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Off-Season Game Plan: Minnesota Wild

Scott Cullen
5/23/2011 12:14:20 AM
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The Minnesota Wild missed the playoffs for the third straight season and it cost head coach Todd Richards his job. Can a new bench boss provide better results?

Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Wild roster that has some promise, but will likely be facing an uphill battle as it strives for a playoff spot in the competitive Western Conference.

Wild GM Chuck Fletcher would seem likely to look for a veteran coach and Craig MacTavish, Ken Hitchcock and Michel Therrien, as well as Houston coach Mike Yeo, are among the names that have circulated as potentially being of interest.

Whomever is chosen to lead the Wild, he'll have some talent with which to work, but even if the Wild are fortunate enough to be healthier, they're not going to overwhelm with their talent. Structure, organization and discipline will be required to make the Wild a playoff team.

Since it apears that top prospect Mikael Granlund is going to spend another year in Finland, that leaves Mikko Koivu and Martin Havlat to carry the offensive burden; a healthier Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Guillaume Latendresse would surely help too, but with several free agent forwards potentially leaving, the Wild need to look for another scoring winger to help the cause.

After all, this a team that has ranked 26th, 20th and 22nd in goal scoring in the last three seasons, so adding offensive firepower isn't ever going to rank as a needless acquisition.

Aside from top defenceman Brent Burns, who is entering the final year of his deal, the core of the team is signed long-term, so that means the Wild need internal improvement (which will fall on the new coach) or need to make significant additions to augment their core if they're going to make up the 11 points that they've needed to catch the last playoff spot in each of the last two seasons.

Fletcher should be able to bring in some free agents since the Wild tend to spend close to the cap and will have more than $10-million in cap hits from their own unrestricted free agents coming off the books.

Addtionally, there ought to be a certain amount of urgency that comes into play too as the Wild core is either in its prime or starting to move past it and the pressure will be on a new coach to achieve results.

With this roster, a playoff berth is possible; significantly more improvement is needed to harbour hopes of being a Cup contender.

GM/COACH
Chuck Fletcher/Vacant

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Cap Hit
Mikko Koivu 75.79 $6.75M
Martin Havlat 72.92 $5.0M
Guillaume Latendresse 69.44 $2.5M
Cal Clutterbuck 69.26 $1.4M
Pierre-Marc Bouchard 68.87 $4.08M
Kyle Brodziak 67.15 $1.15M
Matt Cullen 66.79 $3.5M
Eric Nystrom 59.07 $1.4M
Brad Staubitz 58.48 $575K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '10-'11 Cap Hit
Antti Miettinen 67.93 UFA $2.33M
Andrew Brunette 67.37 UFA $2.33M
John Madden 64.58 UFA $1.25M
Chuck Kobasew 61.60 UFA $2.33M
James Sheppard N/A RFA $803K

Mikko Koivu is a superb two-way centre who, at 28-years-old, is just hitting his prime. He's signed long-term, through 2017-2018, so the Wild should do what they can to provide ample support for him. Eventually, fellow Finn Mikael Granlund will join the Wild, but more immediate help could improve Koivu's production.

Though he's been saddled with a minus-29 through his first two seasons in Minnesota, right winger Martin Havlat is the club's best game-breaking talent, capable of creating offensive opportunities on his own.

Havlat's value would be improved if he could finish a little more like he did earlier in his career -- his two seasons in Minnesota have brought the two lowest shooting percentages of his career and, given the number of shots Havlat gets, better finish could make a significant difference in his contribution.

A groin injury limited Guillaume Latendresse to just 11 games in 2010-2011, but he can be an impact player for the Wild because of his size and finishing ability (he's scored 28 goals in 66 games for the Wild since arriving in a trade from Montreal). Of course, he has to be healthy and in the lineup.

Cal Clutterbuck remains a designated hitter, leading the league in hits for three straight seasons (however dubious some of those hit counts might be) and, more importantly, he's continued to evolve as a player, seeing his ice time and goal totals increase each year that he's been in the league.

Though Clutterbuck scored 19 goals, it's probably best to keep him in a third-line role, where offensive expectations won't be unreasonable and he can still focus on agitating the opposition.

Having missed more than a full season while recovering from a concussion, Pierre-Marc Bouchard returned to action last season and, after some time to work off the rust, he was back to producing like he did before suffering the injury in the first game of the 2009-2010 season.

With a full summer of conditioning, now that he's a healthy, 27-year-old Bouchard should be primed for a productive offensive season.

Kyle Brodziak has steadily improved throughout his career and scored a career-high 16 goals and 37 points last season, the checking centre showing that, on occasion, he could move up the depth chart and produce in a scoring role.

Brodziak's developing offensive game is helpful because, despite his fast start, Matt Cullen's 39 points was his lowest total since 2002-2003. Cullen plays both ends of the rink, but faded down the stretch, not scoring a goal and going minus-15 in the last 25 games of the season.

Ideally, Cullen would probably be a third-line centre who can chip in offensively and play some power play but, barring a significant acquisitions, he's still likely the No. 2 next season.

