Minnesota Wild

No other player in the league holds as much stake in a hockey team’s future as Marian Gaborik. The oft-injured Slovak sniper is in the last year of his contract worth $7.5m and had a career season last year, to one’s surprise, because it was the first year Gaborik played more than 70 games since the 2002-03 season. After GM Doug Risebrough committed to re-signing Brian Rolston over Pavol Demitra, it was speculated that Gaborik was not happy with the organization’s decision to not re-sign Gaborik’s closest friend and teammate. Risebrough’s plan backfired and he ended up losing both, much to Gaborik’s dismay, adding speculation to Gaborik’s departure at the end of the season. Risebrough has made it clear that their number one priority this year, on-ice product aside, is to re-sign Gaborik to a long extension. Should Gaborik refuse to sign, Risebrough would have a very big hole to fill and may potentially cripple the Minnesota franchise in a tough Western Conference.

Gaborik’s 83 points was 20 higher than the next point getter, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, but has remained consistent and improved his point production. Rolston and Demitra finished third and fourth, and after that it’s defenseman Brent Burns with 43 points. Suffice it to say, this is a rather offensively-challenged team, although the argument has been made that Jacques Lemaire‘s teams have always stressed defense over offense. The Wild offense ranked a surprisingly average 18th for a team with an offensive dynamo in Gaborik and Mikko Koivu, who had 42 points in 53 games last year. Even with the additions of Andrew Brunette (59 points) and Antti Miettinen (34 points), and a healthy season from Koivu, it’s still not quite enough to replace the productions of Rolston and Demitra. Sophomore James Sheppard and rookie Benoit Pouliot are being tapped to make a jump into the NHL, but neither have many NHL games under their belts and will no doubt be given limited ice time until Lemaire feels more comfortable sending them out for regular shifts. Sheppard averaged almost 11 minutes of ice-time, while Pouliot averaged almost 9 minutes a game. The Northwest Division isn’t known for its high-octane offense, and the Wild are banking on Gaborik for another healthy season to be the go-to guy.

The Wild got more mobile over the summer, replacing the slow Keith Carney and Sean Hill with Marek Zidlicky and Marc-Andre Bergeron. The obvious downside is a lack of size and grit. Brent Burns is big at 6’4″ and 210 lbs., but after a career season in which he scored 15 goals, he will used more in an offensive role and will see ample time on the powerplay. Kim Johnsson and Martin Skoula also provide some nice options on the powerplay, and the hard-shooting Kurtis Foster, sidelined early last year with a broken leg, is expected to be back in January after it was believed that his hockey career was likely over. The defensive aspect of the game now shifts squarely onto Nick Schultz‘s shoulders, who was third amongst defenseman on the team with just over 20 minutes of ice-time per night. This defensive corps, while talented, might have trouble containing the West’s bigger forwards, especially with the additions of Steve Bernier in Vancouver, Darcy Tucker in Colorado, Todd Bertuzzi in Calgary, and Erik Cole in Edmonton.

Goaltending is a strong point in the Wild’s team structure, with Niklas Backstrom as the starter. Like Gaborik, Backstrom is entering the last year of his contract worth $3.1m, and with another good season he could double that on the open market. The Wild are currently busying themselves trying to get Gaborik sign an extension, and if the talks don’t produce anything substantial the Wild may move on to Backstrom and wait until the end of the season to re-sign Gaborik. Josh Harding returns to back-up Backstrom, and should Backstrom leave, it would leave them with another gaping hole to fill, as it doesn’t look like Harding is ready for full-time duty yet.

The Wild have roughly $4m to play around with and have one of the younger teams in the West, with an average of 27.8 years. It seems that the Wild don’t intend on making anymore moves before the season starts, and that cap room may come in handy should Pouliot, Sheppard, or Cal Clutterbuck reach their bonuses. Asides from Gaborik and Backstrom, the Wild don’t have any significant players heading into free agency, as Koivu, Bouchard, Schultz, and Burns are all signed to long-term extensions.

The Wild have a lot of holes up front, but it can all be made up with great coaching under Lemaire. He doesn’t always get the most talented group of players to work with, but Lemaire’s an excellent x’s and o’s guy, so expect this team to once again finish tops in the league on special teams, obviously key to a winning team. The defense has become more mobile, but it remains to be seen if this is the more suitable type of defensive corps under the new CBA. The Ducks won the Cup without the most mobile defense asides from Scott Niedermayer, while the Wings’ Nicklas Lidstrom, Niklas Kronwall, and Brian Rafalski are all fantastic skaters. The Wild defensemen can cover a lot of ice with their quick feet and make great breakout passes, but when they’re forced to play a more physical game it remains to be seen if the team can step up.

Predicted lineup:
Andrew Brunette – Pierre-Marc Bouchard – Marian Gaborik
Antti Miettinen – Mikko Koivu – Owen Nolan
Stephane Veilleux – Eric Belanger – Benoit Pouliot
Derek Boogaard – James Sheppard – Craig Weller

Nick Schultz – Brent Burns
Kim Johnsson – Marek Zidlicky
Martin Skoula – Marc-Andre Bergeron

Niklas Backstrom – Josh Harding

scratches: Erik Reitz, Cal Clutterbuck, Colton Gillies

Coach: Jacques Lemaire
GM: Doug Risebrough

Predicted finish: 2nd Northwest, 7th West