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Off-Season Game Plan: Wild

Scott Cullen
5/11/2009 5:12:34 PM
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Few teams have the potential to have as much overhaul as the Minnesota Wild this summer.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at a team in need of a new General Manager, Head Coach and, potentially, star player.

It may have come as some surprise when Jacques Lemaire stepped down as coach, but the Wild's off-season plan became much more daunting when they fired GM Doug Risebrough as well.

While a new front office may help the Wild in negotations with Marian Gaborik, who had been at a stalemate with Risebrough in contract negotations, there is no guarantee that new management would appeal to, or even want Gaborik.

One of the names that has made the rounds in the rumour mill for the GM position is that of TSN analyst Pierre McGuire.

Late in the season, McGuire told the St. Paul Pioneer Press about Gaborik: "He's one of the best one-on-one players in the NHL. That hasn't changed one iota. What everyone is questioning is his durability. If you're going to make that kind of investment, you can't have a guy go 25-30 games a season. It just won't work in this salary-cap world."

Of course, McGuire is right. When Gaborik played this year, the Wild were easily a playoff-calibre team, but hip surgery meant that Gaborik only graced the Wild with his presence in the lineup for 17 games, not nearly enough, and it's tough to commit more than $7-million-plus to any player who isn't going to be in the lineup for the majority of the games.

There is the natural concern in Minnesota that the hip surgery could be just what cures Gaborik's ever problematic groin injuries and he could be ready to embark on a series of 40 or 50-goal seasons. Or he could play 65 games or fewer like he has in four of the past five seasons.

How long and for how much does he get signed?

More importantly for the Wild, who will be the one making that decision?

Once a new GM comes in, there should be a better indication of what kind of team the Wild might have next season.  With Lemaire gone, they would figure to play a more open, attacking style, if only because it would be hard to be more buttoned-down.

So, the Wild could look dramatically different next season, which will make their off-season one of the more fascinating ones to watch in the NHL.

GM/COACH
Vacant/Vacant

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Salary
Mikko Koivu 79.11 $3.3M
Owen Nolan 78.57 $2.75M
Cal Clutterbuck 71.31 $623K
Antti Miettinen 69.59 $2.5M
Pierre-Marc Bouchard 69.38 $4.25M
Andrew Brunette 68.96 $2.5M
Eric Belanger 68.68 $1.75M
James Sheppard 61.02 $850K
Colton Gillies 57.86 $875K
Craig Weller 57.20 $625K
Derek Boogaard 56.71 $1.25M

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '08-'09 Salary
Marian Gaborik 93.35 UFA $7.5M
Stephane Veilleux 61.82 UFA $863K
Dan Fritsche 60.45 RFA $875K

Top Prospects: Benoit Pouliot (9-15-24, minus-2 in 30 GP; Houston-AHL), Cody Almond (33-33-66, plus-15 in 70 GP; Kelowna-WHL), Peter Olvecky (6-17-23, minus-1 in 41 GP; Houston-AHL)

Mikko Koivu has progressively improved in every season and last year he emerged as one of the better two-way centres in the game, taking on an offensive leadership role in the absence of Marian Gaborik. However, to bring out the best in Koivu, the Wild ought to ensure that he has a true finisher on his wing, as he's much more of playmaker.

One of the most underrated 2008-2009 seasons in the entire league was turned in by Owen Nolan. The 37 year-old missed 23 games with injuries and still managed to score 25 goals, a total he'd surpassed just twice in the previous nine seasons. I questioned the wisdom of signing Nolan to a two-year deal last summer, but it appears to have worked out nicely for the Wild.

The league's leading hitter as a rookie, Cal Clutterbuck made a name for himself with his agitating style, but also chipped in 11 goals. He showed some offensive ability in his final two years of junior, so if Clutterbuck could build on his rookie season, perhaps a 15-20 goal season could be in his future.

Though he put up a career-high 44 points, Antti Miettinen was fortunate to have some chemistry with Koivu. Miettinen isn't skilled enough to warrant first-line duty, but his speed and sound game figure to be a better fit on the third line.

Pierre-Marc Bouchard's game tailed off as he finished with fewer than 57 points for the first time since the lockout. Bouchard plays a soft game, but has vision, creativity and soft hands that should result in big point totals if he's matched with better scorers.

Iron man Andrew Brunette missed a couple of games to end his streak, but he's still played better than 80 games in eight of the last nine seasons. That durability, coupled with rare skills down low in the opposing zone, makes him a valuable veteran.

While there are times that it looks like Eric Belanger might be capable of producing more offensively, he's scored between 33 and 37 points in six straight seasons. He's a solid checking line centre, but the Wild need to have better options for the power play (where Belanger has scored 27 points over the last two seasons).

First in line to take on a bigger offensive role should be James Sheppard, the 21-year-old who played all 82 games last season, yet was underwhelming with just 24 points and a minus-14 rating. Sheppard has the size and skill to take on a bigger role, but he wasn't ready for the responsibility in his second season.

