Season Preview: Minnesota Wild, Class of '08-'09

NHL previews are often superfluous collections of popular opinions that, in the end, usually have no relation to how life actually works out. Which makes using stereotypical high-school yearbook superlatives and awards the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2008-09 NHL season previews, presented throughout September.

Last Semester: Northwest Division champion, third in the Western Conference (44-28-10, 98 points). Lost to the Colorado Avalanche in six games in a Stanley Cup playoff conference quarterfinal. The losses continued in the off-season, as the team said farewell to several free agents, including Brian Rolston and Pavol Demitra, and had a buyout for longtime forward Mark Parrish. There are new faces in key roles for the Wild this season, but all the talk this summer has been about next summer: The impending free agency of star winger Marian Gaborik, and whether the Wild can either afford him or afford to lose him.

It's a Minnesota hockey debate that makes the ones between Al Franken and Norm Coleman seem quaint by comparison.

Homecoming King (Top Player): Gaborik made his second All-Star Game appearance last season thanks to a campaign that saw him score 42 goals and 83 points, both career highs. If there's a more polarizing superstar in hockey, we haven't seen him. Gaborik's defenders claim Minnesota's defensive system restricts his creativity and smothers his stats. It's gotten to the point where Wild management has had had to present evidence to Gaborik himself to convince him that the team's offense doesn't stink.

The other side of the argument is that Gaborik hasn't been restricted by Coach Jacques Lemaire at all, doesn't need a No. 1 center to power his numbers and that there's no reason why he shouldn't commit to the franchise long term.

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This debate and his UFA status are what they call in the business a "lingering distraction." Which is why the team is desperately attempting to sign him before the season begins.

Most Likely To Succeed (Potential Breakout): Brent Burns had a terrific year last season, playing 82 games for the first time and having his ice time increase by over seven minutes per game. He could miss the start of the regular season with an elbow injury, but once he's in the lineup Burns is the top defenseman on one of the best defensive teams in hockey. Especially encouraging were his improved numbers on the power-play. This is the season in which people start to take notice of the 23 year old.

Best Expulsion: (Addition by Subtraction): Last season was a frustrating regression for Pavol Demitra, who posted his lowest goals total since 1997 and contributed fewer power-play points to the cause than Eric Belanger. Demitra claimed it was a wonky groin and some conditioning issues that submarined his campaign last season. Minnesota is better off having Vancouver figure out if that's the case.

And good riddance to Chris Simon. Signed, the NHL.

Exchange Students (Key New Additions): Is Andrew Brunette losing a step? That was the word out of Denver after he decided on a second tour of duty with the Wild as a free agent. His numbers last season (19 goals, 59 points) were a huge comedown from recent production, but Colorado wasn't exactly a team that promoted offense for most of its injury-plagued season. If the idea is to slot Brunette on a top line with Gaborik, he'll excel and get his point totals north of 70 instead of south of 60. 

Defenseman Marek Zidlicky, acquired from the Nashville Predators for a second-round pick and forward Ryan Jones, brings some stellar offensive numbers to Minnesota, especially on the power play. Lemaire loves puck-moving defensemen, and adding Zidlicky to his blueline was an inspired move by Wild management. Some consider him a Top 20 defenseman -- at least in fantasy land.

Owen Nolan is savvy player who's willing to get his hands dirty and has never won anything.

In other words, the personification of Minnesota Wild hockey.

Class Clowns (Pests and Pugilists): Todd Fedoruk and Aaron Voros, the penalty minute leaders from last season, have both departed. Will this create a pacifist streak for a team that had 46 fights last regular season? Not as long as the words "Derek" and "Boogaard" grace the Wild roster:

Teacher of the Year: It's gotten to the point where the Minnesota Wild have started refuting criticism of Jacques Lemaire's defensive system with management-penned blogs defining and defending the trap.

I've made no secret the fact that I'm a New Jersey Devils fan, which means I've seen the best and worst from Lemaire. At best, his system can create more offense than it'll ever be given credit for and can take an average team to unbelievable heights.

At worst, it's a stifling albatross that can be detrimental to individual players and, in some seasons, entire teams.

