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Off-Season Game Plan: Wild

Scott Cullen
6/9/2008 10:17:43 AM
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This year's first-round playoff departure wasn't entirely unexpected; only once in their franchise history have the Minnesota Wild advanced beyond the first round of the NHL playoffs.

Off-Season Game Plan takes a look at a team facing the potential of massive overhaul this summer, due to a long list of free agents.

Though the Wild finished first in the Northwest Divison in 2007-2008, there is a sense that the team is in a precarious position if the right moves aren't made this summer.

Not only do the Wild have to deal with a lot of potential free agent departures (a couple -- Chris Simon and Branko Radivojevic -- have already signed in Russia), but quite possibly the foremost job of the summer will be to get the team's marquee player, Marian Gaborik, signed to a contract extension.

While Gaborik is coming off a career season, his playoff was a letdown and it could be tough to get him to agree to a long-term deal under the stifling style that comes with Jacques Lemaire.

Now, perhaps Lemaire will consider embracing a more attacking style and the Wild as we know them will be a thing of the past and he may have even hinted at some re-evaluation.

"I'm trying to correct. I'm trying to get parts better than it was," Lemaire said following the playoff loss. "How are we going to get that better? How can we play better in the playoffs? How can we score more goals in the playoffs?"

If the objective is to score more goals in the playoffs, then there probably needs to be a focus on scoring more goals throughout the season. The Wild had only two players score more than 16 goals (one of whom, Brian Rolston, is an unrestricted free agent) and tied for 17th in the league with 2.68 goals per game.

So, will the Wild open a new chapter in 2008-2009, a free-wheeling, dynamic offensive team? That's just too hard to imagine.

GM/COACH
Doug Risebrough/Jacques Lemaire

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Salary
Marian Gaborik 84.91 $7.5M
Mikko Koivu 76.69 $3.3M
Mark Parrish 64.85 $2.85M
Eric Belanger 63.87 $1.75M
Benoit Pouliot 59.86 $850K
James Sheppard 58.46 $850K
Derek Boogaard 52.00 $850K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '07-'08 Salary
Brian Rolston 77.47 UFA $2.432M
Pierre-Marc Bouchard 74.16 RFA $2.6M
Pavol Demitra 73.54 UFA $4.5M
Matt Foy 60.17 UFA $506K
Todd Fedoruk 59.80 UFA $875K
Aaron Voros 59.54 RFA $495K
Stephane Veilleux 58.63 RFA $595K
Branko Radivojevic 57.05 UFA $680K
Chris Simon 55.21 UFA $475K

Top Prospects: Colton Gillies, Julien Sprunger, Ryan Jones

Sniper Marian Gaborik was the healthiest he'd been since 2002-2003 and he notched a career-high 42 goals and 83 points. The 26-year-old Slovak may have the best wheels in the game and he's an impact scorer on the first line; at least he was until the playoffs when he was held off the scoresheet by Colorado.

Mikko Koivu has made steady progress in three NHL seasons, though his overall productivity was hampered by a fractured leg. He's a big strong pivot who could be ready for a breakout offensive season.

Veteran scorer Mark Parrish tied a career-low with 30 points, but he topped 20 goals six times in seven seasons before failing to hit that mark in either of his seasons with the Wild. It's worth giving him a chance to do it but, like several others on the Wild, his production isn't matching the salary he receives.

Checking centre Eric Belanger started the season with some offensive flair, prompting high praise from head coach Jacques Lemaire, but he finished with 37 points -- the fifth straight season in which he's finished with 33 to 37 points.

Drafted fourth overall in 2005, Benoit Pouliot hasn't been particularly consistent in the minors for two seasons, but his 11-game audition with the Wild may give him a leg up in the competition for a spot next season.

20-year-old James Sheppard impressed in limited ice time as a teenager. The big, strong centre could be ready for an increased role next season, though it may still be year too soon to expect significant offensive production.

Few, if any, players are as intimidating as Derek Boogaard, the 6-foot-7 enforcer. Of course, he also has no goals and one assist in 82 games over the last two seasons, so his impact is purely through pugilism.

