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New regime promises up-tempo game for Wild

by Todd Kimberley
Whatever happens in the Twin Cities this winter, it won't be dull.

Minus Jacques Lemaire, minus Doug Risebrough, minus its conservative ways that became a virtually trademark for this nine-year-old NHL franchise, the Minnesota Wild are skating off in a bold new direction.

New coach Todd Richards has removed the shackles from his players, calls the club's new touchstone term "aggressive," and notes that professional hockey is an "entertainment business."

And new General Manager Chuck Fletcher wants the Wild to be known for something other than a Lemaire-style lockdown.

"We want to be a team that attacks offensively, creates chances offensively and has the puck more often than (its) opponent," Fletcher tells the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "We'd rather be a team dictating the pace of the play (instead of) than reacting to it."

Will it work? Well, that's the $64,000 question.

Minnesota brass says that defensive responsibility is still such an enduring part of the team makeup, thanks to Lemaire, that players won't be able to be rash and unaccountable even if they wanted to.

For the Wild, there's also a certain allure to offensive experimentation and a proactive stance.

"Any time you have the amount of change we've had," says assistant coach Mike Ramsey, "you're leaving your comfort zone. It's exciting, and it's something to look forward to."

On the other hand, there is also the theory that says the caution and counterattack preached by Lemaire was the primary reason for the club's relative success to begin with -- and that the Wild doesn’t have enough firepower to support an up-tempo game.

Will Richards, the former star Minnesota Golden Gopher defenseman, play hometown hero for his fresh approach? Or will the Wild fall flat on its face?

Stay tuned, because it’ll be worth watching.

As Wild assistant GM Tom Thompson notes: "Everybody's on edge ... and I think that's a good thing."

If this is not a rebuilding year in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, it's certainly a transitional year.

The face of the franchise, Marian Gaborik has left for Broadway, but Minnesota has brought in another face that commanded the richest contract (six years, $30 million) in franchise history -- Martin Havlat.

The 28-year-old Czech enjoyed a renaissance season in Chicago last season, posting career highs in assists (48) and points (77) before leading the Blackhawks' charge to the Western Conference final with 15 playoff points.

"The Minnesota Wild are a much better team having Marty than they were" at the end of June, former 'Hawks assistant GM and current Atlanta Thrashers associate GM Rick Dudley tells the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "Big shot, great speed, incredible skills. There's not a lot missing there. If he's not the shooter, he can find somebody with a pass. He's a pretty complete player, and he's got a lot more bite than people would imagine."

Mikko Koivu took a quantum leap forward last season, securing his spot as the club's No. 1 center with a 67-point season. It's expected that Havlat, Koivu and left-winger Andrew Brunette could create fireworks this winter on the top unit, especially under the new Richards regime.

The Wild added another important offensive element in mid-September, landing Petr Sykora just before he was ready to turn his back on the NHL and head for Russia.

Sykora has 300 career NHL goals and is coming off a Stanley Cup-winning season with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but the fact that he played in only seven postseason games with the Pens last season left him searching for employment.

"I felt it was one of the best seasons I actually played," said Sykora, whose 25 goals included 10 game-winners, ranking him third across the League.

Down the middle, the Wild has Eric Belanger, James Sheppard and Kyle Brodziak, as well as Pierre-Marc Bouchard -- whose played at right wing since the lockout season, but is being tested at center in camp in what Richards calls a "work in progress."

Sheppard is expected to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the new regime. Last season, at 20, he struggled mightily to 24 points and a minus-14 rating, but Thompson -- who has already accurately predicted breakout seasons for Koivu and Brent Burns -- says it's his turn in 2009-10.

In fact, a handful of players -- Bouchard, Sheppard, Colton Gillies and Benoit Pouliot, the club's former No. 4 overall pick who spent half of last season in AHL Houston -- have a chance to shine in this new era for the Wild. They'll revel in their newfound freedom, after reportedly feeling Lemaire's wrath last winter for taking offensive-zone liberties.

The old Irishman, Owen Nolan, looks like a top-six forward again after an eyebrow-raising 25-goal campaign. Cal Clutterbuck, the guy who broke the NHL's record for hits in a single season as a rookie, will continue to stir up rage and animosity on Minnesota's third line.

Also rounding out the top 12 are Derek Boogaard, Antti Miettinen, who spent some time on the top unit last year with Koivu and Brunette; and Brodziak, an arrival from Edmonton who brings some versatility.

That will most likely leave Gillies, Pouliot, Craig Weller, and the talented-but-enigmatic Petr Kalus fighting it out for the final two spots on the roster.

It's not just the forwards who've been energized by the Wild's new ways.

Brent Burns, one of the NHL's top young blueliners, is free of last spring's concussion issues, has recovered from off-season shoulder surgery, and has been promised by Richards that he'd "open up the barn doors and let the horse run."

Burns, who attended the 2010 Canadian Olympic orientation camp in August, has already shown some offensive flair, and shades of his 43-point campaign in ’07-08, during the pre-season.

"Everyone always talks about his skating and his offensive ability," observed Richards. "What I was impressed with ... was (his) going in the corners in the defensive zone. He uses his size and strength very well."

Marek Zidlicky and Kim Johnsson also have significant offensive upside. Zidlicky, in particular, tallied 25 power-play points in each of the past two winters.

With the off-season departure of Martin Skoula, Marc-Andre Bergeron and Kurtis Foster, the Wild's top defensive quartet now consists of Burns, Zidlicky, Johnsson and Nick Schultz, who himself has considerable speed, mobility and above-average offensive potential.

Newcomers to the blue line are free agents Greg Zanon, from Nashville, and Shane Hnidy, most recently with Boston. Both provide a third-pairing steadiness and veteran depth.

The seventh spot is up for grabs among the likes of John Scott, Jaime Sifers, Jamie Fraser and Marco Scandella.

All eyes will be on No. 1 netminder Niklas Backstrom to see if his gaudy statistics -- a 2.33 goals-against average, 37 wins and a .933 save percentage last winter -- were of his own making, or a product of Lemaire's clampdown.

Backstrom signed a four-year, $24M contract extension last season and repaid the Wild as one of three Vezina Trophy finalists. But the 31-year-old Finn doesn't feel like he's sitting on the hot seat.

"It'll probably take for us a little time to learn and get into the new system and see how it turns out," Backstrom said during the preseason. "But for (backup) Josh (Harding) and me, we have to stop the puck. It doesn't matter how they shoot or from where they shoot. Our job is the same."

Harding, 25, is entering his third season as the Wild's backup goalie, but some wonder if it won't be the last. A restricted free agent this summer, he avoided arbitration by signing a one-year deal in late July, but he's still considered trade bait in the State of Hockey.

Former Islanders and Blue Jackets goalie Wade Dubielewicz is also competing for an NHL-level job.

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