Getting bulked up in preparation for another postseason battle against the Anaheim Ducks really didn’t pay off for the Minnesota Wild this year. Not only did that match up not materialize, the Wild were eliminated by the play of Colorado goaltender Jose Theodore. So it’s time to move on and ask the question: what do they do with their lineup to take the next step (past the first round of the playoffs) in 2008-2009?
First and foremost, I’d convince Jacques Lemaire, the only coach the Wild have ever had, to continue on coaching. While his preferred style of play doesn’t light the world on fire, I think it’s only a couple of pieces away from working. A close second would be to not give up on Gabby. Yes, Marian Gaborik was kept off the score sheet for almost 6 games in the playoffs. Credit Adam Foote and the rest of the Avs for getting the best of Minnesota’s best. Plenty of people think that the Wild should trade him now while he has had a fairly healthy season, but I think that paired with a centerman who can actually score and check, he could be that much better. The Wild should sign Gaborik to a long-term extension and put their faith in their first draft pick.
Minnesota’s two biggest unrestricted free agents (UFAs) are Pavol Demitra and Brian Rolston. While both are coming up on what could be their last contracts as professionals, Rolston is a guy that wanted to come to Minnesota and help them win and should be the easy choice between the two. Demitra should be thanked for his efforts in bringing along Gaborik’s game and sent on his way.
The next big move on offense is to build on the performance of Mikko Koivu. He was the best player on the Wild in my mind in the playoffs and has been improving steadily. If Minnesota had another 1st or 2nd line quality center to go along with Koivu, they would be on the right track. The other key offensive player that I think should get a contract extension is Pierre-Marc Bouchard. He is absolutely amazing to watch with the puck, but somebody needs to make him sit down and watch tape of Brett Hull to try to learn how to shoot instead of skating in circles. Another two keepers from the existing roster are James Sheppard, the 19-year old who saw significant playing time this year, and Benoit Pouliot, a dynamic offensive player who only saw limited time this year but could add scoring punch. I’d also keep the necessary quota of checking wingers in Derek Boogaard, Aaron Voros and Todd Fedoruk or maybe at least 2 of them. Fedoruk and Voros can actually contribute and Boogaard could if he could learn how to redirect / tip pucks in front of the net. From the farm system I’d bring up first rounder Colton Gillies, Cal Clutterbuck, Ryan Jones and give them an opportunity to make the team.
In addition to saying goodbye to Demitra, I’d jettison Eric Belanger (didn’t live up to expectations), Mark Parrish (even though he took a hometown discount to play in MN), Branko Radivojevic (torn ACL and is a UFA), Chris Simon (not sure why they even signed him), Matt Foy, and probably Voros. One guy I’m undecided on is Stephane Veilleux. In three full seasons with the Wild he hasn’t crossed the 20 point barrier.
On the defensive side, Brent Burns is the man. If he continues to progress as he has this year and if the playoffs, I believe he’s a legit #1 defenseman. I’d pair him with Nick Schultz and put the veteran Kim Johnsson with Kurtis Foster (assuming he recovers from the broken leg. I’d give the less experienced Erik Reitz and Shawn Belle chances to make the big club in the 5th to 6th d-man roles. As far as I’m concerned, it’s chopping block time for the aging Martin Skoula, Keith Carney, Sean Hill, and Petteri Nummelin. The Wild would do themselves a huge favor by acquiring a physical style top 4 defensive talent in the open market (Brooks Orpik, Mike Commodore, Kurt Sauer).
In net I think it is status quo with Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding. They were a more than competent 1-2 punch during the season. And even though Backstrom was outshined in the playoffs, I believe his play has earned him the right to give it another go next year.
There are my thoughts on the state of the Minnesota Wild. Given, some of the guys that I think should go are under contract and will most likely be around next year, but GM Doug Riseborough needs to get creative and make this team a contender before Gabby gets too bored…