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After a 104-point season, what do the Wild do for an encore?

by Larry Wigge / NHL.com

 

NHL.com's 2007-08 Wild Season Preview Package:
Intro | Goalies | Defense | Forwards | Feature | Numbers | Sked | Roster

So what’s up next for the Minnesota Wild this season?

Jacques Lemaire-coached teams don’t make a quantum leap from 84 points one season to 104 the next with smoke and mirrors or a better version of the dreaded neutral-zone trap he’s been accused of so often.

The fact of the matter is the Wild showed improvements in all areas:

The Minnesota Wild's Pavol Demitra and Marian Gaborik connection really hit it's stride down the stretch of last season after Gaborik recovered from missing 34 games due to injury.
* The Pavol Demitra-Marian Gaborik connection acquired when Demitra came to the Wild from Los Angeles in the summer finally hit its stride down the stretch of the 2006-07 season after Gaborik recovered from missing 34 games with groin and abdominal injuries. Brian Rolston had another solid 30-plus goal season. Youngsters Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Mikko Koivu showed they are beginning to flourish, with Koivu going from six goals two seasons ago to 20.

* A defense with newcomers Kim Johnsson, Petteri Nummelin and Keith Carney, plus the development of former forward Brent Burns, really helped in the team’s transition game.

* And where would Minnesota have been without Niklas Backstrom in goal, with his NHL-best 1.97 goals-against average, 23-8-6 with five shutouts in 41 games after Manny Fernandez’s knee injury and fast start fizzled?

The normal tendency is to characterize Lemaire’s team’s in Minnesota as boring, too defensive, cat and mouse, that sort of persona. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

And Lemaire gets a chuckle every time he hears that sort of reasoning.

"It only took 15 years for some people to understand what I’m trying to do," Lemaire laughed about his days of winning a Stanley Cup coaching in New Jersey in 1995 on to his six seasons behind the bench in St. Paul. "They used to mock us for how defensive we were. Now, some of you are raving about our speed and the 104 points we had in the standings. But ..."

There was a big smile on the cagey 61-year-old Lemaire’s face just before the Wild played in Game 1 of the playoffs at Anaheim in April. Then he continued.

"You know something," he said. "Our goals-against average is even lower than last season ... when we were supposedly playing all of that boring defense."

Truth be told, the Wild beat to the drum of Lemaire’s heartbeat, which includes 11 Stanley Cups as player and coach. Lemaire’s game includes a flair for creativity -- and yes discipline. Give him an expansion team of castoffs and, sure, he’ll play the game tight to the vest. Maybe even tighter. But lost in the Bermuda Triangle of the smothering neutral zone trap that Lemaire coached is the fact that those scrappy forwards he had assembled not only can check, but they can also skate pretty fast.

And that transition game has gotten even more dangerous each season with each Gaborik and Rolston and Koivu and Bouchard and Demitra.

All the while some skeptical members of the media were busy calling Lemaire a dinosaur, he was creating a team that would be hard to play against. In all honesty, the small, fast, and disciplined game that is backed by stingy goaltending that the Wild now play is not unlike Buffalo or Nashville, which had 113 and 110 points, respectively, last season.

What’s next for the Wild isn’t an influx of high-priced free agent goal scorers. No Scott Gomez, Chris Drury or Daniel Briere.

Minnesota is all about fast-skating, two-way players. Responsible players like forwards Eric Belanger from Carolina and Atlanta last season or defenseman Sean Hill, who played more than 22 minutes a night for the New York Islanders. They were added to the Minnesota mix for the 2007-08 season.

Small, fast, disciplined teams are at a disadvantage when it comes to playing a big-and-fast team like the Wild did in the first round of the playoffs when they drew the Stanley Cup champion-to-be Ducks. Losing by scores of 2-1, 3-2 and 2-1 to Anaheim in the first three games of that series wasn’t a size factor, however. It was a testament to the shutdown defensemen on the Ducks -- Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger along with Sean O’Donnell and Francois Beauchemin.

The telling factor in this scenario is that the Wild have to be better than the 2-for-27 on the power play they were in that series.

Ask Lemaire how he fixes the problem and he’ll smile and tiptoe around the secret he has planned. Actually, the plan is fairly obvious: Gaborik has been working with a physical fitness guru to make sure he is no longer bothered by the groin/abdominal muscle problems that seem to cost him time on the sidelines. Having Demitra, Gaborik and Koivu together should create more confidence in the threesome ... and more goals.

"They used to mock us for how defensive we were.  Now, some of you are raving about our speed and the 104 points we had in the standings."
-- Jacques Lemaire

But it’s easy to project what might happen in the preseason isn’t it?

At this point last season, Fernandez was getting ready to be No. 1 by himself -- after years of sharing the job with Dwayne Roloson. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Xcel Energy Center. Fernandez started out great, but fizzled after he was injured in November. Backstrom, a 29-year-old netminder who had played his entire career in Europe and was slated to share time with youngster Josh Harding at Houston of the American League, got the backup job in St. Paul when Harding was injured in training camp. And then, voila!, when Fernandez was injured and ineffective, Backstrom was thrust between the pipes.

Bottom line: Backstrom, who used to dream about just making it out of Finland to the NHL, burst onto the NHL scene when he finally got a chance.

For years, Backstrom competed on even terms with the likes of Miikka Kiprusoff, Vesa Toskala, Antero Niittymaki, Kari Lehtinen and other Finnish netminders and wondered why he was overlooked in the draft each year.

"He's competitive. Not much bothers him," GM Doug Risebrough said before the playoffs. "But, honestly, I can’t sit here and tell you I knew he was going to be this good. I brought him over just as competition for Harding. I just wanted to see who was the best backup.

"If I knew what I know now, I wouldn't have signed him to a two-way, one-year deal last summer."

In June, Risebrough cleared the way for Backstrom in goal by trading Fernandez and his $4.33 million contract to Boston. Then, he signed Backstrom to a two-year, $6.2 million contract -- up from the $750,000 he earned last season.

As for Belanger?

Belanger, a responsible two-way center, had the time of his life in the stretch run in Atlanta, playing on a line with offensive stars Slava Kozlov and Marian Hossa. Lemaire told Eric he’s going to try him between Demitra and Gaborik.

With Belanger, Demitra, Rolston, Koivu, Wes Walz and 2006 No. 1 pick James Sheppard as potential at center, there should be playmaking aplenty in the Minnesota Wild lineup for 2007-08.

Will there be more Niklas Backstrom out-of-nowhere, do-you-want-to-be-a-multimillionaire success stories in St. Paul? Perhaps. But it’s more likely that you’ll see more surprises from the cagey Jacques Lemaire as he maps out his strategy for this season.

NHL.com's 2007-08 Wild Season Preview Package:
Intro | Goalies | Defense | Forwards | Feature | Numbers | Sked | Roster

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