Colton Gillies saw limited ice time in his rookie season, but the 20-year-old has potential to be a good checking winger. Presumably, he'll get more of an opportunity next year.

He's a high-effort player, but Craig Weller is going to be on the fringe of the lineup, fitting in when the Wild feel a need for more size on the fourth line.

There may not be anyone in the league more intimidating than Wild enforcer Derek Boogaard, but he plays so little and hasn't scored a goal in three seasons, so there's only so much impact he's going to have with his fists.

Picked up from the Rangers, Dan Fritsche played better with more ice time after arriving in Minnesota. His career appeared to be on the upswing a couple of years ago, but has slipped over the last two seasons. Given a regular role right off the start, he could be a reliable checker.

The potential loss of Marian Gaborik to free agency has to put the Wild on alert entering the summer. If Gaborik can't be convinced to stay, then the Wild can turn their attention to other highly-skilled wingers who could help fill the void, including Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat, Alex Tanguay, Mike Cammalleri or perhaps Steve Sullivan.

Furthermore, if the Wild aren't prepared to see James Sheppard in the second-line centre role, they could check in with free agent Saku Koivu, Mikko's older brother.

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Salary
Brent Burns 73.89 $3.4M
Marek Zidlicky 72.45 $3.5M
Kim Johnsson 68.59 $5.3M
Nick Schultz 64.75 $3.4M
John Scott 60.75 $550K

Free Agent Defencemen

Player Rating Class '08-'09 Salary
Marc-Andre Bergeron 75.61 UFA $1.691M
Kurtis Foster 75.02 UFA $1.025M
Martin Skoula 63.52 UFA $1.9M

Top Prospects: Tyler Cuma (1-8-9, minus-7 in 21 GP; Ottawa-OHL), Maxim Noreau (14-25-39, minus-5 in 77 GP; Houston-AHL), Marco Scandella (10-27-37, minus-19 in 58 GP; Val d'Or-QMJHL)

A concussion ended Brent Burns' season early, but it wasn't going all that well before he shut things down, either. Burns looked to be on the cusp of stardom after the 2007-2008 season, but took a step back last year, so he'll be counted on to rebound and play like a number one defenceman -- a status befitting a player of his size, skill and skating ability.

Power play quarterback Marek Zidlicky put up more than 40 points for the fourth time in his five NHL seasons, yet his minus-12 rating was the second-worst of his career. Perhaps he'd fare better in that regard with a steadier defensive partner, who could better cover when Zidlicky attacks in the offensive zone.

Though it doesn't appear he's ever going to be the kind of point producer he was in his years with the Philadelphia Flyers and he generally plays small for his size, Kim Johnsson is a solid top-four defenceman.

Coming off the first minus season of his career, Nick Schultz is nevertheless the closest thing the Wild have to a shutdown defenceman. His durability (at least 79 games for five straight seasons) and ability to log significant minutes has earned the 26-year-old respect as he enters his prime.

Monstrous (6-foot-8, 247 pounds) John Scott got his first taste of NHL action and while his game isn't yet ready for regular duty, Scott is an intimidator who could fill a role as a tough guy/depth defenceman.

There are several holes that need to be filled on the blueline, but the Wild effectively have their top four covered, so they can seek free agent help a little further down the depth chart.

Minnesota native Jordan Leopold, Ville Koistinen, Alexei Semenov, Karlis Skrastins and Matt Walker are but a handful of free agents that might have the skills to help upgrade the unit.

Returning Goaltenders

Player Rating Salary
Niklas Backstrom 90.53 $6.0M

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating Class '08-'09 Salary
Josh Harding 80.40 RFA $750K

Top Prospect: Anton Khudobin (3-6-1, 3.04 GAA, .892 SVPCT in 10 GP; Houston-AHL)

Niklas Backstrom earned a contract extension after putting up his third straight impressive season after coming to the NHL as a 28-year-old. While there is something to the argument that Backstrom's success has been tied to the buttoned-down defensive style favoured by Jacques Lemaire, the Wild were in the lower half of the league in shots allowed last season.

Currently one of the better backup goaltenders in the league, 24-year-old Josh Harding could develop into a starter as well, though he doesn't figure to see a heavy workload as long as Backstrom is healthy.

While there aren't any prospects knocking on the door, it's probably for the best since this tandem ensures that the Wild are set nicely between the pipes for the forseeable future.

DRAFT
12th - Jordan Schroeder, Scott Glennie, Dmitry Kulikov, Ryan Ellis.

FREE AGENCY
The Wild have approximately $43.5-million committed to salaries for next season.

Needs: Top-line winger, another top nine forward, three defencemen

What I said the Wild needed last year: Two top six forwards, depth forwards, one top four defenceman, two additional defencemen

Who did they add? Andrew Brunette, Owen Nolan, Antti Miettinen, Colton Gillies, Cal Clutterbuck, Marek Zidlicky, Marc-Andre Bergeron.

TRADE MARKET
Kim Johnsson, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, James Sheppard.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca 

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