HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns

October 1, 2007

No concerns for Wild heading into new season

By Jesse Menden

Even though it is sunny and 65 degrees, puck season is already here. The Minnesota Wild kick off the regular season Thursday against Chicago.

With almost the same exact team that lost to the Anaheim Ducks in the first round of the playoffs last season, there are no real concerns for the team. However, there are a few storylines that will impact their success. The first is Marian Gaborik.

The Wild’s success in the regular and post season will be dependant on one thing: the health of Gaborik.

He missed nearly one-half of the season in 2006-07 and still ranked third on the club in scoring with 57 points. There is one telling statistic that shows how important Gaborik is to the Wild – the team was 33-9-6 in the 48 games he played, they won just 15 games without him.

Gaborik is the cog in the Wild’s offensive wheel. The team has plenty of talent when the 25-year-old winger is on the bench, but scoring has always been a struggle for this organization. The speed and ability of Gaborik makes other teams respect the Wild more since he has that quick-strike ability. Gaborik can help neutralize the streakiness of this team’s young offense.

Nothing else on this team should worry fans, but a close eye should be kept on goaltender Niklas Backstrom to see how he reacts to being the top guy.

Brought in as a backup last year, he played well enough to take the starting job and that led the team to trade former starter Manny Fernandez.

Backstrom led all goaltenders with a 1.97 goals against average and .929 save percentage last season. He seems to be more emotionally stable and fundamentally sound than his predecesor, but can he handle being the top guy with no safety net behind him? And was last season a trend, or a mirage?

Even if he does falter, the Wild’s defense (which has finished in the top four in the past four years) should be able to pick up the slack, but that would take away from the offense. Having said that, the Wild have an inexperienced backup in Josh Harding, so if Backstrom does go bad, it could be a long season.

A third storyline has to do with that playoff series against Anaheim. After every team saw the Ducks roll through the NHL playoffs to win the Stanley Cup with relative ease, it has become an arms race to bulk up on tougher skaters that can slow down speedy teams, especially in the corners.

The Wild’s only attempt at that was to bring in defenseman Sean Hill. At 6-feet-0 and 211 pounds, he really isn’t the answer.

So will the Wild be able to compete with bigger teams in the playoffs?

If the Wild can play their game, they should not have to worry about that. Just a few years ago, everybody was trying to get quick, speedy skaters because the league looked like it was going in that direction. Now, everybody is overreacting the other way.

Everything was clicking for the Ducks during the playoffs last season. They were just the better team. I don’t think Wild fans have to worry too much about being checked and boarded out of the playoffs again. If they get their powerplay and overall offense going late in the season, they can be a scary team when coupled with their defense and goaltending.

So with all of that said, how will the Wild do this season? Last season, they finished just one point behind Vancouver for the Northwest Division title. There is no reason why they should not be up there again, but I don’t believe they are the favorite.

That should be reserved for one of three other teams in the division. The Colorado Avalanche finished last season with an incredible run – they were 15-2-2 in their last 19 games. They added former Edmonton Oiler Ryan Smyth, who will do nothing but help that veteran offense.

Vancouver did not make any significant additions from their team that won the division in 2006-07. But they do have goaltender Roberto Luongo and their best defense in recent memory. The Canucks will be a good team again, but I don’t know if they can repeat.

Calgary also has a solid blue line and goaltender that should carry them back into the playoffs. If Jerome Iginla can mimick the season he had last year, they could be a force in the Northwest.