Signed to a three-year free agent deal last summer, Eric Nystrom played all 82 games and played a career-high 13:19 per game, yet managed a rather modest four goals and 12 points to go with a career-low minus-16 rating and the second-worst 5-on-5 shot differential per 60 minutes on the team (according to www.behindthenet.ca).

Even though scoring isn't his game, considering what the Wild are paying Nystrom, they have the right to expect more.

Tough guy Brad Staubitz doesn't play a lot, which is probably for the best, but he's a willing combatant when the game turns nasty and as long as the team needs an enforcer, he fits the bill.

There could be some turnover up front for the Wild, as there are four unrestricted free agents that may be moving on. While the Wild might like to have top prospect Mikael Granlund come over from Finland, he's reportedly staying home for one more season.

Presuming that Latendresse is healthy, that should leave the Wild looking for one scoring forward and a couple of checkers to round out the lineup. Finnish scoring forwards like Jussi Jokinen or Ville Leino, or power forward Erik Cole could be fine complements to Koivu, but if they're out of range, Marco Sturm or Alexei Ponikarovsky could be viable, and relatively inexpensive, options.

When it comes to depth forwards, the Wild may have some challengers from within the organization, like Colton Gillies and Cody Almond, but could also seek out some veterans that have more established credentials like Mike Rupp, Boyd Gordon, Adam Hall or Jeff Halpern.

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Cap Hit
Brent Burns 73.28 $3.55M
Marek Zidlicky 70.89 $4.0M
Nick Schultz 63.32 $3.5M
Jared Spurgeon 62.87 $527K
Clayton Stoner 62.72 $550K
Greg Zanon 61.18 $1.93M
Cam Barker 58.74 $3.08M

Finally healthy after a couple of seasons battling concussions, Brent Burns played in 80 games last season and staked his claim to be considered among the top all-around blueliners in the league.

Burns, who has a rare combination of size and puck skills that are borne out of his days as a forward, logged more than 25 minutes per game and scored a career-high 46 points last season. Though he was minus-10, his five-on-five shot differential per 60 minutes was the best among Minnesota defencemen.

Going into the final year of his contract, 26-year-old Burns should be considered a building block on the Minnesota blueline, which means he's due for a contract extension. The longer that Burns goes unsigned, the more likely that his name will pop up in trade rumours because every team can use what Burns brings to the table.

The injury bug wouldn't leave Marek Zidlicky alone all season and he ended up playing only 46 games. He's shaky defensively, a minus-34 in three seasons with the Wild, but Zidlicky is a quality point man for the power play, scoring more than 20 power play points five times in his career.

Nick Schultz play a no-nonsense defensive game, having never scored more than 20 points in a season, but he's reliable, having played more than 20 minutes a game for five straight seasons and having missed a total of 14 games in those five years.

A mighty mite as defencemen go, Jared Spurgeon didn't waste any time climbing the ladder. He wasn't signed by the Islanders as a fifth-round pick and earned an invite to Wild camp, quickly earned a contract and spent the better portion of his first pro season in the NHL.

Spurgeon didn't play big minutes as a rookie, but also didn't look out of place, so there's reason to believe that the 21-year-old will be in for bigger and better things to come.

Clayton Stoner impressed in his rookie season as well, using his size effectively and leading the Wild with a plus-5 rating. He had five seasons of development in the AHL, and is now 26, so it's not surprising that Stoner was ready to perform at the NHL level and he earned more playing time as the year progressed.

As unheralded as they come, Greg Zanon provides the intangibles, hitting, blocking shots and sacrificing his body like few others. He does little to nothing offensively, but he's going to show up with his lunch pail and go to work, having missed one game in the last three seasons.

It took a while for Cam Barker, the third overall pick in the 2004 draft to make an impact in the league, then he scored 40 points in 68 games in 2008-2009 and appeared to be on his way.

Barker's game has dropped off since then to the point that he's now a fringe defenceman for the Wild and could be liable for a buyout (at only one-third the cost since he's under 26), unless the Wild find a team interested in taking on salary.

If the Wild are looking for depth, they can either promote from within the organization, looking to Marco Scandella or Maxim Noreau, or they can venture into the free agent market looking for inexpensive depth. Steve Eminger, Andreas Lilja or Freddy Meyer might be the type of bargain addition the Wild could make.

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating Cap Hit
Niklas Backstrom 71.42 $6.0M

Free Agent Goaltenders

Player Rating Class '10-'11 Cap Hit
Jose Theodore 70.95 UFA $1.1M
Josh Harding N/A UFA $1.2M

Following a down season in 2009-2010, when his save percentage was a career-low .903, Niklas Backstrom rebounded with a better season, though he faded late. His .916 save percentage was good, but could have been even better had he not posted an .852 save percentage after the trade deadline.

At 33, Backstrom remains an above average starter, with potential to rank among the game's best in a good season. It's up to the Wild to provide him with ample support, both offensively and defensively, in order to take advantage of what he provides.

