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New-look Wild plan on pushing the tempo

Saturday, 08.15.2009 / 3:00 AM / 30 in 30

By Todd Kimberley - NHL.com Correspondent

This is the 15th installment of our 30 Teams in 30 Days feature, focusing on the Minnesota Wild franchise. In it, we look at the franchise as a whole in the State of the Union section, focus on the team's up-and-coming reinforcements in the Prospect Roundup section and recap this season's selections in the Draft Recap section. NHL Network also gets in on the fun with a block of Wild programming Saturday night from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.

STATE OF THE UNION

It's a veritable state of upheaval in the State of Hockey.

The only coach in the history of the decade-old Minnesota Wild franchise, Jacques Lemaire, is gone. Same for the club's first and only general manager, Doug Risebrough. The last remaining original Wild player, Marian Gaborik, also left.

And the Wild's current regime is ready to -- gasp! -- open the throttle.

"I want an up-tempo, aggressive, fast style of hockey," Chuck Fletcher told Twin Cities media and fans during his May 22 introduction as the Wild's new GM. "We want to dictate the pace of play to our opponent."

It took about a year for new owner Craig Leipold to put his stamp on the Wild, but when he did, he didn't take any half-measures.

Fletcher, the assistant GM of the reigning Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins and a long-time executive with Anaheim and Florida, was handed the keys to the franchise.

The son of Hall of Famer Cliff Fletcher then hand-picked a born-and-bred Minnesotan in Todd Richards -- formerly the bench boss of Pittsburgh's AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and most recently an assistant to Todd McLellan in San Jose -- as the second coach in Wild history.

The club's 23-man roster saw its fair share of movement. The biggest move was Gaborik leaving for the Rangers, with Martin Havlat arriving as his big-dollar replacement.

And Leipold himself has gone on record with his belief that an accelerated style of play will also boost the Wild's profile, allowing the club to attract top-end free agents who shied away from the Wild's previously conservative, plodding pace.

"I want an up-tempo, aggressive, fast style of hockey. We want to dictate the pace of play to our opponent."
-- Wild GM Chuck Fletcher

"In the past I’ve been frustrated, not knowing why those unrestricted free agents, people who have the ability to move where they want to, wouldn't choose this as their home," said Leipold. "I think the system might have been something that held them back. I believe Chuck feels that way ... I think this may be the missing piece. Maybe they'll look at us in a different light now."

Of course, Lemaire's much-maligned cautious, counter-attacking system and its hated neutral-zone trap also minimized mistakes -- allowing the Wild to win a division, make the playoffs three times in its first eight seasons, and advance to the Western Conference Finals in 2003.

Richards' biggest challenge will be cranking up Minnesota's patchy offense, which finished 22nd in goals per game last season, while keeping a cap on the error quotient.

These grandiose ambitions already have their skeptics -- including Lemaire.

"You know what? They'll play the same way," said Lemaire. "It's normal that the new guy would come in and say, 'Wait, we're going offense.' Anyone can do offense. But go get the players, then."

Well, the Wild did snare Havlat, who signed the richest contract in franchise history -- six years for $30 million -- after proving last season with Chicago that he could be a durable, reliable offensive force.

With 20 players under contract, the Wild still are more than $5 million under the 2009-10 salary cap of $56.8 million, so the chance to add another impact offensive player exists.

Up front, Kyle Brodziak came over in a trade with Edmonton, while free agent Stephane Veilleux departed for Tampa Bay. On defense, Shane Hnidy and Greg Zanon arrived via free agency, Kurtis Foster left for the Lightning and free agents Martin Skoula and Marc-Andre Bergeron remain unsigned.

In net, Niklas Backstrom is coming off hip surgery and most likely will be backed up by Wade Dubielewicz. Josh Harding, a restricted free agent who signed a one-year, $1.1 million deal at the end of July, has been dangled as trade bait.

PROSPECT ROUNDUP

The Minnesota Wild haven't forgotten Petr Kalus. Apparently, the feeling was mutual.

Kalus, who had arrived in Minnesota in a July 2007 trade that sent goalie Manny Fernandez to Boston, once held big-time promise for the Wild -- so big there was training-camp talk of him playing right wing on a line with Marian Gaborik and Pavol Demitra during the 2007-08 season.

Instead, Kalus was sent to AHL Houston to start 2007-08, worked his way into coach Kevin Constantine's doghouse and saw his offensive production fall off. Last fall, when he was again assigned to Houston out of training camp, he bolted for Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, where he had just 2 assists in 17 games with Balashikha.

Long on talent and short on desire -- so far, anyway -- Kalus, 22, will get one more chance to prove himself as a scoring-line NHL forward this fall with the Wild.

"I learned a lot of things in Russia. I did it just to do it," said Kalus, a 2005 second-round pick by Boston, during the Wild's development camp in July. "(But) you don't have the opportunity every day to get another opportunity with an NHL team."