His record in Minnesota is an inconsistent one. But each time I've thought he's worn out his welcome, Lemaire storms back by leading his team to heights like last season's division title.

The Wild want to pay Gaborik in a way that symbolizes that this is his team. It's not. The Wild are Jacques Lemaire's team until he's no longer matching lines, and that's either for better or for worse.

The Custodians (Goalies): Niklas Backstrom went from understudy to the main stage last season, posting 33 wins in 57 starts with a 2.31 GAA. He and Josh Harding shared time, but this was Backstrom's team in the late stages of the season. His postseason numbers were quite poor in the team's four losses.

Some have noted Backstrom's regression as a sign of trouble. Of more concern should be Harding, who looked like a different goalie from one season to the next (as his stats indicated). This team went from first to eighth in goals against. Both goalies have to be better; and since Backstrom (UFA) and Harding (RFA) are both in their walk years, chances are they will be.

The Hall Monitors (Defensemen): There's a lot to like here. Zidlicky and fellow off-season acquisition Marc-Andre Bergeron join a group that boasts Burns, the consistent Kim Johnsson, and veterans Nick Schultz and Martin Skoula. Kurtis Foster is on the mend from that horrific leg injury last season. With the departure of war horses like Keith Carney and Sean Hill, this isn't the most physical group Lemaire has had. But it's one of the best puck-moving defensive corps in the conference; a skill which, if you watched any of Detroit's run to the Cup, can be a difference maker in the right system.

Most Likely To Earn a Wedgie in the Hallway (Potential Flop): Off-season import Antti Miettinen will be counted on as a second-line winger, most likely playing with Pierre-Marc Bouchard, one of the best goal-creating forwards on the roster. Miettinen's best offensive season (15 goals, 34 points) came last year with the Dallas Stars. Here's saying the previous season's 11 goals and 25 points are more standard. Can he even reach that in this system? He's not breaking the bank at $2.333 million. But he's going to break some hearts if you expect even Parrish's numbers (16-14-30) from last season.

AV Club (Media): Wild fans are blessed with Michael Russo, beat writer at the Star Tribune and one of the top MSM bloggers on the Web. His insight into the team is superb, and his forays into general NHL discussions are always worth a read.

We also read non-MSM Wild blogs like Wild Puck Banter, Deuce by Definition, 18,568 Reasons Why..., The View From Section 216 and Land of Lakes and Hockey. Keep in mind the Wild also have a rather interesting "Hockey Ops Blog" written by members of the team's front office.

Toughest Class (Biggest Issue Facing the Team): James Sheppard, Mikko Koivu, Eric Belanger, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Antti Miettinen, Benoit Pouliot, Cal Clutterbuck, Colton Gillies ... these are the forwards (or potential forward) which must produce some form of discernable offense beyond the Gaborik line. Losing Brian Rolston was as significant an offensive subtraction as any team had this off-season. He played over 20 minutes a night and was a vital offensive player for a team in the middle of the pack in goal-scoring. The defense can help produce some offense, but the Wild need some closers from this bunch. 

2008-09 Preseason Report Card:

Forwards: B
Defense: B
Goaltending: B-
Special Teams: B+
Coaching: A-
Management: B

Prom Theme: "Walking Contradiction" by Green Day. "Contradiction" in the sense that the Wild have never put individual players above the team concept ... save for offering Gaborik well over $8 million a season this summer to stay. "Walking" in the sense that Gaborik may still be out the door come next summer, no matter the asking price.

Expected Graduation: This preview was a difficult one to write. What the hell is this team? One that builds from the goalies out? One centered around a top line with an offensive star? A collection of skilled veterans being orchestrated by a maestro behind the bench? Perhaps it's a little of all of these things, which really isn't all that much to get excited about.

The Wild will contend for a postseason berth in the West; whether they make the cut depends largely on how much better or worse they are than the rest of the division, which has had their own facelifts this summer.

The X-Factor in all of this is Gaborik's contract status, which could force a trade rather than have the Wild watch him leave for nothing. And at this point, this is the most unpredictable factor for a team that has little you can solidly prognosticate.

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