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Wild searching for new identity, playoff berth

by Sergei J. Feldman
Often times, three out of five isn't so bad.

But when it means missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs three out of the past five seasons, as is the case with the Minnesota Wild, suddenly the statistic looks a bit more disturbing.

Even in 2007 and 2008, when the Wild were part of the Western Conference semifinals, the team never reached Cup-contender level. Under former -- and original -- coach Jacques Lemaire, the franchise regularly adhered to a more defensive-oriented system. After the lockout, though, the game evolved into a more speed and skill-oriented one, with offensive potency serving as a championship catalyst.

Going through an identity crisis of sorts, the Wild were left behind.

However, after the 2008-09 season, Lemaire stepped down from behind the bench and a new culture set in. Former Pittsburgh Penguins assistant general manager Chuck Fletcher took over GM duties and brought current coach Todd Richards to the organization. Meanwhile, Marian Gaborik -- one of the league's most prolific scorers -- decided to sign a long-term contract with the New York Rangers as an unrestricted free agent, leaving his former Wild team looking to rebuild and move on. 

To replace Gaborik's offensive threats, Fletcher signed Martin Havlat to a lucrative, long-term deal. But Havlat endured a disappointing campaign last year, as he registered just 18 goals and 54 points -- a microcosm of the Wild's struggles.

Fortunately, the 2010-11 season represents a clean slate, where Wild management, coaches, players and fans can forget the past -- including last year's 84-point effort that was good for fourth in the Northwest Division and 13th in the West -- and move on with the promise of a better day under the leadership of the franchise's first permanent captain, Mikko Koivu.

On the whole, the Wild did not fall victim to the consequences that often come with an offseason.

Depth, lineup flexibility and toughness were among the ingredients that left Minnesota. Leading the departed four was tough-guy Derek Boogaard, who signed with the New York Rangers as an unrestricted free agent.

While his offensive contributions won't be sadly missed, every team needs a physical presence and a guy who can monitor certain conduct on the ice as it pertains to the team's key players.  The 6-foot-8, 257-pound giant did just that in his five seasons with the Wild.

Others who left include forward Andrew Ebbett and defensemen John Scott and Jaime Sifers. The three combined for a total of 9 goals and 7 assists for the Wild last season, so their departures shouldn't have a lasting impact.

Having escaped the free-agent period relatively unscathed, Fletcher took on a proactive approach to lure in players who will become key components to the success of the Wild in the upcoming season. 

The big move of free agency was the signing of veteran center Matt Cullen. The 33-year-old model of consistency agreed to a three-year contract worth $10.5 million. Cullen has registered at least 40 points in each of his past five seasons. More importantly, he has played for three teams in those five years, so acquainting himself with new surroundings -- although Cullen is a Minnesota native -- shouldn't be an issue.

With the addition of Cullen, the Wild have added depth, stability and an experience that carries with it nearly 900 games, 200 goals and 500 points.

Speaking of experience, recent Stanley Cup champion John Madden is also new to the mix. The smart, gritty 37-year-old center doesn't put up the offensive numbers he once did, but still knows his way around the rink. For a team trying to compete for the playoffs, his presence will be warmly welcomed.

Former Calgary Flames forward Eric Nystrom, a former first-round pick, signed a three-year deal. While Nystrom's offensive numbers have come along slowly -- he's tallied 39 points in 204 NHL games -- he brings grit and energy as a bottom-six forward. The Wild hope a change of scenery will bring out some of Nystrom's offensive talents and that his two-way play will have an immediate and noticeable impact.

While Cullen and Nystrom bring NHL experience to the table, Fletcher relied equally as heavily on ensuring a solid draft. Enter Mikael Granlund, a Finnish-born center who has as much creativity as potential. Granlund was the highest-rated European player in the 2010 Entry Draft and was selected ninth by the Wild.

As mentioned, the upcoming season marks the first time the Wild will have a permanent captain as Koivu shoulders the responsibility. Since entering the League in the 2005-06 season, he has steadily improved. The talented center is coming off consecutive 20-goal seasons and finished last year with 71 points. At just 27 years old, Koivu is hitting his prime, and will be relied upon to produce at least at the same rate if the Wild plan on making the playoffs and advancing beyond.

On to Havlat. Among the big question marks for the Wild is whether or not Havlat will bring to the ice the kind of game his six-year, $30 million contract merits. If he can approach the 30-goal mark -- which he has done in the past -- the roster will look that much more dangerous, especially when you take into account potential scoring from other candidates.

Guillaume Latendresse, for instance, re-signed with the Wild in the offseason after registering 25 goals in 55 games after being traded from the Montreal Canadiens. His emergence as a potential 25-30 goal scorer will help to solidify Minnesota's attack, as will the production of veteran Andrew Brunette, who is coming off a 61-point season and Antti Miettinen, who posted 20 goals and 42 points.

The potential offensive firepower, as impressive as it could be, will be superseded by a solid defensive unit. Marek Zidlicky, Cam Barker, Brent Burns, Greg Zanon and Nick Schultz control play from behind the blue line, and have done so effectively on a consistent basis.

Also, with Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding, the play between the pipes figures to be as strong as it was in 2006-07, when Niklas Backstrom and Manny Fernandez won the William M. Jennings Trophy, awarded to the goaltender(s) that played for the team with the fewest goals allowed.

Couple a solid defense with strong goaltending and a potentially potent offense, and the Wild may have the recipe for starting a more positive streak of playoff success.

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