Here's a look at the other top prospects in the Wild organization:

Tyler Cuma --
The 6-2, 180-pound defenseman spent half a season recuperating from a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee suffered during tryouts for Canada's 2009 World Junior Championship team last December. Some believe Cuma, at 19, could make the big squad this fall. With Brent Burns, Kim Johnsson, Marek Zidlicky, Nick Schultz, Greg Zanon, Shane Hnidy and John Scott all on one-way deals, though, it's hard to imagine him not returning to the OHL's Ottawa 67's.

Cody Almond -- A 2007 fifth-round pick, Almond had a major impact on the WHL playoffs (10 goals, 27 points, 51 penalty minutes in 22 games) last spring and was a big reason for the Kelowna Rockets’ league championship. The 6-2, 199-pound center boasts aggression and a scoring touch, but likely will begin his pro career this season in Houston.

Marco Scandella -- A physical, stay-at-home defenseman, the 6-2, 190-pound Scandella could develop into a top-four blueliner with continued improvement in the puckhandling and judgment departments. A 2008 second-round pick (No. 55), Scandella likely will return to the QMJHL for a third season with Val-d'Or.

Morten Madsen -- Some call him the best Dane playing hockey in any league, at any level. A 6-2, 185-pound center, Madsen chalked up 100 points in 2006-07 with Victoriaville of the QMJHL, but the 2005 fourth-round pick has yet to find the right blend of consistency through his first two seasons in Houston.

DRAFT RECAP

The Minnesota Wild has its homegrown hero.

For only the second time in franchise history, the Wild took a born-and-bred Minnesotan with its first-round pick, nabbing Eden Prairie High School defenseman Nick Leddy with the No. 16 pick at the 2009 Entry Draft.

A dynamic, speedy, smart, offensive defenseman with shades of Phil Housley in his game, the 5-foot-11, 179-pound Leddy will join the Minnesota Golden Gophers this fall.

"You never really know what could happen," said Leddy, the first American drafted this June. "I'm just happy they took me, and I can be one of the hometown guys."

Minnesota GM Chuck Fletcher originally held the No. 12 pick, but traded down to No. 16 in a deal with the New York Islanders that also gave him third- and seventh-round picks, all part of his plan to restock the club's talent pool with more draft picks.

"What Leddy provides is the hardest thing to find -- guys who can legitimately generate offense," said Minnesota assistant GM Tom Thompson.

Besides Leddy, here's a look at the Wild's seven other picks from the 2009 Entry Draft:

Matthew Hackett -- NHL Central Scouting's top-ranked North American goaltender, Hackett won 34 games with Plymouth of the OHL last season after starting the season as the club's backup. The 6-2, 170-pounder, taken in the third round (No. 77), said his uncle, Jeff Hackett, who played 15 years in the NHL, is "responsible for making me the goalie I am today."

Kristopher Foucault -- This 6-1, 202-pound left wing was a major playoff performer for Calgary of the WHL, totaling 11 goals and 16 points in 18 postseason games. Nabbed in the fourth round (No. 103), Foucault -- a solid skater and two-way player -- is said to be potential diamond-in-the-rough material.

Alexander Fallstrom --
The first of two Wild picks from nearby Shattuck-St. Mary's (fourth round, No. 116), this 6-2, 192-pound Swedish-born right wing will play at Harvard in the fall.

Darcy Kuemper -- Chosen with the first of two sixth-round picks (No. 161), Kuemper is seen as a goaltending project, but he holds promise because of his 6-4, 195-pound frame. He played his way into the starter's role with Red Deer of the WHL, but he still needs to work on his angles and rebound control.

Jere Sallinen -- This 6-foot, 183-pound forward missed all but nine games last season in the Finnish junior league because of a back injury, but he now has a clean bill of health. A gritty forward taken two picks after Kuemper, Sallinen has drawn comparisons to Jarkko Ruutu for his fiery, defensively responsible play.

Erik Haula -- The Wild's second pick from Shattuck-St. Mary's (seventh round, No. 182), this Finnish native had entered the draft as Central Scouting's No. 57-ranked North American skater, but likely fell because of his size (5-11, 170). A mature, character player, he'll play next season for Omaha of the USHL.

Anthony Hamburg -- A 6-1, 185-pound center, Hamburg had 99 points last season with the midget Dallas Stars AAA outfit. Taken in the seventh round (No. 193), Hamburg is said to have great speed and soft hands, and will join Haula in Omaha this season.





Quote of the Day

There's no discouragement in that room. There's no issues there at all to be honest with you. It's more about, 'Hey, it's opportunities for players.' And if we become that bad of a team because of one player, it's not a real good sign for our hockey club. So this is part of sports. It's part of hockey.

— Bruins coach Claude Julien on the loss of Zdeno Chara to injury
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