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Wild planning to pick up the tempo

by Larry Wigge
MONTREAL -- For Minnesota Wild fans, the state of hockey in the State of Hockey is clearly on the upswing.

New General Manager Chuck Fletcher and new coach Todd Richards have worked in up-tempo systems. They have promised to bring an aggressive, physical style -- similar to what Pittsburgh used to win the Stanley Cup -- to replace the trapping, defense-first style that has been the hallmark of the franchise since its inception.

Easier said than done? Not really for a Wild team that finished 40-33-9, two points out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The big thing to watch: Look for the 219 goals that Minnesota scored in '08-09 to improve dramatically.

Fletcher's reasoning for picking up the pace is simple and to the point.

"Why back up and concede the ice to your opponent when you can force the issue up the ice?" the new GM said. "We want to dictate the pace of the play against our opponent.

"What we want to do is hold onto the puck a little more and pressure the puck defensively to get it back. Look at the teams that made it to the conference finals -- all of them played with an edge offensively."

Those four teams -- Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago and Carolina -- all play the kind of up-tempo game Wild fans have never seen from their team on a consistent basis. Ownership is hoping that the promise of a faster-paced style of play will convince potential free agent Marian Gaborik -- the leading scorer in franchise history -- to stay in Minnesota.

The first move by the new executive team was the drafting of high school defenseman Nick Leddy, a hometown hero from Eden Prairie, Minn., and longtime Wild fan, in the first round of the Entry Draft Friday night. Leddy, an offensive-minded defenseman who was Minnesota's "Mr. Hockey" last season, is headed for the University of Minnesota ... for now.

"I get to as many Wild games as I can," said Leddy, who is a big fan of Brent Burns. "I love the fact that they push the puck up the ice with their defensemen. And now it sounds great that they are going to make the rest of their game up-tempo."

Richards worked as a minor-league coach in Pittsburgh's system, then as an assistant to Todd McLellan in San Jose this past season. The Sharks used a push-the-tempo system to win the Presidents' Trophy, and Richards had a key role.

"Todd's really well-prepared. He's smart," McLellan suggested after watching that Sharks post a 53-18-11 record, best in the NHL. "Working with our power play, he showed us how he likes the attack part of the game.

"It was interesting to watch him come up with new things every day. I could see that someone was going to snatch him up quickly."

It’s a new kind of energy -- and a whole new world after watching Jacques Lemaire's defense-first style. But the Wild did finish first in the Northwest Division in 2007-08 with 98 points and had 104 points in another playoff berth one year before that, and Richards has no intention of ditching the positive elements that Lemaire left behind.

"To me, it all starts with a great No. 1 goaltender in Niklas Backstrom and a talented group of defensemen," Richards said. "But you have to have the personnel to play up-tempo. You can't sit back and say, 'Nik will stop everything,' and forget about defense to offense in transition.

"We're not about to abandon defense. We owe the previous coaching staff a lot of credit for teaching the players here to commit to play good defense. That's important. It's just that you have to take things to a different level."

That's where the Fletcher-Richards up-tempo game begins ... in the last couple of years of their development in Pittsburgh for Fletcher and in Pittsburgh and San Jose for Richards.

"I worked a lot about being creative and yet being patient from Todd McLellan and (assistant coach) Trent Yawney," Richards said. "To me, the thing I learned the most is that you let your eyes and ears take over and not my mouth."

In other words, the time for talking about how the Wild are going to be a more interesting team to watch is over. The proof should come very quickly with the up-tempo mentality that Fletcher and Richards are bringing with them.

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