The Big Four
The Wild are defined by their team defense, encompassing both their forwards and their defense. Simply put, if you’re going to play for Lemaire, you have to pay attention to your defensive duties.
While Kim Johnsson, Nick Schultz, Martin Skoula and Petteri Nummelin were the top four defensemen in terms of ice time, the club also got significant contributions from young Brent Burns (who led the defense in scoring) and his veteran partner, Keith Carney.
The Wild laid out big money last summer to sign free agent Johnsson to a four-year contract that averages $4.8 million per season against the salary cap. A two-time winner of the Barry Ashbee Trophy as the best Philadelphia Flyers defenseman, Johnsson provided mixed early returns in Minnesota. On the bright side, Johnsson, 31, returned from post-concussion syndrome suffered in the 2005-06 season to start 76 games for the Wild while eating a club-high 23:33 of ice time per game. He blocked 131 shots, good for second best on the club, and had more takeaways (36) than giveaways (30).
But the mobile Johnsson, who routinely scored double-digit goals and 40-plus points with strong even-strength plus-minus ratings in Philadelphia, did not produce up to his former capabilities. He scored just three goals (all on the power play) and added a pedestrian 19 assists. Johnsson at times still seems to struggle with the obstruction rules and drew 32 minor penalties (most on the team) while posting a minus-four rating that was partially due to playing against many top opposing lines.
Meanwhile, defensive-minded Schultz and the often-underrated Skoula also contributed 20-plus minutes of solid ice time per game to the Wild lineup. To paraphrase famous inventor and television pitchman Ron Popiel, the 25-year-old Schultz is the type of defenseman you can set and forget. Johnsson’s partner dressed in every game last season, led the club in blocked shots and generally played strong positional defense. He chipped in a pair of goals and 10 assists.
Skoula, a defenseman often noted for his offensive potential early in his career with Colorado has become more of a puck mover than a point-producer with the Wild. Last season, he had no goals, 15 assists and a plus-nine rating. Although he had a two-to-one ratio of giveaways to takeaways, Skoula significantly cut down the frequency of his turnovers from past seasons.
The undersized Nummelin (generously listed as 5-foot-10) was a longtime standout in European hockey and remains a key part of Team Finland in international competitions. Trying his hand at the NHL for a second time, the 34-year-old got manhandled at times by opposing forwards – posting an unsightly minus-15 rating – but contributed 20 points (three goals) and averaged 20:17 of ice time in the 51 games he started.
For added veteran depth, the Wild some veteran free agent defenseman Sean Hill in the off-season. He is suspended for the first 19 games of the 2007-08 season for a violation last year of the NHL’s performance-enhancing drug policy. When he returns, Hill can provide some snarl and grit to the blue line.
Get the point
The Wild have four defensemen – Johnsson, Nummelin, Burns and Foster – who are capable of manning a point on an NHL power play. Nevertheless, Wild defensemen contributed a modest six power-play goals last season (three apiece by Johnsson and Burns).
That was one of the key areas where the first-place Canucks (19 power-play goals from the defense) enjoyed an advantage over second-place Minnesota. When two teams are separated by just one point in the standings, you look for areas that could have produced an extra win or two for the trailing club.
In the Wings
Shawn Belle -- Acquired from the Dallas Stars last year, the 22-year-old was originally selected by the St. Louis Blues in the first round (23rd overall) of the 2003 Entry Draft ... After three minor league seasons, the Wild believe the 6-foot-1, 235 pounder is ready to push for a job with the big club in the near future. … Suited up in nine games with Minnesota in 2006-07, and 57 games for Houston (tallying four goals and 18 points in the process).
Clayton Stoner -- Selected by the Wild in the third round (79th overall) in the 2004 Entry Draft. … Played 64 AHL games with the Houston Aeros in 2006-07 (one goal, seven points, 104 PIM). … Set back by a separated shoulder last season. … When he’s at the top of his game, the 21-year-old makes his mark through his physical game and his ability to block shots. … If he stays healthy this season, he could earn a call-up at some point to the big club, but is likely need further AHL seasoning before he’s ready to push for a full-time NHL job.
Riley Emmerson -- Wild selected the huge (6-foot-8, 230 pound) defenseman in the seventh round (199th overall) of the 2005 Entry Draft. …The 21-year-old has played both defense and wing in his career. … Played in the ECHL in 2006-07 for the Texas Wildcatters (42 GP, 2 G, 1 A, 3 PTS, 99 PIM). … Raw talent who is considered a project defenseman with the upside of being an intimidating physical presence.
Brent Burns -- The continued emergence of Burns – who spent much of his junior career at right wing – will go a long way toward determining whether the Wild have the type of dynamic all-around defense needed to contend for a deep playoff run.
He’s got plenty of support and talent around him and Lemaire will make him earn additional ice time on merit. But in the not-too-distant future, if there’s going to be a true stud defenseman on the Wild, it’s going to Burns.