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Healthier Wild are optimistic about playoffs return

by Brian Compton
It's difficult to be successful if you're not healthy. The Minnesota Wild learned that the hard way in 2009-10, when several key players suffered injuries, which contributed to the Wild's 13th-place finish in the Western Conference.

These days, though, things are looking up in Minnesota. Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who missed the final 81 games last season with a concussion, is back on the ice. Brent Burns, Chuck Kobasew and Niklas Backstrom are all healthy as well.

It makes for a different vibe for Todd Richards, who is entering his second season behind the bench in Minnesota.

"We feel we're going into training camp this year with a much better collective idea of what we need to do in camp and need to do every day in practice to get to where we want to be," Richards said. "We have a good plan in place to maximize the time we have to get ready."

GM Chuck Fletcher had a plan after watching his team fail to qualify for the playoffs. He used the free-agent market to add some grit to his roster, adding John Madden and Eric Nystrom up front as well as Matt Cullen, a play-making center who will provide another offensive spark.

"It's going to be a very competitive training camp this year," Fletcher said. "Every day will be a battle for spots, and that's how it should be. We now have very strong depth at center."

Leading the way up front for Minnesota is captain Mikko Koivu. Armed with a new seven-year deal, Koivu likely will center the top line, with Andrew Brunette and Martin Havlat. The Wild are hoping Havlat's second season with the club will go better than the first, as he scored only 18 goals in 2009-10 after signing as a free agent last summer.

Cullen signed this summer to be the second-line center. He could be flanked by Guilliaume Latendresse, who had 25 goals in 55 games after arriving via trade from Montreal, and Antti Miettinen, who also reached the 20-goal plateau.

Of course, one of those wings may get bumped if Bouchard remains healthy. Bouchard had 16 goals and 30 assists in 71 games in 2008-09. So far, it appears the 26-year-old will be ready for the Wild's season opener against Carolina in Helsinki, Finland, on Oct. 7.
"I did a bunch of tests I failed last year, but I passed this time ... it's a great sign," Bouchard said. "I got the green light to start pushing harder on the ice and in the gym. When the doctor tells you that you can push hard, it's a great feeling. I've been waiting for it for a long time.

"I want to start the season. That's my goal. But right now, one day at a time."

Kyle Brodziak returns for a second season in Minnesota, where he'll likely be the third-line center. Brodziak, who had 9 goals and 23 assists in 2009-10, could find himself skating between Kobasew and Cal Clutterbuck. The physical forward scored a career-high 13 goals last season.

The Wild's fourth line could end up being one of the better ones in the League. It may consist of Nystrom, who signed a three-year deal worth $4.2 million July 2, along with right wing Brad Staubitz and Madden in the middle. Staubitz had 3 goals and 3 assists in 47 games for the San Jose Sharks last season. Madden earned his third Stanley Cup ring with Chicago.

Also in the mix are Robbie Earl, who split last season between Minnesota and AHL Houston; Casey Wellman, who appeared in 12 games after finishing his collegiate season at UMass-Amherst; and Warren Peters

Of course, there's always a hitch. The Wild will have to get ready without the services of James Sheppard, who injured his knee this summer while riding an ATV. Sheppard was Minnesota's first-round draft choice (No. 9) in 2006. He's expected to miss 3-4 months.

Minnesota entered training camp with just one vacancy. Six blueliners are on one-way deals and are locks to make the club -- Burns, Cam Barker, Nick Schultz, Clayton Stoner, Greg Zanon and Marek Zidlicky all will be playing their home games at Xcel Energy Center this winter. Zidlicky led all Wild defensemen with 43 points (6 goals, 37 assists) last season. Four of his goals came on the power play.

The player most likely to fill the open spot is Tyler Cuma, who was the Wild's 2008 first-round draft choice (No. 23). The 6-foot-2 blueliner played four seasons for the Ottawa 67's in the OHL and had 5 goals and 22 points in 52 games last season.

Healthy and ready to go, Backstrom is the No. 1 goaltender in Minnesota until further notice. The 32-year-old had back issues last season but still started 58 games for the Wild and went 26-23-8 with a 2.72 goals-against average and a .903 save percentage. This will be his fifth NHL season after beginning his professional career in Europe.

Backstrom was to be backed up by Josh Harding, who went 9-12-0 last season with a 3.05 GAA and a .905 save percentage. But Harding was likely lost for the season with a knee injury. That opens the door for Anton Khudobin, who played with the AHL"s Houston Aeros last season.

Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL

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