Having missed all of last season after tearing his ACL, Josh Harding may be the lead option to play the backup role again, but if not, any number of veteran alternatives would be worthy of the spot, including Ty Conklin, Jason LaBarbera and Marty Turco.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Mikael Granlund LW HIFK Helsinki (SML) 8-28-36,+9, 39 GP
Marco Scandella D Houston (AHL) 3-16-19,even, 33 GP
Matt Hackett G Houston (AHL) 2.37 GAA, .916 SV%, 45 GP
Jason Zucker LW Denver (WCHA) 23-22-45,+23, 40 GP
Tyler Cuma D Houston (AHL) 1-3-4,-3, 31 GP
Erik Haula LW Minnesota (WCHA) 6-18-24, +10, 34 GP
Casey Wellman C Houston (AHL) 14-21-35, even, 42 GP
Colton Gillies LW Houston (AHL) 11-15-26,+2, 64 GP
Cody Almond C Houston (AHL) 15-19-34,-2, 65 GP
Darcy Kuemper G Red Deer (WHL) 1.86 GAA, .933 SV%, 62 GP

Despite scoring 76 points in 82 games over the last two seasons in Finland, and scoring a highlight reel lacross-style goal at the World Championships, Mikael Granlund is expected to spend one more year in Finland, fulfilling military commitments before joining the Wild in 2012-2013. Whenever he does arrive, Granlund will be expected to put up numbers offensively.

Injuries limited Marco Scandella to 53 regular-season games between the AHL and NHL last season, but the 21-year-old did show some promise. He has good size, can skate and has a heavy shot from the point. Perhaps a little more time in the minors is needed, but he should have a chance in Minnesota before long.

Matt Hackett appears to be the goaltender of the future and his first pro season did nothing to dissuade the Wild from that idea. He's 21-year-old, so there's no need to rush him, so he can handle another year as the No. 1 in Houston.

After an impressive freshman campaign at the University of Denver, Jason Zucker appears a safe bet to make it as a regular when he's ready to try the pro game, though he could use another season to prove that his offensive outburst as a freshman was legit.

Tyler Cuma has dealt with a number of injuries, most notably a torn ACL that ended his 2010-2011 prematurely. A first-round pick in 2008, Cuma hasn't put up numbers to suggest that he'll be an offensive threat, so now it's a matter of staying healthy and establishing his presence as a shutdown defender.

A seventh-round pick in 2009, Finnish winger Erik Haula just completed his freshman year at the University of Minnesota. His future may be as a checking winger, but it would still be nice to see more than six goals in 34 games at the collegiate level.

Signed out of UMass-Amherst in 2010, Casey Wellman has the speed and shot to be an offensive performer, though has managed just six points in 27 NHL games. He'll be 24 early next season, so the time is coming soon for Wellman to prove he's capable of putting the puck in the net in the NHL.

Colton Gillies was rushed to the NHL in 2008-2009 and wasn't particularly successful, so he's spent the last two years primarily in the AHL. Gillies isn't going to to be a scorer, but he's a big bodied forward who can skate and should be able to handle a regular checking role.

He doesn't score a bunch, but Cody Almond is a big checking centre who can add some grit to the fourth line. The 21-year-old has spent the bulk of his first two pro campaigns in the AHL and has one goal in 15 NHL games, so he'll need continued improvement if he's going to establish that he's an NHL regular.

He remains unsigned, so that's an issue, but goaltender Darcy Kuemper had an exceptional season in the WHL, which may contribute to the 2009 sixth-round pick having higher expectations for his contract. A 6-foot-4 goaltender with 178 games in the Western Hockey League over the last three seasons, Kuemper seems like a worthwhile investment at a position that tends to have so much uncertainty.

There have been reports that Mikko Lehtonen, who had a superb season (30 goals, 58 points in 55 games) in the Swedish Elite League and was acquired from Boston at the trade deadline, has signed in the KHL, which would take away one goal-scoring option -- one that would appear to be ready sooner than others -- among the prospects.

Justin Falk is a big stay-at-home blueliner who has played a limited role in 25 games with the Wild over the last two seasons and could very easily fit in as the sixth or seventh defenceman.

At the other end of the spectrum, Chay Genoway is a 5-foot-8 defenceman who scored a point-per-game at North Dakota last season. If Jared Spurgeon can handle a regular role on the Minnesota blueline, then maybe Genoway, with more offensive upside, can make it too.

Check out a projected lineup, on www.capgeek.com, with a couple of additions: http://bit.ly/mlaiwQ

DRAFT
10th - Duncan Siemens, Mika Zibanejad, Mark McNeill.

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Wild have approximately $50.4M committed to the 2011-12 salary cap for 17 players.

Needs: One top six forward, three checking forwards, backup goaltender.

What I said the Wild needed last year: Second-line centre, depth forwards, two defencemen.

They added: Matt Cullen, John Madden, Eric Nystrom, Brad Staubitz, Clayton Stoner.

TRADE MARKET Cam Barker, Eric Nystrom, prospects.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.




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