The Twin Cities vs the Motor City. Prince vs Kid Rock. The Land of 10,000 Lakes vs the UP. I'm not sure if any of these things are true rivalries or not, much like in the NHL. Detroit and Minnesota have not formed the animosity that existed when the two were Norris Division rivals, but with some key acquisitions this offseason, the Wild are looking to make a move and join the conference's elite teams.
Since joining the league in 2000, the Wild have been known as a defensive team, helped by the fact they were led by Jacques Lemaire for their first 8 years of existence. After a couple of disappointing seasons, the Wild fired coach Todd Richards and brought in their AHL-affiliate coach Mike Yeo to try and turn around a team that has never been great, but never been that bad. Truth be told, the Wild have been hockey's equivalent of Plain Jane; never good enough to be noticed, but never awful enough to be pitied.
The Wild are seeking to turn that all around, and they looked to one team to help them in their quest to get better. Will it work? Let's see where the Wild things are headed.
The Wild were very disappointing in 2010-11. A number of issues plagued the team all season, most notably a terrible offense and a goaltending performance by Niklas Backstrom that was not up to his usual standards. The Wild never got in any sort of groove during the season, and finished out of the playoffs for the third straight season. This offseason, Wild GM Chuck Fletcher (who apparently doesn't watch hockey past early May) decided that the answer to his team's problems lay in San Jose, and he brought in two of the Sharks' top scorers in an effort to boost his team's offense.
Arrivals: Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, Charlie Coyle, Darroll Powe, Jeff Taffe, Mike Lundin
Departures: Martin Havlat, Brent Burns, Jose Theodore, Andrew Burnette, John Madden, Chuck Kobasew, Cam Barker
Pertinent Stats in 2010-11
Points: 86 (20th NHL, 13th West)
Goals For: 203 (26th NHL)
Goals Against: 228 (16th NHL)
Power Play: 18.2% (13th NHL)
Penalty Kill: 82.8% (14th NHL)
Offense: It's not often a team with offensive issues that finishes in the bottom 5 overall in scoring trades away their top goal scorer from the previous season, but that's exactly what Minnesota did when they swapped Havlat to San Jose for Heatley. They then traded away their only true offensive defenseman in Burns to the Sharks for Setoguchi and Coyle, a highly regarded prospect, as well as a first round pick that they used on Zach Phillips. While the loss of Havlat and Burns hurts, it's pretty clear that bringing in Heatley and Setoguchi is an upgrade to an offense that was only better than the Panthers, Oilers, Senators and Devils.
After 5 straight 39+ goal seasons, Heatley's numbers took a nosedive in 2010-11, finishing with 26 goals and 64 points, his lowest output in a full season since he was a rookie. I can't say that playing with Mikko Koivu is an upgrade over playing with Joe Thornton, but Heatley will have less shifts ended prematurely due to a stupid diving penalty being called on a linemate (unless he also plays with Setoguchi). Koivu is the team's undisputed leader, tying for the team lead last year in points with 62 despite missing 11 games due to injury. Koivu is one of the game's underrated stars, and with legitimate scoring wingers could see his numbers increase sharply.
Beyond the top line on the Wild, the talent drop off is as severe as a northern Minnesota winter. Havlat was the only player on the team last year to crack 20 goals, and they lost their #3 and 4 scorers from last year in Burnette and Burns. The team is hoping that Guillaume Latendresse can rebound from a torn labrum and sports hernia, as he has 43 points in 66 career games with the Wild. Pierre-Marc Bouchard was also hampered with injuries last year, and he had 38 points in 59 games last year. A healthy Bouchard and Latendresse could give the Wild some secondary scoring that they have lacked.
Defense: The Wild traded away their best defenseman in Burns in order to shore up their offense, but much like the team itself, the current roster of defensemen is neither truly imposing or hilariously awful. With Burns toiling away out west, the Wild will look to Marek Zidlicky to assume the role of power play quarterback and top offensive defenseman. However, Zidlicky is not great in his own zone, and he'll potentially partner with Greg Zanon (who Wing fans may remember as the jackass that yelled "five hole" at Hasek in 2008), a solid stay-at-home defenseman who will make up for Zidlicky's shortcomings.
The rest of the defense are a bunch of guys without a ton of offensive flair, but who are good defensive defensemen. Nick Schultz has some offensive upside, but he's never put up huge numbers. Mike Lundin was signed for defensive depth after a couple of decent seasons in Tampa Bay. The awesomely named Clayton Stoner, when not trolling Minneapolis Southeast area, is a big, physical player with little offensive upside, but who can throw his body around when needed.
Goaltending: For a few years, the Wild relied on a tandem to share their goaltending duties, choosing to ride the hot hand rather than necessarily name a number one guy and see if he does well. However, Niklas Backstrom has taken over the netminding duties for the past few years, and he's been generally brilliant, putting up very impressive numbers. The last 2 years have not been kind to Backstrom as he has battled injuries to his hip and groin, and his stats have shown a slight regression. Backstrom is a very good goalie who can keep a team in a game, and if he returns to his pre-injury form he will give the Wild a chance to win every night.
Backstrom will once again be backed up by Josh Harding, one of the better backups in the NHL but another player who has endured a string of injuries that has kept him out of the lineup. When healthy, the Wild have one of the better tandems in the NHL.
Player to Watch: I'm going to be keeping an eye on Mikko Koivu this year. He's a strong two-way forward who has the ability to be a point-per-game player. He's never had a true sniper play on his wing, though, so the additions of Heatley and Setoguchi could play huge roles in helping Koivu ascend to the level of superstars in the game.
Player with Something to Prove: Smart money says that Heatley is the guy to look at here, but he's got a track record that shows he can produce big numbers in different systems. I'm going to be watching Setoguchi. In 3 full seasons with the Sharks, he scored at least 20 goals every year, but there's a big difference playing in San Jose with players like Thornton, Heatley, Marleau and Pavelski and being in Minnesota where there is not a lot of offensive talent. The Wild gave up a good defenseman in Burns to get Setoguchi, and he's going to be expected to contribute as a first-line player.
The Skinny: The Wild, like the Blue Jackets, made a few splashy moves that would signify their readiness to enter the playoff conversation. However, unlike the BJs, the Wild have a decent core in place, with solid defense and good goaltending. If Heatley and Setoguchi can develop some chemistry with their new teammates and help improve an awful defense, there's no reason the Wild can't compete for one of the lower-seeded playoff spots. In fact, I think this is the year they get back to the playoffs as the seventh or eight seed.