than he was required to show under Lemaire – but that should be back on display with Richards. He’s in a contract year. ‘Nuff said.
Sleeper: Nick Schultz isn’t totally without offensive instincts, and you know he’ll be on the ice in a lot of important situations. The early word out of camp is that he’s pinching all the time – and in camp, as opposed to during the regular season, is when you want him to figure it out. He might surprise, especially since Burns and Johnsson will command the most attention when the Wild is on offense.
Beware: John Scott. He drops the gloves, but he says he doesn’t like it. Despite that, he probably won’t help you in any offensive categories.
I mean, Backstrom is good. Very good. But the Wild’s commitment to defense has been well documented to have done a great job of limiting shots from the “high percentage” areas – which, though he still has to get a pad on them, certainly made Backs’ job easier. He seems to have the mental make-up to play through the transition away from “Lemaire hockey” and to “Richards hockey” that will probably lead to some busy nights for him, at least in the early-going. It’s a reach to think he’ll go from being arguably the team MVP to a question mark. But his numbers may not be indicative of how well he plays, let’s put it that way.
Harding, you gotta give the man some respect. He’s been such a professional with the Wild, he has to have known he was being shopped this summer and still not one indication that his nose is out of joint because of it. It makes you hope he gets a chance to be a starter – somewhere in the league – that much more. But clearly he’s going to need to impress GMs more than he already has in order to drive up his trade value, and he’s going to need to get on the ice in order to have a chance to do that.
So, Fletcher probably would prefer if Richards would play Backstrom less than the 71 appearances he had last season on one hand, but on the other hand, Fletch knows how much Backstrom’s making, so I’m sure he wants his money’s worth too.
*Was it the system? We’ll see. Backs has had some brilliant numbers since he got to the NHL, but he had some pretty good success in Finland too.
*Will Harding earn some more starts? This is the key to the whole season for the Wild in goal. It will determine how much rest Backstrom gets which, assuming he at least makes Finland’s Olympic team, might mean a lot if they’re alive in the playoff race heading into March Madness. It will also determine if Fletcher is able to trade Harding for something of value. There’s no value to Dubielewicz playing in Houston (to Wade, anyway) so Fletcher’s got Backstrom’s backup already in-house if he can move Harding. But the kid has to establish more market value first.
Backstrom was third in the NHL last season in shutouts (8), GAA (2.33) and SPCT (.923, among goalies with 50 or more starts.)
Fantasy advice: Do I draft Niklas Backstrom? Yes. But with a caveat. He’s too good technically to think he’s going to have a material downturn in all statistics. While the Wild needs Harding to earn some starts to showcase him around the league if they want to trade him, sooner or later you need to have your $6M goalie on the ice. So Backstrom will get plenty of starts. Caveat: Backstrom’s probably not a true #1 fantasy goalie, but he’s a very good 1A.
This is the critical factor weighing on the Wild’s odds for success this season. We just don’t know. The uptempo, attacking style sounds great on paper to Wild fans that had grown frustrated and bored by Lemaire’s style, but do we have the horses to pull it off? I mean, to a guy that’s been wandering around in the desert for a couple days, any liquid is going to be tantalizing. But, while a cup of water from some stagnant well near Chernobyl might slack his immediate thirst…
Burns (CAN); Koivu, Backstrom and Mittens (FIN); Johnsson (SWE) and Havlat (CZE) all have shots at their respective countries’ Olympic teams.
Under the aegis of “who the F really knows?” it just doesn’t seem likely that the Wild will find itself in playoff position much after the Olympic break. The top 6 or so spots in the western conference are spoken for (SJ, DET, CHI, CGY, VAN, ANH) meaning the Wild is, at best, in a group with the likes of Dallas, Columbus, Edmonton, Nashville and St. Louis for the last two spots. Those just aren’t good odds. Fletch is doing a good job of slowly but surely molding the team to his vision, and Wild fans should expect a quasi-rebuilding year this year. The Wild should continue to churn out their patented solid, honest effort and hopefully there will be more vertical play livening things up. But the real fireworks may come at the trade deadline (Nolan, Belanger, Sykora, Johnsson, Zidlicky and Hnidy are all UFAs after the season) and, maybe, at the draft lottery.
Coming soon: Wild '09-10 preview from an opposing fan's perspective!