A new coach with a new system contributed to a slow start that caused the Minnesota Wild to miss the playoffs in 2009-2010.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at the Wild roster and what they might be able to do this summer to get back to the postseason next year.
After opening last season 7-12-2 in the first quarter, with new coach Todd Richards learning on the job and his team struggling, the Wild then went 31-24-6 the rest of the way, which isn't necessarily the mark of a playoff team, but it's certainly much more competitive.
With some internal improvement and better health for Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Brent Burns, the Wild would have a legitimate chance at a playoff berth, but this low-scoring squad could still use some upgrades. Without a ton of cap room, how they will go about it is the question.
At season's end, GM Chuck Fletcher told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, "When you look at this year's free-agent pool, I see a lot more question marks than I see solutions. There are some good players. There are some fits that may be there for us, but we're kidding ourselves if we think we can go out and buy a couple players and all of a sudden win the division."
If the players that are deemed fits for the Wild aren't landed via free agency, Minnesota will have to look to trades in order to bring in the kind of scoring talent that they need to harbour more realistic playoff expectations.
Expect activity from the Wild this summer because, in a hockey-mad market, the new regime may not get another chance if they can't land a playoff spot in either of their first two seasons.
Necessity is the mother of invention and the need to be a playoff team ought to help Fletcher stay aggressive on the player-acquisition front.
To his credit, Fletcher didn't stand pat during his first year as Wild GM, notably dealing for Guillaume Latendresse and Cam Barker during the season.
"I do believe we have some positive signs for the future, and I'm more prepared now to make the decisions I need to make thanks to a year's experience, information and gathering of knowledge about this team under my belt," Fletcher told the Star-Tribune. "Now we have to do the right things to go forward."
Chuck Fletcher/Todd Richards
Mikko Koivu is a legitimate star player, coming off a career-best 71-point season, but could use some help. As a playmaking centre, who works at both ends of the rink, Koivu could continue improving his point totals if paired with a top-notch finisher on his wing.
The bigger priority for the Wild, however, ought to be ensuring that they get Koivu signed long-term. Heading into the final year of his contract, Koivu would be prime trade fodder (not unlike Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa in recent seasons) if he's not locked into a contract extension.
The consistent and durable Andrew Brunette provides a sense of security up front, having missed three games in the last eight seasons while scoring 50 or more points in six of those eight years.
Brunette isn't too nimble afoot, but has fantastic hands around the net, which helped the 36-year-old net a career-best 12 power play goals last season.
Antti Miettinen scored a career-high 20 goals last season, but seems to get miscast (since there aren't better options available) as a top-six forward, when his level of play is a more natural fit for third-line duty.
The league's leading hitter, Cal Clutterbuck, isn't easy to play against and certainly has a role to play, but the Wild need to be wary of extending his responsibilities too much. Even though he had a career-best 13 goals last season, Clutterbuck's overall game is limited.
Of course, Clutterbuck is an overachiever, unlike Martin Havlat, who followed up the best year of his career in 2008-2009, with one of his worst in his first year with the Wild.
After a slow start, though, Havlat finished with 43 points in the last 49 games, so if he could score at that rate for a full season, that would be the kind of offensive production that the Wild expected and sorely need.
Kyle Brodziak has become a solid player, while missing only five games over the last three seasons. He has size, can skate, check and, at times, even offers a little offence. He fits well in a third-line role.
A three-time 20-goal scorer, Chuck Kobasew only had nine goals and 15 points in 49 games in an injury-marred 2009-2010 season. At this point, the 28-year-old seems best-suited to a third-line job, with enough skill to move up the depth chart for short spurts when needed.
Next season's Wild team would benefit greatly from the return of Pierre-Marc Bouchard, a skilled playmaker who averaged 56 points in the previous four seasons before a concussion, suffered in the first game last season, sidelined him the rest of the way.
Bouchard's recovery would go a long way towards giving the Wild -- who scored a modest 2.61 goals per game -- a competent attack.