Though the Wild might prefer more than 13 goals out of playmaking winger Pierre-Marc Bouchard, his skills are still very valuable on a team that isn't blessed with an abundance of offensive flair. Getting Bouchard to send more pucks to the net could make him a more productive all-around player, but it also may not be in his make-up to do so.

Aaron Voros adds a nice dose of feistiness and fisticuffs, combined with enough skill to handle a regular shift without hurting the team.

Energy winger Stephane Veilleux gives an honest effort but, even coming off a career-best 11-goal season, he's not going to make a major impact.

With so many free agents, the Wild could be looking at a significantly different group of forwards next season, especially if Pavol Demitra and Brian Rolston find greener pastures elsewhere.

With room under the salary cap, the Wild can afford to go after a big-name forward like Marian Hossa or look for better value in Kristian Huselius, Andrew Brunette, Jason Williams or Brendan Morrison among many others in an effort to find adequate complementary scoring.

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Salary
Brent Burns 78.86 $3.0M
Nick Schultz 67.72 $3.2M
Kim Johnsson 67.26 $5.25M
Martin Skoula 59.34 $1.9M

Free Agent Defencemen

Player Rating Class '07-'08 Salary
Kurtis Foster 71.02 RFA $1.025M
Petteri Nummelin 67.55 UFA $1.2M
Keith Carney 65.52 UFA $2.1M
Sean Hill 60.56 UFA $475K

Top Prospects: Clayton Stoner, Erik Reitz, Justin Falk, Paul Albers

23-year-old Brent Burns, who flip-flopped between wing and defence, emerged as a top-calibre defenceman in his fourth NHL season. Burns moves well for a big man and has impressive puck skills. He appears to be on the cusp of stardom.

Though he's only 25, Nick Schultz is already well established as a safe, reliable, mind-the-store defenceman who has yet to record a minus rating, or more than 16 points, in any of his six NHL seasons.

Whie Kim Johnsson is the workhorse of the unit, it also appears he's not going to recover the offensive prowess that he showed earlier in his career when he was with Philadelphia. As such, Johnsson is expensive for what he brings to the table, but he's fine in a top four role.

Martin Skoula's game has declined noticeably and he's coming off a season in which he scored a career-low 11 points and registered a career-worst minus-16 rating. Needless to say, the Wild would prefer to get a better return on their investment.

Towering Kurtis Foster is in the midst of a major rehab effort to come back from a broken femur. Foster wasn't very mobile in the first place and it hurts him defensively, but he also has a booming shot from the point, which makes him a power play threat. Considering the seriousness of his injury, though, any contributions next season should be considered a bonus.

That leaves the Wild with a rather thin group along the blueline, so dipping into the free agent market would seem to be a necessity.

Ron Hainsey, Michal Rozsival and Mark Streit are all puck-movers that may be of some assistance, while the Wild could benefit from added depth as well. Veteran guys like Jeff Finger, Paul Mara, Dmitri Kalinin, Bryce Salvador and possibly some Minnesota-native veterans like Bret Hedican or Kurt Sauer would improve the Wild's back line.

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating Salary
Niklas Backstrom 83.85 $3.1M
Josh Harding 64.27 $750K

Top Prospect: Anton Khudobin

Last summer, the Wild decided to go with Niklas Backstrom over Manny Fernandez as their number one goalie and the decision could not have been better. In his second NHL season, Backstrom wasn't quite as dominant as in his rookie campaign, but he handled a heavier workload and is a well above average starter.

Josh Harding also handled a heavier workload than he had in any of his previous NHL stints and he wasn't as consistent as the Wild might have hoped, but the 23-year-old is still a solid backup with future starter potential.

DRAFT
24th - Jake Gardiner, Jyri Niemi, Aaron Ness

FREE AGENCY
The Wild have approximately $35-million committed to salaries for next season.

 

Needs: Two top six forwards, depth forwards, one top four defenceman, two additional defencemen

What I said the Wild needed last year: Two top nine forwards, One top four defenceman

Who did they add? Eric Belanger, James Sheppard, Sean Hill

TRADE MARKET
Martin Skoula, Kim Johnsson, Mark Parrish

Scott Cullen can be reached at scullen@tsn.ca 




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