The Minnesota Wild
only have to look at the Vancouver Canucks
to realize that winning the Northwest Division is no guarantee of better days ahead in the immediate future.
Yes, the Wild did win their first division title. But a year ago, the Canucks won the Northwest, and this spring they were on the golf course at the end of the regular season.
It’s not an inconceivable fate for the Wild, either, and their dispiriting first-round playoff loss to the Colorado Avalanche
only amplified that fact. The Western Conference is loaded with talented teams, several of which are very young, didn’t make the playoffs and will be knocking on the door next spring.
The only way a team can guarantee itself a playoff spot each year is to win its division. This was especially so in the Northwest Division, where 10 points separated first place from last. It’s clear that to make the move from consistent playoff team to Stanley Cup contender in the Western Conference, the Wild have some work to do.
Despite the disappointing finish, 2007-08 was a significant season for the Wild franchise.
In addition to winning their first division title, the Wild went through an ownership change and received recognition around the hockey world as the prototype for an NHL team in the United States. With a beautiful arena, a great organization and some of the NHL's most loyal fans. It's become trendy to say that the Twin Cities have replaced Detroit as "Hockeytown" — minus the Stanley Cups, of course.
In some respects 2007-08 was a step backward. Even though the Wild won the division title, they finished with six points less than a year ago, when they were one point behind the first-place Canucks.
A year ago, the upstart Wild waged a better first-round fight against eventual champion Anaheim than they did this year against an Avalanche team they finished ahead of during the regular season.
The Wild also scored fewer goals and allowed more. They scored 235 goals and gave up only 191 in 2006-07. In 2007-08, they scored 12 fewer goals and gave up 27 more.
Depth on offense remains a big question for the Wild, and the defense took a step backward. The Wild have consistently been respectable. But they haven’t scared anyone in the past, and they didn't this season, either.
Still, there were a lot of reasons for the Wild and their fans to be excited. For one, Marian Gaborik
took a big step forward — not so much for his regular-season performance (a franchise-record 42 goals) but for the fact that he shook the injury bug that had dogged him in recent years and was able to play in 77 games. Additionally, goalie Niklas Backstrom
put together a solid second NHL season.
Most significantly, young defensemen Brent Burns
(23), Nick Schultz
(25) and Kurtis Foster
(26) made great strides. Unfortunately, Foster suffered a broken leg late in the season. To its credit, the Wild made a statement as an organization and re-signed him despite the injury that will likely keep him out for at least the early stages of the season.
Key injuries played a part in the Wild's first-round loss. In addition to Foster's absence, Schultz appeared in only the final game against Colorado after undergoing an appendectomy on the eve of the playoffs.
The Wild faces a challenging off-season.
As good as Gaborik was during the regular season, he was invisible in the playoffs, producing only one assist and 10 shots on goal in six games. Gaborik will be paid $7.5 million in 2008-09, after which he can become an unrestricted free agent. GM Doug Risebrough and owner Craig Leopold will have to decide whether they want to keep Gaborik, who had offseason surgery on his right hip, or deal him before he hits free agency next summer.
The Wild also have to decide whether to pursue some of their unrestricted free agents, including center Pavol Demitra
— one of Gaborik's best friends — and 35-year-old Brian Rolston
. Additionally, forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard
, the Wild’s second-leading scorer, is one year from becoming an unrestricted free agent.
At least the Wild didn't have to go shopping for a new coach. Following a little reassurance from GM Doug Risebrough, Jacques Lemaire
, the only bench boss the franchise has ever known, re-upped for another season.
"I wanted to talk to Doug and see what he thought," Lemaire said during the teleconference at which he announced he'd be back. "I got a good response."
Lemaire said last season was his toughest as a coach.
"We went for a little while there where we were not playing as a team," he said. "That really affected me because I feel my forte is to get them to play as a team. ... I felt I'm not doing my job. This is my job to get them to play good and make my boss happy with how his team is playing also. I didn't have that satisfaction."
Risebrough, a former teammate of Lemaire with the Montreal Canadiens
, said he had no interest in changing coaches.
"I had no doubt he was the best coach to coach this team," Risebrough said. "I told him, 'You've got us this far and you're the best coach to take us to the next level."'
But getting to that next level will be a challenge for Risebrough, Lemaire and one of the NHL's model franchises.