22-year-old Guillaume Latendresse was on his way to being a disappointment in Montreal, but a trade to the Wild energized him and suddenly he was back on track to making his mark as a scoring power forward, burying 25 goals in 55 games with Minnesota.
Even if it's not reasonable to expect Latendresse to keep that kind of pace over a full season, if he scores 25 or 30 goals, that would be a fine season and there still exists the potential for more.
The ninth overall pick in 2006, James Sheppard had been a little slow to develop in his first couple of NHL seasons before putting up a miserable two goals, six points and minus-14 rating in 64 games last year.
Sheppard is just 22 but, like Latendresse, may need a change of scenery if he's going to even approach his junior promise.
The Wild could bring back a few unrestricted free agents. Veteran Owen Nolan has played well enough in recent years to be in some demand, while Derek Boogaard remains a one-dimensional terrorizing influence and Andrew Ebbett could be an inexpensive yet skilled depth option.
Most important for the Wild, though, is that they try to acquire another top-six forward (two if Bouchard isn't healthy), preferably a second-line centre.
A trade might be more realistic than hitting the free agent market, where Tomas Plekanec and Matthew Lombardi would be the top free agent pivots and worthy of long-term investment, while veterans like Saku Koivu or even Olli Jokinen could be serviceable options that would require shorter-term investment.
There's no secret to what 33-year-old Marek Zidlicky provides: nice mobility, good skills running the point on the power play and shaky defence, as he's been a double-digit minus in three of his six NHL seasons, while recording at least 20 power play points in five of six years.
Brent Burns, on the other hand, is a little more mysterious, thanks to concussion problems that have limited him to 106 games over the past two seasons.
Burns has a rare combination of size and skill, with potential to be a premier defenceman, but he started poorly in Todd Richards' system (going minus-13 in the first 12 games of the season) and then the injuries derailed any progress he was making throughout the rest of the season.
Until he gets back to playing like he did in 2007-2008 (43 points, plus-12), the Wild are stuck waiting for Burns to reach his considerable potential.
Cam Barker has size and the ability to run a power play, so that makes the 24-year-old intriguing, but he couldn't get out of Joel Quenneville's doghouse in Chicago before getting traded to Minnesota last season and being thrust into a more prominent role.
Barker's decision-making and play without the puck still comes into question, but he should have a chance with the Wild to prove whether or not he's a legitimate top four defenceman in the league.
Under-appreciated Greg Zanon is a quiet warrior who lays his body on the line night-in and night-out, blocking shots, playing hurt and missing a total of five games over the last three seasons.
Nick Schultz is a similarly low-profile performer, but he's a steady defender and has missed a dozen games in the last six seasons. Though he put up a career-high 20 points last seaosn, Schultz is best left to focus on his defensive play.
Minnesota could use a punisher with some size on the blueline to help in the defensive zone. If healthy, Willie Mitchell might be an intriguing free agent, as would big fellas like Andy Sutton or Milan Jurcina.
Though he doesn't play a physical game, Minnesota native Jordan Leopold could also be worthy of consideration, yet none of these players figure to come at bargain prices, which could make for a tight financial picture.
Free Agent Goaltender
||'09-'10 Cap Hit
A lot was made about the Wild not playing such a buttoned-up defensive style and the decrease in Niklas Backstrom's numbers (career-high 2.72 GAA, career-low .903 SVPCT) might bear that out to some degree, except that Backstrom ended up facing fewer shots per minute last season than in either of the previous two years under head coach Jacques Lemaire.
If Backstrom can return to form, that would make a major difference in the Wild's fortunes.
Josh Harding has been considered one of the better backup goaltenders for the last couple of seasons, potentially capable of starting for some teams, but he got off to a poor start last year and it took time to earn the trust of the coaching staff.
