Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Team Preview: Minnesota Wild

Key additions: Todd White, C/LW (T - OTT); Brian Rolston, C/LW (FA - BOS); Andrei Nazarov, RW/LW (FA - PHX); Scott Ferguson, D (FA - EDM); Kurtis Foster, D (FA - ANA); Joey Tetarenko, RW (FA - CRL); Daniel Tjarnqvist, D (FA -ATL); Erik Westrum, RW/C (T - PHX); Dustin Wood, D (T- PHX); Mikko Koivu, C (D - 2001, 1/6) ; Patrick O'Sullivan, C (D - 2003, 2/56);

Key losses: Andrew Brunette, LW/RW (FA - COL); Antti Laaksonen, LW/RW (FA - COL); Matt Johnson, LW (FA); Jason Wiemer, LW/C (FA - CGY); Richard Park, RW/LW (FA - VAN); Eric Chouinard, LW/RW (FA - PHI); Christoph Brandner, LW/RW (FA - Europe); Zbynek Michalek, D (T - PHX)

Key players unsigned: none

Forwards: In Marian Gaborik, the Wild have a superstar ready to breakout. While 2003-04 was a bit of a step back on Gaborik's ascension into the NHL's pantheon elite forwards, the bump in the road was due almost entirely to the lengthy holdout that saw him miss all of October. Further, there's only so much "breaking out" that a young player can do under head coach Jacques Lemaire. But Gaborik has learned how to play the game the right way and at 23-years-old is on the verge of reaching his full (and seemingly limitless) potential. In addition to Gaborik, 2002 first round pick (eighth overall) Pierre-Marc Bouchard and O'Sullivan are exciting young forwards who have racked up points at every level and will now be counted on to do the same in the NHL. The Wild signed free agents Rolston and White to help a team that is weak down the middle, but neither is a number one center, and it is an area in which Minnesota will struggle. Almost all of the rest of Minnesota's forwards are mediocre offensively and above average defensively - what else would you expect from a Lemaire-coached team? The Wild were 25th in goals scored and 28th in power play percentage in 2003-04, and those numbers aren't likely to improve dramatically in 2005-06.

Defensemen: The Wild return their top four defensemen in Filip Kuba, Willie Mitchell, Andrei Zyuzin and Nick Schultz. Kuba and Zyuzin are decent two-way options and Mitchell is a solid stay-at-home defenseman. Schultz has the highest upside of the group and is beginning to come into his own as an NHL blueliner. He should continue to improve in 2005-06. Also back is the versatile (and by versatile, we mean he can goon it up at defense or wing) Alex Henry. 2003 first round pick Brent Burns is in the process of converting from wing to defense, and will continue to do so this season. The newly-acquired Ferguson and Tjarnqvist will also see time on a blueline that is responsible and heady, if not overloaded with talent. The 2003-04 Wild gave up the fifth-fewest goals in the League and should again be in the top 10 in that category this year.

Goaltending: Dwayne Roloson is the classic late-blooming goalie. "Rolie the Goalie," who will be 36-years-old one week into the season, didn't even see action in an NHL game until he was 27 and didn't have his breakout year until he was 33. But he has officially broken out, as in the last two NHL seasons he has posted a 1.94 goals against average and a .930 save percentage in 98 games. Roloson kept busy during the lockout, playing in Finland, but, at his age, he will undoubtedly be a step slower in 2005-06. Roloson's backup is Lemaire's nephew, Manny Fernandez, who has at times shown signs of being capable of producing in the #1 role. No spring chicken himself, Fernandez will have to seize the opportunities when they are given to him this year if he is ever going to get #1 minutes in the NHL. Regardless of who the official starting goalie in Minnesota is, the backup will get more minutes than most backups, and Lemaire is likely to go with the hot hand until it cools.

Bottom line: A number of hockey fans love to hate on the trap. "The trap killed hockey," they'll bellow to anyone who will listen (and to many who won't). But for teams like the Wild, their strategic options were limited to a) playing the trap or b) losing every game 6-1 because they simply didn't have the talent to open up their game and skate with some of the stronger teams in the League. This, we were told, was due solely to the small market/big market divide that existed in the old NHL. The new NHL's competitive balance should eliminate the revenue differential and with it the talent differential and, theoretically, the dreaded trap (whose death should also be hastened by new rules that should open up the game significantly). But something happened on the way to opening night in Minnesota - the team didn't spend any money, despite making tons of it (Minnesota was sixth in total attendance in 2003-04). As a result, the Wild remain towards the bottom of the League in terms of overall talent and will likely have the same two strategic options again this year - play the trap or lose every game 6-1. Which one do you think Lemaire will employ? It doesn't really matter - either way Minnesota will be on the outside looking in again as the playoffs open in April.


Spe said...

The trap didn't kill hockey. It is a natural extension of the League's growth. Saying that, I don't see anything changing with the new rules. If the cap forces you to spread talent throughout the League, doesn't that dilute competitive advantage and stifle offense?

JP said...

The theory is that teams trap(ped) because their rosters were vastly inferior talent-wise to their opponents' and they has no choice but to trap or get blown out. Now that there is a salary cap, talent will be spread throughout the League, as you say, diluting the competitive advantage and removing the "need" to trap. Of course the Devils Stanley Cup teams refute the idea that you only trap when you have no talent.

Some of the rule changes, though, encourage the trap. For example, the long-bomb outlet pass will make teams less aggressive in the forecheck for fear of being burned, and when forwards aren't forechecking, they whole team's stacked up in the neutral zone. Guess what they'll be doing?

Spe said...

Indeed. The folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B.