Harding saw more time in the second half of the season, in part due to Backstrom battling a couple of injuries, and Harding posted a .920 save percentage in 15 starts from January on before undergoing hip surgery once the season was over.
||Val d'Or (QMJHL)
||9-22-31,+10, 31 GP
||5-17-22,+9, 52 GP
||33-18-3, 2.62 GAA, .925 SVPCT, 56 GP
||23-22-45,-5, 36 GP
||18-34-52,-7, 60 GP
||7-13-20,-6, 72 GP
||3-7-10,+14, 26 GP
||3-6-9,-6, 69 GP
||14-19-4,2.43 GAA, .907 SVPCT, 38 GP
||7-11-18,-7, 48 GP
Marco Scandella has steadily improved in three major junior seasons and has seen action in 15 AHL games over the last couple of years upon completion of his junior seasons. He's a potential top pair defenceman, but could use a season in the AHL getting acclimated to the pro game.
A first-round pick in 2008, Tyler Cuma's progress has been slowed by a knee injury suffered at Canada's World Junior camp in December 2008 and he still wasn't at this best last season.
Some time in Houston, adjusting to the pros and presumably staying healthy, will help Cuma prepare for an eventual turn on the Wild blueline.
There's no need to rush goaltender Matthew Hackett, but he did have a terrific season in the OHL, ranking third in wins (33) and second in save percentage (.925).
The 20-year-old has a bright future but, since the Wild are well-stocked with goaltenders, Hackett can develop in the American Hockey League.
Casey Wellman was signed as a free agent following his sophomore year at UMass-Amherst, where he scored 78 points in 75 games and he put up four points in a dozen games with the Wild to finish the season.
Wellman could land a spot in Minnesota, but if he's not going to be in a top-six role, it might make sense to have him start in the AHL, getting used to the pro schedule and continuing to pile up points before getting his chance with the Wild.
Undersized blueliner Maxim Noreau has shown that he can make a difference offensively, scoring 32 goals in his last two AHL seasons, but he may be on the fringe of the roster, to be called up if needed in the event of injury.
After being rushed to the NHL, Colton Gillies spent all of last season in the AHL, but 20 points in 72 games doesn't suggest that the 21-year-old is necessarily ready to return. Points aren't going to be the focus of Gillies' game, but there's nothing wrong with him having more impact in the AHL before he gets a chance to play in the NHL again.
Clayton Stoner has taken the slow and steady path of development, playing five years in the American Hockey League, and the 25-year-old may be an adequate seventh defenceman for the Wild at this point.
21-year-old Justin Falk is a big stay-at-home defenceman with limited upside. No urgency to press him into action in the NHL, but useful as a developmental prospect.
24-year-old Anton Khudobin has gone a circuitous route, playing in the WHL, Russia and two ECHL teams before settling in the AHL with Houston and he's been decent, but seems blocked at the NHL level and now faces competition from more highly-touted prospect Matt Hackett.
Gritty centre Cody Almond earned a call-up to the Wild late in the season, but 18 points in 47 AHL games suggests that more seasoning is required before he is ready for a regular spot with the big club.
Collegiate signing Nate Prosser is another Wild defence prospect of note, coming off a solid senior season at Colorado College and he got into three late-season games in Minnesota.
A couple of Finnish prospects further out on the horizon include scoring winger Erik Haula, heading to the University of Minnesota, and lanky 20-year-old winger Eero Elo.
9th - Ryan Johansen, Brett Connolly, Jeff Skinner.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Wild have approximately $44.8M committed to the 2010-2011 salary cap for 14 players.
Needs: Second-line centre, depth forwards, two defencemen.
What I said the Wild needed last year: Top-line winger, another top nine forward, three defencemen.
Who did they add? Martin Havlat, Kyle Brodziak, Petr Sykora, Greg Zanon, Shane Hnidy.
TRADE MARKET Antti Miettinen, Chuck Kobasew, James Sheppard, Nick Schultz, Josh Harding.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen.